Kumi Naidoo on the Urgency of Climate Action

On this week’s broadcast, the charismatic Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo joins Bill to discuss the politics of global warming and the urgency of environmental activism.

As of this moment Vladimir Putin’s government is holding in custody the Arctic Sunrise, the command ship of the environmental activist organization Greenpeace International. The ship was seized by armed members of the Russian Coast Guard last week after Greenpeace activists tried to board an offshore oil platform as a protest against drilling for fossil fuels in the fragile environment of the Arctic, where global warming has reduced the sea ice cover 40 percent since 1980.

Naidoo tells Bill, “If there’s injustice in the world, those of us that have the ability to witness it and to record it, document it and tell the world what is happening have a moral responsibility to do that. Then, of course, it’s left up to those that are receiving that knowledge to make the moral choice about whether they want to stand up against the injustice or observe it.”

From his teenage years in South Africa, Naidoo was a vocal and powerful opponent of apartheid, incarcerated and beaten so often he finally fled to Britain, where he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. When apartheid ended, Naidoo went back to South Africa and became a prominent human rights activist with a growing concern for the impact of climate change on impoverished people of color. In 2009, he brought his negotiating and advocacy skills to the leadership of Greenpeace International, now a worldwide organization of three million members.


BILL MOYERS: Welcome. We begin with drama on the high seas. Several days ago, environmental activists from Greenpeace International tried to climb a Russian oil platform in the Arctic. They were there to protest drilling for fossil fuels in this fragile ecology at the top of the world but they were confronted by gun-carrying members of the Russian Coast Guard who fired warning shots dangerously close to the protesters and their inflatable boats. The next day, a Russian helicopter dropped armed troops onto the deck of the Arctic Sunrise, that’s the Greenpeace command ship. She was seized and towed to the port of Murmansk, and the crew held for questioning and possible charges of piracy.

Greenpeace has often dared to confront governments and corporations head on. And this wasn’t the first act of civil disobedience against the drilling rigs. Here is their leader, Kumi Naidoo, climbing a platform off the coast of Greenland, braving rough seas and high pressure fire hoses deliberately pounding him and his boarding party with freezing water.

For that action Kumi Naidoo spent four days in jail, not the first time he has seen the inside of a prison cell. Born and raised in South Africa, by his teenage years he was a vocal and prominent opponent of the racist policy of apartheid. He was incarcerated and beaten so often by the white regime that he finally had to escape to Britain, where he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.

With the end of apartheid, Kumi Naidoo went back home and became a prominent human rights activist. In 2009, he was named head of Greenpeace International, bringing his negotiating and advocacy skills to a worldwide organization of three million members. Kumi Naidoo is with me now. Welcome.

KUMI NAIDOO: Thank you very much. Good to be with you.

BILL MOYERS: What's the worst case scenario for you there with the Arctic Sunrise?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, you know, the important thing is there's 30 activists who are on the ship.


KUMI NAIDOO: 30, yeah. And interestingly, the captain of the ship, who is an American citizen, was the captain when the French intelligence service bombed our ship, the Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland more than 25 years ago.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, 27 years.

KUMI NAIDOO: 27 years ago–

BILL MOYERS: That was your flagship.

KUMI NAIDOO: Yeah, Rainbow Warrior. And we have the Rainbow Warrior still, the third version of it. So our first and foremost concerns are for our volunteers and activists onboard. We hope, best case scenario, is that they will simply be released and sent back to their countries, even if they are deported. With regard to the ship, the ship sails under a Dutch flag. The Dutch government has been very sympathetic and have been in touch with the Russian authorities seeking clarity as to why the ship was boarded. And we expect that the Dutch, again, on the most positive side, the ship will be released and will sail to its next mission. On the most negative side, there will be a protracted struggle to get the ship back.

BILL MOYERS: Is it illegal for your activists to board, or try to board that oil rig out there?


BILL MOYERS: It is? Illegal against international law? Or Russian law?

KUMI NAIDOO: I would say it is an act of nonviolent peaceful civil disobedience against international maritime law.

BILL MOYERS: It was in international waters?

KUMI NAIDOO: It was in international waters.

BILL MOYERS: What was it doing there?

KUMI NAIDOO: Basically, when there's a rig at sea, the government that's responsible for putting that rig there determines a 500 meter exclusion zone around the rig. And you're not allowed to enter. So we keep our ship outside of that zone. And when our activists are going to take action, so, like, last year when I was involved, we would go in through an inflatable boat.

But you see, I'll tell you the way we do it. The moment an inflatable leaves the ship to enter the zone towards the rig, our captain contacts the captain of the rig because the rig is actually considered to be a ship at sea, right? And says, "Captain of the platform, this is Greenpeace. We are engaged in a peaceful protest. This is why we are doing it, because the Arctic is the refrigerator and the air conditioner of the planet. And what happens in the Arctic has impact globally. And this is crazy what is happening. And for these reasons, we are taking this action. Please be assured that we are peaceful and there's no threat to property or to people." We communicate that very quickly. So it's always very clear.

I myself participated in an action a year ago protesting against that very same rig. We need to understand that building in the Arctic has not yet started. And this could be the first place. And therefore, we have done everything to actually try to stop the productions there.

