The Arctic 30, Environmental Activism and SLAPP: An Interview with Kumi Naidoo Part 2

Part 2 of my interview with Executive Director of Greenpeace International Kumi Naidoo.


On December 5, the day Nelson Mandela finally died, after a heavily mediated, prolonged deathwatch, I was in Amsterdam with Kumi Naidoo, a close South African friend of many years standing. In between hundreds of requests for his comments from global media I managed to sneak in an interview myself. I had originally planned to interview Kumi about his role as Executive Director of Greenpeace International, about the predicament of the Arctic 30 who were still in captivity in Russia then and other environmental issues but the occasion demanded that we discuss the passing of Mandela and all that it symbolized and meant. This became Part 1 of the interview published on this blog two weeks ago, Nelson Mandela, Servant Leadership and ‘Born-heres’ : An Interview with Kumi Naidoo, Part 1. Here now is Part 2 in which the environment and activism in general are foregrounded. Make sure to watch the video embedded below for a rich elucidation of some of the points raised in passing in this interview.

AP: Let’s now talk about the fact that you are Executive Director of Greenpeace International which is interesting in itself because you would be the first… I don’t want to say, non-white person to be in that kind of position, but person from the South, let’s say, representing completely new populations globally. Has this been a challenge? The fact that Greenpeace was previously a very kind of white European, or European-origin dominated organization, or is that a wrong perception?

KN: No, historically, that’s the reality. It started in Canada and moved to the US and Europe and Australia and so on, but Greenpeace actually has been operating in the global south for a long time with strong leaders emerging from those parts of the world who are into global leadership roles as well, but still that is not the majority of the experience. It’s still an area we are committed to making more progress in. And one of the things that I’ve been working on is strengthening our presence in the poorer parts of the world, parts of the world where if we don’t get it right, such as India, China, Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa and so on, with big population sizes, then you know we can get every country in Europe to go to clean green energy, but that’s not going to cut it, because the population sizes in the developing world are mushrooming… Just from a very basic doing the math, it makes sense to invest more there and to strengthen our ability to encourage those countries not to follow the same dirty energy path that today’s rich countries built their economies on.

This is not easy to do, because, justifiably, developing countries who have significant access to the remaining fossil fuels are saying, well, why should we not burn it and build our economies in the same way that the others did. But we are saying, the problem is that then you build your economies, and the economies and the infrastructure are going to collapse, because by just continuing to burn fossil fuels, the impacts of climate change are going to become more and more real. And its not a question of us saying that, oh, some time in the future we are going to see climate impacts, we are seeing climate impacts in many parts of the world. Today, in many parts of Africa, and in many small island states, for example, people don’t need climate scientists to come and tell them that climate change is happening and its real. People’s daily lived experiences; rains coming at the times that they didn’t; records that are being broken in terms of hottest temperatures and coldest temperatures. We are seeing storm strength and ferocity, height and velocity increasing to extents that we barely have another recorded moment for. Changes are happening. We can see in the Arctic where the minimum sea ice level last year broke its lowest level.

AP: Sea ice level?

KN: Where there was the lowest level of sea ice. Sea ice serves as the refrigerator or air conditioner of the planet, it plays a key role in climate regulation, and so in that sense, the stakes are very high. At Greenpeace, the reality on the ground has helped to show why we need to win in places like the Philippines and so on, and so resources are shifting but its slower than I would’ve hoped, and the changes could be even bigger than I would’ve hoped. But change is the art of the possible. We don’t have the luxury of saying, okay folks, we’re going to engage in an internal change process now, so let’s think about how to make the most fundamental transformative changes to be as effective as we can, and bring all energies to bear on that.

We are just running out of time, on climate especially, we have to be able to act internally and make the internal changes that we need to make, and the cultural changes that we need to make to be as fit for purpose as we can, and to be as global as the challenge that we are seeking to address. On the other hand we’ve got to continue to fight on the outside at the same time and continue to win as many big and substantial victories to try to reverse the trajectory we’re on. If we continue the way we are, we’re talking about a four degree world, meaning a four degree rise from pre-industrial levels, and right now, its been agreed that we should keep it below two degrees.

AP: The rise of?

