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The Tipping Point: Interview with Kumi Naidoo, Director of Greenpeace360°ANALYSIS

Gregor Konzack and Christian Franz interviewed Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, at the Munich Security Conference. Mr. Naidoo describes what is going wrong in the global fight against climate change.

Q – Mr. Naidoo, on yesterday’s discussion panel you sat next to people like Mr. Aliev, the president of Azerbaijan – who presented his country as a new source for energy, Mr.Viktor Yushchenko, the president of the Ukraine, told us that he is a reliable partner, and Günther Öttinger, a German politician and European Commissioner for Energy– who explained how we can become more efficient in terms of energy. You, Mr. Naidoo, came with the call for immediate action and said that we need to use this window of opportunity to rescue some parts of the world from climate change. I was wondering what your thoughts were after the panel discussion; did you feel that you really pushed things forward?

A – That is a question you are going to have to ask them. Yesterday people from the country delegations came up to me and said things like: “You are the only person who called it as it was and had the level of urgency and ambition that was necessary”. The fact that at least some people not only thought this, but thought they should come and articulate it, I take as a small positive thing – that some people are actually beginning to recognize we are running out of time.

I have no comfort at all when I look at what science is telling us, what mother earth is telling us, with the violent climate-related events we are having. As we are sitting here now, in Eastern Europe, there are coldest ever temperatures recorded from the time that we have been keeping records. Just to be clear, when climate experts talk of global warming, they are not just talking about the warming, but they are talking about these wild fluctuations, the extreme weather. The question is: How far are we from the tipping point?

We follow science about virtually everything. About whether we should use condoms, wear seat-belts, whether we should smoke or do a whole range of other things– but when science is telling us that the world as we know it is under risk, you would expect those powers to act with urgency.

And the thing that is not mentioned in these conversations because of the nature of this conference, is that this is very much part of transatlantic dialogue. If the president of the Maldives, Bangladesh or somebody from Darfur were on that panel, you would have a different perspective. The countries that have been the biggest contributors to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions are the ones which will be able to absorb temperature rise better than people in developing countries who are least responsible for the problem. That is why the term 'climate justice' has got quite a lot of resonance with people in the developing world.

Q – You said that the developed world, historically the greater contributor to climate change, is better able to cope with the challenges ahead. Do you think they are acting accordingly?

A – We have lived in a world that has all sorts of divisions: rich countries, poor countries, on development and religious lines. In the crisis of climate change, we have an opportunity. Unless we all realize – sooner rather than later – that we have to come together to address this problem as a united global family, ultimately, we will all be affected. So the realization is needed that climate change is such a big threat that humanity must forget its division. The question is whether, in fact, by the time we come to that realization, it will be too late for the majority of people in the world.

Q – You suggest there should be an event which marks a turning point: something we hoped for in the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 but failed.

A – In Copenhagen the Mexican presidency of the COP in Cancun very consciously lowered the bar of expectations, so that whatever they achieved in the negotiations, they would be able to declare it a success. The same thing happened in Durban in 2011.

Q – So you think that the institutions we have right now are not able to solve the problem? Do you think we need to make this a grassroots movement to change things?

A – The UN cannot do anything if the most dominant countries in the negotiation come with positions that are stuck in an old-world-thinking. Yes, we do have quite a large level of institutional failure, but there are other factors as well. Like in that last interview people were saying: “You know China, it’s not a democracy – China can decide something and just make it happen”. Here, democracy is used as an excuse for why the US is so slow to move.

US democracy today can be described as the best democracy money can buy. When we look deeper, who are the major contributors to the various campaigns? This is how it works in the US: you can have the same oil company giving the same amount of money to the Democrats and the Republicans because they are hedging their bets – and whoever wins, they will still have the influence.

For every member of congress, there are three fulltime lobbyists, paid for lock, stock and barrel by the fossil fuel industry. And they have tons of cash to throw around. In fact, if you add up the money the fossil fuel industry uses to lobby and prevent progressive climate legislation from passing in the US, it would be more than 25% of the poorest countries in the world combined.

If you’ve looked at the Stern Report, it says that every month, every quarter, every year that we delay, the costs will go up. The longer we drag our foot in terms of acting against climate change, the larger the costs will be in terms of human life, in terms of money, infrastructure and destruction. Unless we can generate more political will and courage on the part of governments, I am worried that we will hit the tipping point before we know it.

Q – Earlier you were speaking of a point where we recognize that we are all threatened by climate change. Do you think that is one point or rather a gradual process?

For example, the Munich Re already invests heavily in some projects because they noticed that climate change is harmful. So this would indicate that it is rather a gradual process. Or do you think that once we reach the tipping point, there will be this sudden movement and every resource will be invested in the fight against climate change?

A – I hope that we are able to get action before we reach that point. I have been in dialogue with a range of business leaders over the time that I have been in Greenpeace, and there are some that say: "I am prepared to turn my company around, but I need regulatory clarity. I need government passed legislation, so my board and my management team will listen when I tell them that we actually have to make these painful changes." So the absence of clear regulatory leadership on the part of the majority of governments in the world is also a factor.

Q – In your presentation at the Munich Security Conference you mentioned two models: China is investing heavily in renewable energy. And the EU is trying to reduce CO² emission. So the first approach is through heavy investment, more as a driving force than to be the leader in international negotiations, and the other approach is through legislation and the CO² tax. Which approach should Greenpeace support?

A – I think we need both at the moment. We need government (hopefully democratic governments will have dialogue with the people), this is the more top-down approach. Denmark recently got a new government, and they have done exactly what science says we should do. They set the goal to reduce the emission levels of 1990 by 40% by 2020.

The other approach of building up momentum and models is needed because people need to see innovation. And now we have to create enabling contexts, where the right kind of resources are going into research and development. And also, when you look at the facts based on the knowledge that is available, the best chance we have in Europe to put more and more people back into work is actually by investing into energy efficiency and renewable energy technology.

Q – You mention ways for rather well-off countries to level down their CO² emissions – how does this relate to developing countries?

A – The question is: Do we do it in the same way that the West did? No. 10% of Mexicans have no access to energy. We have to look at those communities, most of which have excellent solar and wind possibilities, biomass and geothermal. The way to do this is through, what I would call, 'decentralized micro-renewable energy provision'.

What is of deep concern, is that the so-called emerging economies like South Africa, India, China, Indonesia are copying what they have seen in the West. So a real challenge for us is to shift the way of thinking of these countries. We have to tell them: "Of course you have the right to energy, but do not do it in the same dirty, fossil fuel based frameworks. Do it in a way that you develop the technologies of the future.”

Some people have started to say: “Europe promoted the idea of moving in the direction of green future; the US, with Al Gore and ‘Inconvenient Truth’ and all, marketed the idea of a green future, and China will end up implementing it.” Those that actually develop and invest in research and technical capabilities are the ones that will dominate the future.