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No deal is better than a bad one

Dr Kumi Naidoo, the first African to lead the environmental activist group, Greenpeace, said he was not prepared to tolerate “spin and trickery” from negotiators at the crucial Copenhagen climate change summit next month.

“It’s not to say one is insensitive to the political situation that [Barack] Obama finds himself in, but we would say he needs to use more of his political capital with the American people,” Naidoo told the Guardian in an interview in Johannesburg.

He said that after eight wasted years of climate change “denialism” under George Bush, expectations of Obama were far higher, making the Unites States president’s recent warning that time had run out to reach a legally binding agreement all the more disappointing.

“There’s a missed opportunity for him and the American people around the summit because what it’s going to do, sadly, is intensify anti-American sentiment that we’ve seen rampant in the world and a lot of the good Obama did through his election and some of his statements potentially will be reversed. Even his Nobel peace prize comes into question.”

Naidoo, a seasoned human rights activist who started as international executive director of Greenpeace this week, said that world leaders had no excuse for not attending the Copenhagen summit to agree to a fair, ambitious and binding treaty.

“We will not be comfortable with simply a political framework or a political set of agreements, which is what they are now talking about, because the track record of implementation and compliance coming out of UN summits, to put it very generously, has been pathetic.

“Therefore anything short of a binding treaty in Copenhagen must be read as a failure of leadership on the part of the political class. It should also be understood as a failure of democracy because clearly the overwhelming majority of public opinion, even in the United States, is for ambitious moving forward.”

He said: “The one thing we will not tolerate coming from Copenhagen is spin and trickery on the part of the negotiators where in fact they deliver a half-baked deal which they then try to present as a full victory. In that case we will obviously be saying that no deal in Copenhagen would be better than a horrendously bad deal.”

Naidoo (44) has experience fighting for a cause against seemingly hopeless odds. He grew up during the apartheid era in an impoverished township in Durban, attending a school with no electricity and tattered textbooks. At 15 he was expelled for leading a protest against apartheid education.

He was arrested and released several times and went into hiding. His brother was imprisoned and tortured and many of his friends were killed. Naidoo was put on trial and, facing a possible 15-year prison sentence, fled into exile in Britain.

“What I learned from that time, which is helpful now, is not to believe that things cannot change and not to underestimate the power of the voices and actions of ordinary people,” he said. “We never thought change would come as fast as it came. In the mid-1980s it just seemed that it was going to be another 20 years. Therefore when people say we’ll never get a treaty in Copenhagen, let’s throw in the towel now, I recall that anybody who had said either the Soviet Union would collapse as fast as it did or apartheid would end as fast it did would have been dismissed as a romantic dreamer.

“I strongly believe in the decency of ordinary men and women in rich and poor countries who care about their children and their grandchildren … I think when they put the pictures of those kids in front of them and think of what kind of planet are we going to give them, I hope people will rise above whatever short-term economic and other interests they might have.”

The former Rhodes scholar at Oxford University has a long career in civil society, co-founding the Global Call to Action against Poverty and chairing the Global Campaign for Climate Action. But he has always found Greenpeace’s approach inspirational.

“I’ve been a follower of Greenpeace since I was a child. I remember vividly the day the Rainbow Warrior was sunk in July 1985 in Auckland. I’ve always been impressed by the combination of engaging in dialogue and conventional lobbying, but also being willing to engage in peaceful non-violent direct action where people have taken risks and been willing to go to prison,” he said.

“Today I think history teaches us that if we look at some of the major struggles we have won — whether it’s the civil rights movement in the United States, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, even if you go further back and think about the anti-slavery movement — it is when decent men and women have been willing to bear witness, step forward and in a sense put their lives on the line, if not literally then figuratively.”

Naidoo said, as part of a new strategy, the organisation would look beyond the headline-grabbing stunts that had led some to label it militant and extremist. “There is value in a high-profile, small number of people engaged in very courageous activities, but we need now to back that up with much larger mobilisation of people and look at ways in which people who might not be willing to climb a coal-fired power station have other routes to participate in Greenpeace activities.”

He said that in a world where there are too many politicians and too few leaders Greenpeace’s role is more pertinent than ever. “We are talking about being in an extremely inconvenient moment of world history where the future is at stake and the present is already proving to be hugely painful. I think we will not make apologies for speaking truth to power and inconveniencing some political leaders.” — © Guardian News & Media 2009

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