KN: Global temperatures. Average global temperatures. And at this rate, this year we passed the 400 parts per million concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, and the safe level of carbon concentration is 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. Already, we’ve hit 400. We’re in a very precarious state. Our political and business leaders are suffering from cognitive dissonance, where all the facts are there but they’re not prepared to act on it.

AP: You were describing how urgent all these issues are, the environmental issues, and I’m wondering why this isn’t obvious to more people than it seems. For instance, in countries like Jamaica, the environment is almost considered a luxury, and people who protest on its behalf are resented, and often portrayed as being anti-development, Luddites etc, etc. Interestingly its often true that they ARE well off, better off than others in the societies they share.

KN: To take my part here, I was involved in the anti-poverty movement for the better part of my life. I was the founding chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, and I’m still involved in it. What I was seeing, looking at it from a short, medium, and a long-term perspective is that the poor were paying the biggest price for environmental destruction. And when you see an environmental crisis, such as hurricane Katrina in a rich country like the United States, what you see is that those folks who are better off are at least able to jump into their four-by-fours and other vehicles and drive away to safety, when the majority of the poor are left stranded, and the numbers of people that died were devastating to see in New Orleans. But then you take that and you can multiply that story hundreds of times over when we look at different environmental impacts. When I look at the issue of water, for more than ten years now, some of us have been saying that the future wars will not be fought over oil but will be fought about over water, and already you can see that happening. Water is the centre of many conflicts, including, by the way, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

So the point I’m making is that if you look at it objectively, the traditional Western environmental movement, which includes Greenpeace, didn’t make the connection early enough between sustainability and equity, and sustainability and poverty. But to Greenpeace’s credit, by the time I arrived there in 2009, they had embraced the idea of sustainable equity or equitable sustainability, which was essentially bringing the agendas of how do we share the resources on this planet in a more equitable way, that everybody should have certain basic things like access to water, sanitation, basic education, health care, and a certain level of energy. There are 1.6 billion people on this planet who live with complete energy poverty today; they don’t have access to a single light bulb. That’s not a small amount of people.

AP: 1.1 Billion, you said?

KN: 1.6 Billion. That’s a substantial amount of people on this planet. So, for me, the struggle to avert catastrophic climate change, which will wipe out all the developments whether in rich or poor countries, is the critical success factor for consolidating any development initiatives that we do, and so, if you look at Bangladesh, some investments that were done, good development work on the coastal parts of Bangladesh, are already being turned back because of sea level rise and salt water contaminating the soil and making it hard for people to grow food that they were able to grow before.

So essentially, the poor, and poor countries–even though poor countries in the main have not been responsible for that huge amount of carbon emissions–if you look at the history of burning oil, coal and gas, and when it started, the irony is that people in poor countries are paying the first and most brutal impacts of climate change. And its only going to get worse. So in that sense, for me, fighting climate change is fundamentally about fighting poverty, and I don’t see a disconnect there.

AP: But you know what I find interesting, when you thing about environmental groups, action groups globally, Greenpeace comes to mind immediately, but one is hard pressed to think of any others. Why do you think that is? I mean, there are other environmental NGOs, aren’t there, who are doing important work?

KN: Yes, there are many… WWF, the World Wildlife Fund…

AP: But I mean one has to think a bit to recall the others…

KN: Well, I suppose its because Greenpeace does take part in, does have as part of our work, peaceful civil disobedience, and that does get us into trouble with the authorities from time to time and gives us more media visibility.

AP: As you are getting now, with the Arctic 30. What does Russia’s reaction of jailing the Arctic 30 imply for activism broadly speaking, for non violent protests, and the like? It’s set a bad precedent, hasn’t it?

KN: I think that there’s two ways you can look at it. One is, just the fact that it happened people will be so shocked by it and will speak out about it, not just in Russia but across the world, and in fact the opposite result might be achieved, which is that people say we really need to make sure that governments do not use such disproportionate force when there are peaceful protests, or such disproportionate use of the formal prosecuting authority. Of course, the other reaction is that people will get intimidated and so they won’t undertake protests. Both will probably be true, as realities. To be fair to Russia, by the way, it is not the only country where there has been a shrinking of civic space, specifically, and democratic space more generally.

AP: Which are the others? China?

