Interview – Kumi Naidoo

Few people would disagree that the outcome of the recent Copenhagen conference was very disappointing. But are there positive things that we can build on, Caroline Hartnell asked Kumi Naidoo, the new executive director of Greenpeace International. What can individuals, civil society and private foundations do to ensure we do reach the global deal we need? Advocacy for policy change at global level is the priority now, says Naidoo. Foundations should step up their funding, and should be willing to support civil disobedience along with other approaches.

I’d like to start by asking for your assessment of the outcome of the Copenhagen conference. However unsatisfactory, is it something we can build on?

Since the Bali conference two years ago, the objective of many governments and civil society was to ensure that Copenhagen delivered a fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty. We didn’t get one. However, there are some things that we can put down as partial successes.

First, we began to see national political leadership taking responsibility because the climate issue is not simply about the climate but about the economy, about society and about peace. So we have established that this is not just about environment ministers getting together and talking about a political issue but a central issue that affects how we think about the planet.

The second positive thing is that there was virtually no contesting of the science, even with the recent climategate emails. There was no real problem like we used to have when President Bush was there. I think the scientific debate has been put to bed now.

The third positive thing was that we got agreement on the principle that developing countries are least responsible for the climate chaos we find ourselves in and also the ones paying the most brutal price. They should therefore receive significant financing to help them adapt to the impact of climate change, recognizing the historical responsibility. There were a lot of questions about the figures. The figure that was committed from 2015 is $100 billion a year. Greenpeace has been calling for a minimum of $140 billion and African countries have been calling for $200 billion. The weakness is that no one has said where this is going to come from.

Finally, there was a recognition that, as President Obama said, Copenhagen will not avert catastrophic climate change. For once, political leaders didn’t attempt to greenwash it because it is so clear that there is a long way to go before the kind of response the science suggests we need is actually achieved. So overall, while Copenhagen didn’t live up to expectations, I think the positive things that I’ve just mentioned give us a measure of cautious optimism for the next stage of the struggle.

Presumably what we’re working towards now is binding targets that do what’s required in the time required?

Correct. The next big meeting, COP16 as it will be known as, takes place in November in Mexico, but the whole message of the campaign that Greenpeace is supporting, the Tck Tck Tck campaign (, is that time is running out. If we take what the scientists and economists like Nick Stern are saying, and the International Energy Agency, for every year that we delay taking action, the costs go up by $500 million. In terms of the so-called Copenhagen Accord, governments are supposed to announce the targets that they are seeking to achieve in terms of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, what national plans they are developing, what policies they are pursuing and what assistance they need. The deadline for that is 31 January, so at the moment a lot of energy is going towards that.

There’s also a meeting in Bonn in May/June this year where we’re hoping that we can get some clearer targets on the table. There are also closer, more specific targets like working for zero deforestation by 2015, and we think we can get actionable plans if there’s enough of a political consensus. One of the downsides of the Copenhagen Accord is that it’s really G8-ish or G20-ish in the generalness of the terms in which it’s couched, which local leaders can exploit. Think of all the fanfare surrounding the Gleneagles summit: 2010 was the year to deliver and we’ve not even reached 50 per cent of delivery on many of those promises.

So what can civil society and individuals do to help ensure that these milestones in January, May/June and November are met and we do get the agreements we need?

First, I think citizens and civil society must recognize that governments will not act with the urgency that is needed unless they are pushed into it.

I think there are two broad sets of things individuals can do. One is developing their own understanding of the issue and helping raise awareness in families, schools, places of worship and so on. The other is changing consumer behaviour and building pressure from below for the kind of change that is needed. Take using energy-efficient lightbulbs, for example. If there was a significant move in that direction, in the long term, not only would they become cheaper, but we’d probably see much more accelerated movement towards governments passing legislation that makes energy-efficient lightbulbs the norm rather than the exception. Other forms of consumer behaviour – the level of demand for meat-based as opposed to vegetarian food, the transport we use – all of these things can also accelerate change at the top. Overall, individual citizens need to pressure their politicians to let them know they care, that inaction on climate will have intolerable consequences.

With regard to civil society, what was positive about Copenhagen was that the climate issue was no longer an issue only for environmental groups. We saw the World Council of Churches and other faith-based groups, trade unions and development organizations that don’t normally get involved in climate issues came to the fore very strongly. This was the aim of the Tck Tck Tck campaign (a collation of civil society organizations including Greenpeace, Oxfam, Amnesty, the International Trade Union Federation and others). We will only know we have turned the corner in terms of climate change activism if we can attract these organizations to put their name and energy and resources behind the campaign.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to engage people in climate change activism?

