Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International and author of Boiling Point: Can Citizen Action Save the World?, paid a visit to The Nation‘s offices on September 23. After telling us that reading The Nation helped him “keep his sanity” during a few years living in the United States, he talked to us about Greenpeace’s work, his new book and the global environmental movement, and answered questions from Nation staffers and from Christian Parenti, a frequent contributor to The Nation on environmental issues. An edited version of his remarks and the Q&A session appears below.
Kumi Naidoo: We have a climate crisis, which is not a crisis in the way a lot of the policymakers talk about, as if it’s something that’s going to take lives and have an impact in the future. According to Kofi Annan’s organization, we already in 2008 lost at least 300,000 lives directly through climatic impacts. The terrible tragedy of that is that the folks that are facing the first and most brutal impacts of climate change are those that have been least responsible in terms of emissions. So when you look at that loss of life, I’ve argued in the book that this is not simply a tragedy or a sad thing, but it’s actually a daily silent tsunami or a daily passive genocide.
How do you respond? The response has largely been to ignore what Albert Einstein once said, which is that if you’re trying to address a problem or a challenge, you should not use the same logic, thinking and frameworks that got you into the problem in the first place. Because essentially the response has been to put a big Band-Aid over the problem, not to deal with the fundamental structural issues that actually got us in the problem.
Right now in the UN, one of the big conversations is about climate finance and aid for developing countries, and there is still such foot-dragging on the part of developed countries to put money on the table. Yesterday we issued a statement that said Greenpeace is an organization that is generally supportive of recycling and reusing, but in this case where they recycle the same figures of support over and over again, we can’t find a way to support it.
Let me conclude by saying that we believe the science on virtually everything, and all the science is telling us we’ve got five years left. And if we are saying to government and business that there cannot be business as usual, then those of us in progressive media, in NGOs and other parts of civil society also have to tell ourselves it cannot be business as usual in terms of our activism. And that’s the challenge, I think, that we face at the moment.
When the Copenhagen talks broke down, one of the villains was, at least in the US media, China. And that became a proxy for the larger question of what kind of caps on carbon the developing world should accept. What was your take on what exactly happened in Copenhagen, and what’s your position on looking at carbon emissions historically, through an aggregate emissions level? And how does Greenpeace wrestle with the question of poverty in developing nations and burning fossil fuels?
KN: What really happened in Copenhagen will get as many responses as there were delegates there—nobody really knows. You get this one story about how the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa were in a room, Obama was actually kept out, and there’s this joke about—it’s told as a true story—that he knocked on the door and said, Hi, I’m the president of the United States, can I join you? And then if you look at the European Union, they were totally out of it sucking their thumbs while the whole thing played itself out. And I have to say, the European Union must carry more responsibility than the media actually placed on them for failure at Copenhagen, because they came with a twenty percent target, a no-stretch target at all, which gave us no campaigning space with the United States.