KN: Oh no, even in the United States, if you look at their response to September 11: the Patriot Act, legitimizing and defending torture, engaging in extraordinary rendition, racial and religious profiling, NSA, invasion of privacy; I mean all of these things have a chilling effect on citizen participation generally, and civic activism more specifically. In Canada, we have these lawsuits, which are called SLAPP suits, Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) which are suits brought by companies to intimidate NGOs and campaign groups. A state like Quebec now actually has anti-SLAPP legislation to prevent companies from doing it–that’s how big a problem it is. For example, in Canada now, a company headquartered in Quebec brings a case in Toronto, because they couldn’t have brought it in Quebec because of the anti-SLAPP Legislation. And they are charging us with a seven million dollar defamation claim.

AP: Who? Greenpeace. What is that in relation to?

KN: To the fact that we made statements condemning the activities in the Boreal Forest.

AP: So its not just Russia.

KN: I think it will not be known for some time exactly what the impact will be, but I also think its going to open up some questions about what level of risk is acceptable for activism to take, given what we face in terms of…

AP: Repercussions.

KN: Yes and I don’t know where exactly that will end. As regards Greenpeace, while I’m not saying we will do exactly the same action at the same place in the same way again, neither am I saying that we won’t. But we will obviously learn from this. This has been a big development for us, we will learn from it, and we recognize, as Greenpeace, that we live in a world where people are being killed and tortured and arrested and brutalized for standing up for the environment and social justice everywhere in the world, and we hope that we would be able to help contribute to the push for saying that governments need civil society, society needs active participation and so on, and that hopefully governments will embrace the perspectives of their citizens and allow peaceful protests, including those that have an element of civil disobedience.

AP: Great, thanks so much for this Kumi!

KN: And if you want to connect the two parts of it… Our people in Russia, first were called pirates and now are called hooligans. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and many other people who stood up for freedom and justice, were also, when they were doing so, called all sorts of labels, including labels worse than being called hooligans. Terrorists and so on. But today we revere them as the greatest peoples to have walked on our planet. I have no doubt that the Arctic 30 will be seen as people who did the right thing for the world, and acted out of compassion not out of self-interest. But I hope the world will come to that realization sooner rather than later, because we are running out of time.

Nelson Mandela, Servant Leadership and ‘Born-heres’ : An Interview with Kumi Naidoo, Part 1

An interview with Kumi Naidoo on the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s death in which he talks about the great leader, leadership, activism and identity.

Kumi Naidoo, left
Kumi Naidoo, left

On December 5, the day Nelson Mandela finally died, after a heavily mediated, prolonged deathwatch, I was in Amsterdam with Kumi Naidoo, a close South African friend of many years standing. In between hundreds of requests for his comments from global media I managed to sneak in an interview myself. I had originally planned to interview Kumi about his role as Executive Director of Greenpeace International, about the predicament of the Arctic 30 who were still in captivity in Russia then and other environmental issues. After Mandela’s death I decided to include Kumi’s views on this historic passing in the interview, as an ANC activist of many years standing, as someone who knew and worked with Mandela personally, who better than Kumi Naidoo from whom to get a perspective on Nelson Mandela and political leadership in general. This constitutes Part 1 of the interview. In the second part which i’ll post in a couple of days i ask him about Greenpeace, environmentalism and the Arctic 30 among other things. First an excerpt from Kumi’s Greenpeace blog:

I was 15 years old when I first heard the name Mandela, or Madiba, as he is fondly known in Africa. In apartheid South Africa he was public enemy number one. Shrouded in secrecy, myth and rumour, the media called him ‘The Black Pimpernel’. He was able to avoid the police, using several disguises – a favorite of which was that of a chauffeur – until the CIA colluded with the apartheid regime to ensure his capture. In Durban, where I was born and grew up, and all over Africa, he was a hero! Now he is a hero to the world.


AP: Kumi, you knew Nelson Mandela personally, you’ve had experiences with him, you are from South Africa, and I heard you in the BBC interview a moment ago saying something about how you thought the world could best do justice to him, or the best tribute they could pay to him. Could you develop that point for me?