I think there are three things involved. First, a slow-burning issue like climate change is not very visible and not easy to explain to a broad audience, unlike human rights violations or poverty. The second problem is the science. This is often presented in ways that make it harder for people who aren’t specialists to engage with. When we start talking 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, 1.5 versus 2 degrees, and so on, people get quite alienated. One of the challenges that we took up in 2009 was how we can make all this more accessible, without being simplistic. The third thing is that, unlike human rights violations and poverty, where there are no serious lobbyists putting money and advertising into saying these are good things, with climate change, we come up against some of the most powerful industry interests in the world – the fossil fuel industry and other polluting industries, with huge advertising budgets and very good lobbyists.

Given all the things that stack up against civil society, I think we did quite well to put those lobbies on the defensive.

So what can civil society do next?

There are four things civil society has been doing and must continue to do. First, we need to continue to make a contribution to the science. Right now, I’m sure that with the current cold spell many people around the world, especially in Europe, are saying, ‘Whatever happened to global warming?’ We need to be able to explain how the impact of global warming is actually producing extremities in the weather, possibly including these colder periods in Europe and North America.

Second, we need to do much more global awareness raising than we’re doing – and we need to do this in a non-jargonistic way. Third, we need to look at what forms private action can take, in terms of consumer behaviour, and what demands people make of the environment in terms of transport, energy consumption and so on. Civil society needs to be engaging in new ways of thinking – everything from energy efficiency to looking at sustainable ways out of energy poverty. Part of the problem we face is that 1.6 billion people in the world are energy poor, with virtually no access to any form of energy whatsoever. We need to find low-carbon ways of moving these people out of poverty by giving them access to PVC solar panels and so on.

You talked about the effectiveness of civil society lobbying prior to Copenhagen. Is there still a continuing advocacy role for civil society?

Absolutely. None of these things go any way towards the scale of changes that we actually need, and that’s why the voice of civil society in lobbying for policy changes and national legislative interventions, backed up by the global treaty that we’re all working for, is critically important for pushing government to make serious cuts in emissions and invest more in energy efficiency as well as renewable energy. I would say that in places like Africa and Asia, we have not begun to exploit the potential of solar and wind energy. There is a huge potential there, which might mean that, ten years from now, with the right levels of investment, Africa, specifically North Africa, could become an exporter of energy to Europe.

How to do advocacy is one of the things that civil society needs to address. The conventional methods of lobbying and letter writing and appealing and going to meetings need to be enhanced. When humanity has been faced with grave problems – slavery or apartheid, for example – it’s only when decent men and women have been willing to step forward and say, ‘Enough. I’m willing to put my life on the line, like Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, I’m prepared to engage in civil disobedience’, that these extreme situations are ended. Al Gore has recently called for civil disobedience to advance the climate change agenda. I think that’s part of what civil society needs to do.

And presumably what private foundations and individual donors should do is support the best civil society organizations that are working in these areas?

I think foundations need to be putting their resources into all the activities I’ve just been talking about. The big issue is how much you put into service delivery versus policy change. I think foundations need to become a bit more cutting-edge in terms of putting more resources into advocacy efforts – and at Copenhagen we did see certain foundations for the first time getting better results from making global grants.

This needs to be intensified. We need to recognize that at the end of the day we can’t win the climate challenge by investing only at the national level. We need a global response and more needs to be invested, especially at the global level. Second – and I think this will challenge philanthropy like nothing else – there needs to be more support for peaceful but high-impact civil disobedience. Foundations, particularly the more cutting-edge ones, need to be open to that. And in terms of scale of support, they need to do more!

What do you see as the main obstacle to more and more effective climate-related grantmaking?

Part of the problem we face here, and in other areas, is that we tend to operate in silos, both in our analysis and in our interventions. We put things in environmental silos, development silos and so on. Climate change intersects with many areas of grantmaking. What, for example, is the youth development-climate change nexus? Young people have been the biggest voices on climate change: they know that their future is at stake. Or take grantmaking related to peace and conflict: climate change has already driven local-level conflict in places like Bangladesh and water scarcity was one of the causes of the genocide in Darfur. Likewise, if you look at funding for women, we know that as conflict arises and poverty increases, women and children will pay the biggest price. It’s not a question of foundations saying, ‘Climate change is a new thing. Now let’s look at what we can do.’ It’s a question of how they adapt existing streams of grantmaking to make them more climate friendly.

But overall the focus at this stage should be on policy change at global level?

We can win small, incremental victories here and there at the local and national levels, but the aggregated impact is going to be woefully inadequate. So yes, right now the primary focus should be to help civil society to push our governments to agree a fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty to avert catastrophic climate change.

Kumi Naidoo is executive director of Greenpeace International.

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Photo credit © Greenpeace / Marco Okhuizen

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