Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo on Russia and the Climate Struggle

In a Yale Environment 360 interview, the outspoken executive director of Greenpeace discusses why his organization’s activists braved imprisonment in Russia to stop Arctic oil drilling and what needs to be done to make a sharp turn away from fossil fuels and toward a green energy economy.

Kumi Naidoo, the international executive director of Greenpeace, is intimately familiar with the Prirazlomnaya drilling platform in the Russian Arctic. In August 2012, he and five other Greenpeace activists were hosed down with frigid water and pelted with pieces of metal as they attempted to climb aboard the platform, which recently became the first offshore installation to begin producing oil in the Arctic Ocean.

Kumi Naidoo

Greenpeace and Prirazlomnaya were back in the news last fall when 28 Greenpeace members and two journalists — dubbed the “Arctic 30” — were arrested and held for several months for storming the rig before being released last month by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Diane Toomey, Naidoo talks about the latest Greenpeace actions, what’s needed to get global climate talks off the ground and launch a green energy revolution, why the industrialized world owes a deep “carbon debt” to the developing world, and the reasons his activist organization has decided to take such a strong stand against oil drilling in the rapidly melting Arctic Ocean.

“We went back [to Prirazlomnaya],” says Naidoo, “because we’re trying to draw a line in the ice, because once this starts it will have breached another threshold of meeting our rapacious appetite for unconventional oil and gas in the most fragile of environments.”

Yale Environment 360: The Artic 30 have been granted amnesty by the Russian government. What are your thoughts regarding their release?

Kumi Naidoo: Well, firstly, the instrument of amnesty is normally exercised when people have been convicted of a crime, and we maintain that our activists have been granted amnesty not having been convicted of anything. And we will maintain, as the United Nations Law of the Sea tribunal ruled, that in fact the Russian authorities have acted illegally in seizing the ship and arresting our people. So on the one hand, while we are relieved, we also think that a grave injustice has been done here in terms of recognizing the rights of peaceful protest.

“We think that a grave injustice has been done here in terms of recognizing the rights of peaceful protest.”

e360: The demonstration the Arctic 30 participated in was not the first action Greenpeace took against the Prirazlomnaya oil rig. In 2012 you and other activists climbed the platform and managed to unfurl a banner that read “Save the Artic.” Why multiple actions against this particular platform?

Naidoo: So basically this is the first platform in the upper Artic, deep in the Artic Ocean, that has started drilling. Last year’s action actually was very important in terms of raising awareness amongst the Russian public itself. A survey done after our action showed that about 65 percent of Russian people support the idea that the Artic should be declared a global sanctuary, which is the demand of Greenpeace and the indigenous peoples that live in the Arctic. Now the fact that we did not succeed in our goal to get Gazprom [the Kremlin-controlled oil and gas company] to halt was the reason we went back — because we’re trying to draw a line in the ice, because once this starts it will have breached another threshold of meeting our rapacious appetite for unconventional oil and gas in the most fragile of environments.

“With this particular rig, if there was an oil spill, it would be virtually impossible to clean up.”

And this particular rig, by the way, if there was an oil spill, it would be virtually impossible to clean up because assuming, for example, the oil spill happens towards the end of summer period when the ocean is frozen, the ice will be locked in for 6 months or more and Murmansk, which is the nearest town, is about three-and-a-half days of sailing away. So given the implications for the climate, but also given the implications for the biodiversity of this fragile part of the world, we felt we needed to keep the pressure on. And by the way the amount of oil Gazprom will extract from that particular rig is equivalent to what Gazprom spills in terms of its onshore oil operations. If a company has such a bad record in terms of onshore oil drilling, why should anybody have any confidence in terms of offshore drilling in this fragile place, especially since they’ve not even produced and shared with the public an oil spill response plan?

e360: President Putin issued a statement shortly after the amnesty announcement in which he said Greenpeace should not “raise a clamor but work to minimize ecological risks should they appear.” What’s your reaction to that statement?

Naidoo: Well the ecological risk has appeared. Even the conservative IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] is saying we are running out of time, we need to act fast, and, importantly, we need to leave between 60 to 80 percent of known fossil fuels reserves where they are. So we would argue that in fact that’s what the science is saying, and what is being planned here is against what the science is saying, and therefore we are acting against it because doing it itself constitutes an ecological risk.

e360: When you staged the 2012 protests, you and your fellow activists were allowed to go on your way, albeit after you were attacked with water hoses. Given that, what do you make of the Russian government’s much more heavy-handed reaction to this year’s protest?

Naidoo: Well, this is only speculation, but it seems that as they are getting closer to the point at which they actually start pumping oil, they are determined not to have any delays. I also think this was driven by Gazprom. Gazprom is a very, very powerful company within the political system in Russia, and I think Gazprom after last year probably wanted to send a message that if you take action you will pay a very high price.

e360: I’d like to turn toward climate talks and ask a few questions regarding that topic. At the end of the recent climate talks in Warsaw, you released a statement calling the negotiations a sham, in part because “of the complete failure of rich countries to deliver on existing promises on long-term finance, which is putting the most vulnerable people at risk.” Make the case for why developed countries have a responsibility to help developing nations mitigate the effects of climate change, even as greenhouse gas emissions from the developing world are on the rise.

“Developing countries are not asking for charity; they are asking for developed nations to pay their carbon debt.”