KN: Mandela was very keen not to be understood as an exceptional person. I’ll give you a story. In 2004, I was in Mobutu, Mozambique, to help moderate a discussion with young people and with some senior African leaders which included Graça Machel and Joaquim Chissano, who was President of Mozambique at that time, and these were kids from eastern and southern African countries who had developed a vision of what they wanted Africa to be in 2050, and were presenting the vision. So, when I was moderating the discussion, one of the young people asked the question: “What is your definition of leadership?” And Mandela’s mind flipped back to the forties and he answered it as he would have answered it at that point: “We in the ANC youth league believe in the idea of collective leadership.” So essentially his notion of leadership was a very servant leadership, that you are there to serve not to take. And the reality is today most of our political leaders want to be treated as gods and semi-gods, from the security details to the fuss around them and so on.

AP: They’re more interested in the aura of leadership?

KN: And I think even though he was feted and praised as he was, he always was at pains to say, I’m a human being. And whenever anybody called him a saint, he would say: “If by saint you mean a sinner who is trying to be better, then I’m a saint.” His own sense of himself was a very humble reading, [different] from how the world read him. And, quite often, you had the sense that he was not comfortable with all the accolades that would be, you know…

AP: Hurled at him.

KN: Yeah, in fact, there’s a beautiful one on women. Nelson Mandela once said “I can’t help it if the ladies take note of me; I’m not going to protest.” He also spoke about how, as a human being, he’s made mistakes. In 1995 when I was heading the Adult Literacy Campaign in South Africa I took kids and adult learners to the Parliament to meet Madiba on International Literacy Day. They were excited to have their picture taken with him – the image was to become a poster for our campaign to promote adult basic education – but everyone was anxious; they were asking me what they should say and how they should approach meeting the President! The main line that people had prepared, the kids, and even the adults that were there, was something like, “Thank you, Mr. President,” or, “Thank you, Madiba, for taking time. We know how busy you are.” But when Madiba emerged from his Cabinet meeting he turned the tables. He walked in and thanked everyone for taking the time to see him. “I know how busy you all are and I thank you for taking time to meet me,” he said. In that moment he closed the gap. He was just a human being, a person like them, and everyone relaxed. Within a minute, that sort of thing about the leader and the lead, the gap was closed, and that’s a rare thing.

One of the things that I noticed with my own eyes was his ability to engage with kings and queens and heads of state on the one hand, and his ability to engage with ordinary people, equally comfortably. For example, I first met him when I was in my late 20s, in 1993. I was helping facilitate an African National Congress (ANC) workshop to plan its media strategy. I went down to meet him for the first time and you know me I got stupid… I just choked. I said, “Hello Madiba, it’s a real honour to meet you,” and I couldn’t get another word out. Just that one sentence. So during the workshop, he quietly, didn’t make a big fuss of it, quietly asked, “Can I go and say thank you to the people who prepared the food, and the workers of the hotel?” And I followed and I watched what he did and he basically shook everybody’s hands in the kitchen and said thank you to everybody.

I’ve come across a lot of people in my life who talk about poverty and talk about the poor, but you rarely have a sense that it matters to them to the point at which they will be willing to sacrifice something. Yes, they feel a sense of solidarity, but when you speak about the poor, that you actually celebrate the eloquence of the poor, the tenacity of the poor, the perseverance, courage… I mean, to survive poverty is… You know, many people theorize poverty, but so many elements of poverty, individually, for most people who theorize about poverty would be really difficult to even comprehend the individual things. Just take homelessness. If you are homeless, what does it mean not to have a post box where people can contact you; what does it mean not knowing where you’re going to sleep at the end of the day; what does it mean not having a place where you can store what little you might possess. So dealing with homelessness in itself is a huge thing for most people who are commentators [on] or benefactors to poverty. Then you take an issue like living with HIV/AIDS… I mean, you know, where health care is difficult… where people have to struggle for access to antiretrovirals and some still don’t have access to them and all of that, and just confronting that alone, for most people, would be a major challenge. And then you got things like educational deprivation as a result of a conscious apartheid strategy, where the founder of apartheid, Verwoerd, once said, and I quote, “Blacks should never be shown the greener pastures of education, they should know that their station in life is to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

AP: Who said that?

