Interviews

‘Science won’t change; we have to change politics’

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Renewable energy is a key battle in the war on climate change, but how to win it? Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace international chief executive, has the answer.

When you’re head of Greenpeace you cannot be scared of a challenge. Kumi Naidoo isn’t. At 15 he became involved in anti-apartheid activism in South Africa, his home country. At one point he was expelled from high school. He worked in neighbourhood organisations, the youth sector and organised mass mobilisations against the regime. “For me, climate change is not only about the environment – climate change is about survival, economy and equity,” he says. “Because of this growing consciousness I started to volunteer for various environmental organisations.

“While working in the development sector I saw how development projects which succeeded in addressing poverty were rolled back because of environmental degradation and climate impacts. I understood that the struggle to end environmental and climate injustice and the struggle to end social and economic injustice are two sides of the same coin. We cannot win on either unless we win on both.”

In the late 1980s, after getting in trouble with the authorities, Naidoo moved to England and earned a doctorate in political sociology at Oxford University. In 1990, after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, he returned to work on the legislation of the African National Congress. From 1998 to 2008 he was secretary general and chief executive of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. Now, among other roles, he is the founding chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP). In 2009, he was appointed international chief executive of Greenpeace.

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As such, Naidoo has a challenging agenda. Amid increasing global political instability, sustainability issues are compromised as environmental warnings fly above our heads: floods, storms and melting ice. The biggest long-term threat, Naidoo says, is fossil fuels. The problem? Lacking leadership and vision from politicians and business leaders. “Too often, leaders put power and profit over people, and this is why we are stuck in election cycles and the tyranny of quarterly reporting cycles for business encouraging not accountability but reckless behaviour, rather than solutions that tackle climate change and environmental destruction,” he says. “Our political leaders act at the behest of several powerful corporations; not in the long-term interest of the planet, its people and everything that depends on a healthy environment.”

Frustratingly, answers to the environmental crisis exist. Science has progressed significantly, and Naidoo says a renewable energy revolution is possible. “The science is clear – and I often say: We can’t change the science, so we have to change the politics,” he says. “And let’s be clear, if we can’t change the politics, we must change the politicians.” That entails coordinated public pressure, from trade unions, religious leaders and the rest of civil society. “At Greenpeace, we believe that a green and peaceful future is stronger than any opponent, except for apathy,” Naidoo says. “We need to see the status quo challenged more often, we want to see more acts of rebellion that will bring true social change and climate justice.”

Can ecotourism play a part? Of course it can. Naidoo is hopeful that demand for sustainable products and services will increase. However, he believes a political and economic framework must be established to encourage people and businesses to live more consciously. This, in turn, must be demanded by the public. “A well-known traveller, Robert Swan, the first person to walk to both Poles, once said that the greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it,” Naidoo says. “People who travel, but not only them, often develop a global consciousness and realise that our destinies are interconnected. Fellow travellers can engage at many levels, through their voting behaviour, cyberactivism, volunteering and financially supporting causes or starting a local campaign.”

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That, clearly, is the way to affect this crisis. And, in 2014, it is something Greenpeace will continue to encourage. That and exposing careless governments and corporations. “We need to win bigger battles in the struggle to avoid runaway climate change and mass scale environmental degradation,” says Naidoo. “And we need to win these battles faster.”

Specifically for next year, Greenpeace will push the energy revolution and disrupt businesses relying on fossil fuels. “We will continue to spread investor doubt about fossil and nuclear industry sectors, undermine the sector’s social licence, and continue political work that aims to force a system re-design. We will also campaign and ask for all operators of nuclear reactors to become fully responsible for any disasters their reactors cause – believe it or not, only in a few small cases are operators fully liable.”

Other issues include ecological farming: the only model, says Naidoo, that delivers more food while protecting soil, water, the climate and biodiversity. Greenpeace will also work at the textile sector – a major source of toxic pollution – to convince leaders to detox and follow commitments made by brands such as Zara, Levi’s and Nike. Finally, Naidoo says, “when it comes to restoring the health of our forests and oceans, we will continue to fight for an end to deforestation by 2020 in the Amazon, Congo basin and Indonesia, and demand a global network of marine reserves while promoting sustainable fishing practices.”

Photos: Ricardo Esplana Babor/Shutterstock.com, Greenpeace.

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