Naidoo: When we look at the cumulative figure of what carbon has been emitted, then clearly it’s obvious. And developed nations, by the way, accept this — even the United States accepts this, that they carry a carbon debt to the developing world. And to be fair, it’s only in the last 20 years that it began to be clear that burning oil, coal, and gas is detrimental to the global climate. So the historical accumulation of greenhouse gases, and particularly carbon dioxide, has been driven by the developed world. They built their economies on the basis of that. Developing countries are not asking for charity; they are asking for developed nations to pay their carbon debt.

Secondly, there’s also the reason of self-interest. It’s clear if developing countries follow the same dirty fossil fuel-driven economy, we will be very, very quickly at the point of even more extreme climate impacts. Let’s be very clear. It’s not as if climate impacts are something of the future — it is happening now. People in Africa, for example, don’t need the IPCC to tell them that the climate is changing. Now if China, India, and other big developing countries continue on the path of emulating what the developed world did in terms of how it built its economy, it’s going to have an impact on rich and poor countries alike.

“Our political leaders need to understand that nature does not negotiate and that they cannot change the science.”

When I met with the chief climate negotiator of the Chinese government in Beijing in October 2010, he said, “Listen, I agree with you. We are of course increasing our renewable energy, but it’s really hard for us to give up on cheap coal, for example, when the countries that built their economies on coal and other fossil fuels continue down that path.” Bear in mind that people who are paying the most brutal price for carbon emissions are those that actually emit virtually no carbon themselves. If you take the genocide in Darfur, which is probably the first major resource war brought about as a result of climate impacts, those folks in Darfur are not burning coal or oil or gas. So it’s a terrible injustice, and that’s why this term climate justice has become a really important term over the last ten years. When we say climate justice, we’re saying let’s have those that carry the greatest burden of responsibility act in a way that compensates those that carry a little, but lesser, burdens, and do it in a way that also encourages developing countries not to follow the same path that rich countries followed to build their economies.

e360: You mentioned China and India. Those countries are now the number 1 and number 4 emitters of carbon pollution, respectively, and both countries, almost until the very end of the Warsaw climate talks, were demanding that only developed countries should be made to commit to greenhouse gas emissions limits. You said that Greenpeace expects to see a new kind of leadership from emerging economies. Are you seeing that?

Naidoo: We are seeing some signs of it. For example, in China today, every two hours a wind turbine is going up. We’re seeing massive investments in public transport, in rail. They have now made commitments on closing certain coal plants in Beijing, Shanghai, and so on. But this is too little yet to have impact. But what we are saying to these countries is, yes, it’s true that rich countries carry a bigger responsibility, but you cannot bury your head in the sand and say, “Well, we didn’t create the problem so unless those folks act we won’t act.”

So what we are saying to them is turn this into an opportunity. Because we’re convinced that if we had a serious political commitment on the part of the majority governments in the world to say we need an energy revolution on the scale that the industrial revolution was — where we seriously reconfigure our economies, where we maximize all the renewable energy potential — we can do it in a way that also is sensitive to economic development, and we can have a double win for the climate and the environment on the one hand, as well as job creation and addressing poverty and development on the other. So we at Greenpeace are calling for an energy revolution on a massive scale. We’ve done studies in various countries and regions as to how, by 2050, with a serious commitment moving forward, we can actually meet our energy needs, generate tens of thousands of new jobs in a new, green, inclusive economy, and meet our climate and environmental concerns but also do it in a way that it’s good for the economy.

However, the reason we do not have the kind of progress that we need is because the current oil, coal, and gas companies make so much money at the moment that they are very, very unlikely to give up on that commitment [to fossil fuels.] All the governments in the world together, they are subsidizing oil, coal, and gas companies with taxpayers’ money to the tune of 1.4 trillion dollars annually. If that same amount of money went into solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and so on, we would very quickly start seeing massive changes, massive reorientations of our economy. So that is what are we saying to both developed and developing countries.

e360: Considering your take on the outcome in Warsaw, how do you work toward climate talks in Lima and then ultimately Paris in 2015? And do you still believe in the U.N. climate negotiations process?

Naidoo: Well, if the U.N. climate process didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. Warts and all it’s the best option we have for a global deal to happen. So we cannot walk away from it, but what we need to do differently now is we need to generate enough public pressure in every single country around the world so that when governments go to these climate negotiations in Lima and Paris, they go there with science-driven, ambitious levels of commitment. Our political leaders need to understand that, firstly, nature does not negotiate, and, secondly, that they cannot change the science. The only thing that they have the power to change is the political will to make the transition that science says we need to make. So what we are doing is we are reducing, and have been reducing, as Greenpeace our level of investment in the climate negotiations itself, instead building pressure from below and ensuring that when governments come to the climate negotiations they come with ambitious targets.

There is what is called the “Gigaton Gap.” The “Gigaton Gap” is what the science says we need to reduce in terms of carbon and what the governments are saying we need to do, and there’s a huge gap between them. The reality is if we don’t start working now and getting progressive, ambitious positions taken by national governments in the different capitals, you can’t get magic then to emerge out of the climate negotiations because those negotiators go there with mandates from their different countries. And if they go with the typically low emissions reduction targets, for example, nothing can happen. So that’s why we have to be fighting on an ongoing basis to mobilize as much public pressure as we can to ensure that the national positions that go to Lima and Paris are in line with the science and are imbued with the appropriate level of ambition and urgency.