KN: Verwoerd. V-E-R-W-O-E-R-D. He was the architect of apartheid. Those legacies still live on. And Mandela’s very strong commitment to education more than anything else, and very strong commitment to children more than anything else, comes very much from a deep inter-generational understanding as well. Like when I was the head of the adult literacy movement in South Africa it was always easy to get him to send messages of support and so on. But, because you can say, well, okay, the new government… There’s a term for it in South Africa now, like you know how they talk about the Millennials? There’s a term… ‘Born frees’! The born frees are those that were born after ’94. So now they’re ten years old. They got no… In fact, even if I take talking to the wonderful kids that are a part of my life, and who know the stories because they’ve heard it from me a thousand times, or they’ve been in the presence of friends, who when we get together we always tend to reminisce But still, often they think we’re exaggerating about  how bad it was. They don’t really believe, because thankfully they are in more normal situations now, they attend schools with kids of different races, and its no big deal like it was for us. That was such a big thing. So the one thing about Mandela’s leadership is that he was not only a strong leader showing the importance of understanding the appropriate role of individual leadership. But he was always collective-minded, understanding that the wisdom comes from a range of people. For example, his relationship with the other senior leadership of the ANC was critically important to him, like Walter Sisulu was his confidant right until he passed away, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada.

AP: I wanted to ask you about Ahmed Kathrada.

KN: So Kathrada was the youngest of the Rivonia trialists…

AP: Of the what?

KN: The Rivonia trialists. Rivonia was a farm where they were captured from and the trial was known as the Rivonia trial.

AP: Mandela was part of that?

KN: Yes, that was the trial where he got life imprisonment.

AP: What were they trying to do?

KN: They had some explosives…Probably, in military terms, it was not even security training 101.

AN: Kindergarten.

KN: Actually, maybe I should take that back, because at that time maybe it was as sophisticated as you could get. But the other thing about Mandela which is really important was his passion for peace, because when he came out of prison he was unequivocal about the need to eliminate violence from the politics of South Africa. I remember this one speech, he went into Durban where there was a huge conflict between the ANC and Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party, and it was Mandela’s force of character, his strength with humility, and so on. I mean quite often I think leaders are put into positions of unilateralism where they’re not prepared to deal honestly with their people about the ambiguity of leadership, because sometimes there are situations where you need a leader to be more assertive and maybe even less consultative, and in other situations, normally, I would say that’s a better style of leadership.

AP: Being consultative?

KN: Because then the responsibilities are shared more broadly and those who have responsibility for decisions have a greater investment in them… And as President, in the five years Mandela was there he was a very hands-off President, I would say, Thabo Mbeki did a lot of the day to day management of Cabinet Ministers and so on. And de Klerk was the other Deputy President, there were two Deputy Presidents in the first Cabinet. So I think that the kind of leadership that we need to revisit now as we reflect on one of the greatest leaders that walked this planet is, given where the world is, for example, should leaders take as given that the level of material privilege they assume, that comes with the role of leadership, should it be so vastly different from the day to day realities of often the majority of the people in their countries? So, for example, we have had some signs of positive actions such as the current President of Malawi, first woman to head up Malawi, and she, for example, sold off the Presidential jet. We just assume that the norm of leadership is living the life. So therefore you can see that there are times when leaders have to honestly say to their people, this is a time of austerity and we need to…

AP: Tighten our belts.

KN: …tighten our belts, people are thinking, well its easy for you to say. Its going to mean nothing to you because it will have no material effect on you, given that you have so much of excess income anyway, from what it takes to meet your basic needs. And so I think there needs to be a conversation. If there’s something that should come out of Mandela’s death right now, I would think there has to be a conversation about equality, and its importance, because every problem we have here is a world out of balance. I mean to have less than 200 of the wealthiest people in the U.S. be equivalent of, own more than, 65% of the American people, there’s something wrong with that system, where people have so much that they don’t need and they start being silly, and engage in exuberant consumption which is completely self-serving, and so on. And in that sense Mandela did not… and it was also the issue of his age and all when he came out, because, and don’t forget, he was cut off from the world for 27 years. Its amazing how he just appeared to fit smoothly into that world. But there’s a lot that he had missed in absolute terms. And so I don’t judge him too harshly on this, but the fact is, you know, he didn’t really fundamentally challenge the structural injustices in our economic life, and in that sense, I think that if you assume that he had spent, if you take the time that he was in prison, for example, and how much of that was lost. Because you know people don’t sufficiently acknowledge that he was not only about charisma and wisdom and all of that, he was also a person of intellect. He had a very very amazing intellectual gift, and I think his real gift was that ability to be able to walk one day with kings, queens and heads of state, and another day be as comfortable, and in fact, quite frankly, more comfortable, walking with regular people.

AP: That’s really good, you’ve given me a few private glimpses which aren’t out there which is great. I wanted to go back to the fact that you’re an Indian South African, and people don’t realize that many Indian South Africans participated in the ANC and in those struggles against apartheid. For instance I was quite surprised to see that this cellmate of Nelson Mandela was another Indian South African. What’s his name again?

KN: Ahmed Kathrada

AP: Right, so its not as exceptional as it seems?

KN: No, no, in fact, several South Africans of Indian origin were in Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. There was Mac Maharaj, Billy Nair, who spent twenty years there, and Zed, Uncle Zed we used to call him.

AP: Zed?

KN: Yes, Z-E-D, he spent fourteen years. Yeah, many, and disproportional to the size of the population in terms of this thing, but it was because of the legacy of Gandhi. During all of that there was quite a strong spirit of resistance in the community. Mandela was fond of Gandhi in terms of his life and work and writings, but the apartheid state, like all colonial regimes, maintained control by divide and rule, and in South Africa, the main form of divide and rule was on the basis of race, and not just that but also on the basis of language, so it wasn’t that it was just white, Indian, African, coloured, as they would’ve called it, but the African community was, the black African community were then broken up into Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana and the other African languages… your language and culture.

AP: Interesting, I have never heard that side.

KN: Yes, so there were people like myself who came through the liberation struggle, who were first influenced by Steve Biko, and were resisting the divisions of apartheid which were also historical and cultural divisions. Distinctions, let’s say, because obviously the people who came as indentured servants from India have a different history versus those who came to be defined as Coloured, whose numbers are in excess of three million; and their community was rich in culture…

AP: And the Coloureds are the hybrid people born out of contact between the Europeans and Africans?

KN: Yes, but the people who were so defined have forged themselves also into a rich community in their own standing. I think one of the richest cultures in South Africa in terms of music, dance, even rich art forms and so on, because there is also Malay influence, because there were slaves brought from Indonesia and Malaysia.

AP: Really, I didn’t know that.

KN: So, given all of these different influences, our response, those that came through the struggle like myself, when the state used to say white and non-white, we said we didn’t want to be non anything. So black then became the unifying identity. And Steve Biko’s big contribution was in the way that he defined black consciousness. He defined it as everybody who wasn’t benefiting from the privileges of white citizenship, and the ANC drew on and embraced that as well, and so for me my identity is very much first and foremost…

AP: A black identity, as a black person?

KN: Today, given the journey I’ve traveled, my first identity, it might sound silly but, is as a human being who is not bound by any man-made boundaries, but my second biggest identity is as an African whose identity is fundamentally linked to the African continent as a whole, and third it is South African, and then fourth, I would say, as a South African of Indian origin, and I don’t see any of those in contradiction. I think that they enrich each other in different ways.

Tropical Tendencies: Jamaica and the Arctic 30

Why does environmental activism not register frontally either locally or globally? The politics of climate change

On October 10, 2013, the news agency IPS put out a story sensationally titled The Climate Plague which it described as “a shift to an entirely new climate where the lowest monthly temperatures will be hotter than those in the past 150 years. The shift is already underway due to massive emissions of heat-trapping carbon from burning oil, gas and coal.”

According to the article:

A climate plague affecting every living thing will likely start in 2020 in southern Indonesia, scientists warned Wednesday in the journal Nature. A few years later the plague will have spread throughout the world’s tropical regions.

By mid-century no place on the planet will be unaffected, said the authors of the landmark study.

“We don’t know what the impacts will be. If someone is about to fall off a three-storey building you can’t predict their exact injuries but you know there will be injuries,” said Camilo Mora, an ecologist at University of Hawai‘i in Honolulu and lead author.

Mora goes on to use Jamaica as an example of the kind of change we can expect:

“Within my generation, whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past,” he said.

In less than 10 years, a country like Jamaica will look much like it always has but it will not be the same country. Jamaicans and every living thing on the island and in its coastal waters will be experiencing a new, hotter climate – hotter on average than the previous 150 years.


The story hit the Jamaican public sphere a few days later in the form of a wire  article in the country’s leading newspaper, The Gleaner, but barely attracted any notice. The Hill 60 Bump blog lamented that there seemed little reaction to the alarming news either in Jamaica or other tropical countries also slated to face steeply rising temperatures:

‘Temperatures Rising: Jamaica To Face Extreme Heat in 10 Years’ –  Perhaps this headline was not sensational enough, the text too scientific or there were just too many other news items but for some reason, this article in the Jamaica Gleaner a few days ago seems to have received little attention. We spotted brief discussion on twitter about whether or not this would be good for solar power and a single query about roof insulation but in general, minimal hysteria. The lack of public response seems strange as our immediate thoughts ranged from recollections of the drought of 2009 all the way to Armageddon type blockbuster film scenarios. Online searches returned a myriad of global articles on the matter but little in from the news desks of the tropical countries now considered to be on the climate front line.

It’s an uncomfortable fact that for countries such as Jamaica, India and others in the ‘developing’ world environmental concerns have remained a preoccupation of the elite, those well off enough we think, to worry about changing weather patterns, global warming and the like, in the face of more urgent local problems such as unemployment, hunger and homelessness.

The truth however is otherwise. “People don’t realize that events that seemingly have no connection to activities like drilling the Arctic for oil are actually intimately linked in an interdependent chain of violence and destruction,” says Kumi Naidoo, the outspoken head of Greenpeace International. In a recent interview with US TV journalist Bill Moyers, Naidoo elaborated on this:

Take the genocide in Darfur for instance, in Sudan, the media largely reported it as an ethnic quasi-religious sort of conflict and so on. But, that is your first major resource war brought about by climate impacts because Darfur neighbours Lake Chad. Lake Chad used to be one of the largest inland seas in the world. And the climate scientists warned us decades ago that, as a result of a warming planet, Lake Chad was under risk.

Lake Chad has now shrunk to a size of a pond as the current secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon put it recently. So water scarcity, land scarcity and food scarcity as a result of an absence of water and land was the toxic mix that created conditions for identity manipulation by opportunistic politicians that saw the horrific events in Darfur happen.

In three days it will be a month since 30 Greenpeace activists were intercepted by Russian forces during an act of non-violent civil disobedience in which they mounted a peaceful protest against drilling in the Arctic, a region Naidoo refers to as the “refrigerator and air conditioner of the planet”. According to news reports some of the environmental group’s activists scaled the rig, operated by Russian state energy giant Gazprom. The Greenpeace crew were protesting Russia’s plans to drill for fossil fuels in the fragile ecology of the Arctic. The ship was towed to Russia’s Arctic port of Murmansk and the activists bused to the local headquarters of Russia’s Investigative Committee. Despite the fact that the activists posed no threat to property or to people, Russian authorities have imprisoned the 30 citizens from 18 different countries, pending trials which could see some of them receiving up to 15 years in prison.

Marco Weber, one of the detainees, whose first language is not English, has written a letter describing the conditions of his detention and pleading for help from the ‘global public’.:

“I am now for about 12 days alone in a cell. I don’t have books, newspaper, TV or someone to talk to. At the daily walk I am also isolated. The 4×5 metre “walkyard” is surrounded by concrete walls and covered with iron bars. On top is a roof, which doesn’t allow the sunshine in.

“The only sky I can see is out of my cell window, which is placed in the northern wall of the building. This means no sun at all. Days are long! The highlights are weekly visits of my lawyer and consul. And yesterday I got the first bunch of email from the outside! Yehaa…

“The aggressive and unfair acting of the Russian government and Gazprom shows how important it is, that decisions about Arctic and its future are made by global public. And not by states and companies which are blinded by its resources and short term profits.”

What worries me is that the world seems to be paying as little heed to the dangerous drama playing out in Russia and the Arctic as Jamaicans are to the news of their impending descent into a tropical inferno as soon as 2023. Will anyone pay money to visit this tourist haven then, as they do now, just barely keeping this fragile Caribbean economy afloat?

Can those of us from poorer economies afford to avert our eyes from the environmental catastrophes looming on our doorsteps? Can we afford to withhold our activism leaving it to white people and isolated elites around the globe to save this planet from ourselves? What is most disturbing is the precedent this will set and the chilling effect on any kind of activism anywhere if the Greenpeace 30 receive jail sentences. Are we being told that we can’t hold peaceful protests anymore? Is civil disobedience, that cornerstone of democratic liberalism, no longer recognized or allowed? Is the concept of protest being criminalized?

If there’s any danger of this we ought to organize a day of collective protest globally in tribute to the Arctic 30, because their actions symbolize the freedom to register dissent, to draw attention to public bads, to demand our right not to comply with rapacious processes in the name of ‘development’. Unlike the localized protests we’ve seen spreading all over the world from Egypt to Turkey to the USA to Libya, environmental protests such as the one mounted by Greenpeace against oil drilling in the Arctic call on us to respond as concerned citizens of the globe. This is not just about our neck of the woods, it’s about the world we live in and all the creatures in it. Are we going to sit by and allow rich corporations to loot it into oblivion? Shouldn’t we too be willing to risk our lives to safeguard the planet for our grandchildren?

On the future of America’s children or whether Obama will have a different approach this time around | Greenpeace International

On the future of America’s children or whether Obama will have a different approach this time around | Greenpeace International.

Greenpeace in Cancun, COP16 and Kumi Naidoo

A brief account with photos and video of Icons under Water, Greenpeace’s symbolic action in Cancun, COP16 and Kumi Naidoo…

Mobilizing the Icons

So I’ve been in Cancun, Mexico since Dec. 5 assisting my old friend Kumi Naidoo with his hectic schedule at the COP16 climate summit negotiations as head of Greenpeace International and Chair of The Global Campaign for Climate Action. I haven’t been to any of the formal meetings myself, by all accounts extremely long-winded, boring gatherings, but am very much part of the behind the scenes action, particularly where Greenpeace and Kumi are concerned.

Yesterday morning for instance I accompanied a group of Greenpeace activists as they executed one of their trademark performances designed to highlight the perils of so-called global warming.  The concept was simple, efffective and relatively inexpensive, involving cutouts and submerged activists holding them up. The media turned up in force and today the Washington Post and other international and Mexican media featured images of the drowning icons. I was thrilled to be present at the execution of what was literally an iconoclastic event.

Labeled Icons Under Water the performance hoped to send a message to Ministers meeting at the UN Cancun climate talks that “the rising tide of climate impacts will affect each and every one of us – rich and poor.”

“Greenpeace is here today to illustrate that climate change does not discriminate, “ said Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International Executive Director. “We are all in this boat together,  the storm is coming – we need to steer in the same direction.

“The rising tide of climate impacts, be they economic, environmental or humanitarian will affect everyone – rich and poor. Here in Cancun, Ministers must choose to steer it towards a bright and safe future.  The rising tide of climate impacts, be they economic, environmental or humanitarian will affect everyone – rich and poor.”

You can read a Greenpeace activist’s account of it all here.

Kumi Naidoo talking to media
Mission Accomplished: Greenpeace Icons Under Water team

A few days before Icons Greenpeace activists had carried out another breathtaking, imaginative performance titled Real People can’t live under water. Visual culture fiend that I am these creative, visually arresting interventions fill me with admiration.

Real People can't live under water

For Kumi however, hardcore activist that he is, such activities are peripheral to the real substance of the climate talks; they may catch the world’s attention he says, but ultimately it’s the actual, painstaking give and take between governments, big business interests and advocates and NGOs representing the interests of ordinary people that will matter in terms of reducing wear and tear on the planet. I think Greenpeace’s manipulation of the visual to grab media attention does play an important role in conveying the urgency of the situation we face and is part and parcel of winning the hearts and minds of people in the struggle for what has become known as ‘climate justice’.

I’ve blogged about Kumi before he joined Greenpeace; see my posts about his hunger strike for Zimbabwe here and here. The CNN video below gives you a more comprehensive account of his career and a better sense of his personality. He’s been to Jamaica several times since i first met him in Trinidad and Tobago at a 1995 conference on Indians in the diaspora. There aren’t too many international organizations headed by persons from the South. The Mexican Greenpeace contingent for instance take pride in the fact that Kumi is from South Africa and not from the so-called developed world. It’s going to be interesting to see if and how he manages to leave his imprint on this forty-year old NGO. By coincidence the next United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 17, is going to be held in Durban, the city of his birth.

In the videos below you can see Icons Under Water as it was orchestrated yesterday morning. Do forgive the occasional inexpert handshaking…

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