And I make no apologies, by the way, the fact that we are morally and ethically having to break the law because history teaches us, whether it was slavery, whether it was civil rights in the United States, a woman's right to choose, apartheid. All of these major challenges and injustice that humanity has faced over history, those struggles only move forward when decent men and women said, "Enough is enough and no more. We're prepared to put our lives on the line if necessary. We're prepared to go to prison if necessary."

BILL MOYERS: Do you think many people know that Greenpeace owes some of its heritage and DNA to the Quakers?

KUMI NAIDOO: I think some people know. But that's a very, very important legacy of Greenpeace because what people don't know is that the founders of Greenpeace were largely American and Canadian. It was Quakers from the United States who left the U.S. to go to Canada during the Vietnam War. These were people who had the kids, mainly boys, who would be eligible for draft for the Vietnam War.

And they were peace oriented activists. It was out of Vancouver where it was actually started. And the most important thing that we take from Quakers and Quakerism is the commitment to peace, the commitment to justice and a notion that Quakers call “bearing witness.”

And the “bearing witness” is a very simple but very powerful idea. It says that if there's a injustice in the world, those of us that have the ability to witness it and to record it, document it and tell the world what is happening have a moral responsibility to do that. Then, of course, it's left up to those that are receiving that knowledge to make the moral choice about whether they want to stand up against the injustice or observe it.

BILL MOYERS: Well, when you made that choice a year ago when you actually put yourself in that inflatable and went toward that ship and started climbing up the rig, did you realize that your life was in danger, that they would respond violently if they wanted to?

KUMI NAIDOO: Yes. You know, one of the things we have to do is before we execute the action, we have a legal briefing, right? Where the lawyers will say, "As you prepare to take this action, you need to understand what the risks are." We would've had earlier briefings. But there's, like, two or three days before the actual action there's a final conversation where they will tell you the worst case scenario, the best case scenario.

And they always says, "So many things can go wrong." I mean, especially in the Arctic. I mean, the Arctic– and that is why drilling in the Arctic is such a crazy idea. And, to be honest, I'm not a great climber. I did a one day crash course in the Cape Town climbing center before I jumped on the ship. And on five days of sailing from Norway to the rig, every day I was in the hold of the ship, you know, practicing so–

BILL MOYERS: Practicing?

KUMI NAIDOO: Yeah. So to be honest with you, I was–and I'm not a good swimmer. So…

BILL MOYERS: I brought some video of you participating in a civil disobedience act in Greenland in 2011. Here it is.

KUMI NAIDOO RECORDING: All of us who care about the future of our children and grandchildren, we have to draw a line somewhere. And I say that we draw that line here today in the Arctic. […]

FEMALE VOICE RECORDING: Leiv Eriksson, this is Esperanza. Greenpeace International Executive Director, Kumi Naidoo, is boarding the Live Eriksson as part of a peaceful protest. He's seeking a meeting with the captain of the rig, where he will present a petition signed by 50,000 supporters who demand to see Cairn's oil spill response plan.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me why you decided to board a rig and put yourself in harm's way.

KUMI NAIDOO: I feel that on a daily basis Greenpeace activists and other environmental and social activists standing up for a more just, equitable and sustainable world are putting their lives on the line on a regular basis. I mean, at any given time Greenpeace is taking some action to protect the environment somewhere in the world. And I believe that one of the important things about leadership is that if you are leading a movement or an organization, leaders must periodically lead from the front.

It's not as if given the complexity of my job, I can be taking part in actions every other month or week. But from time to time, it's important for leaders to say, "I am no more important than you are. My life is no more important than you are." And if you, as a young person, are taking risks, then I'm also prepared to take that risk.

And just to be clear, what happens if you fall into the ocean. If you fall into the Arctic Ocean with normal clothes or even if you had a, you know a decent swimsuit or even a bodysuit, which was not specifically prepared, you will be dead in about three or four minutes. That's how cold the water is. We have some protective gear, which will allow you to survive for maybe about two hours. So last year when we were on the Gazprom rig, the same rig where my colleagues who have been arrested now have faced, there were people who were spraying us directly.

And I was in a little sort of what's called a portal ledge, which is a little tent on the outside with a 25 year old amazing American young man called Basil. And with a 64 year old Canadian. The three of us were in this. And for close to 20 hours, we were being sprayed.

And I have to say, that was extremely scary because if we fell, we would've hit– fallen about 50 meters down. And we would've hit the concrete that is at the bottom of the rig. And in fact, the captain of our ship is saying to the captain of the rig, "Please stop. Their lives are in danger. They're going to fall. This will be the consequences," and so on. And then the captain of the rig is saying, "We've stopped the hoses. They'd better get off in five minutes, otherwise we are going to start spraying. And yes, we expect they will fall and it's going to be very dangerous for them."

BILL MOYERS: What wasn't recorded was what you were thinking, what was going through your head at that time.

KUMI NAIDOO: You know, to be honest, I was extremely scared. I was thinking a lot actually of my little daughter. You know, my daughter was– I say little, but she just turned 21. But, you know, because I'm with Greenpeace partly because of her because when Greenpeace approached me to consider this position, I was in the middle of a hunger strike. Actually, I was 19 days only on water.

It was a campaign to put pressure on my government in South Africa not to protect the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and to stand up against the human rights violations that were happening to the Zimbabwe people. And Greenpeace calls me on the nineteenth day to say, you know, "Would you consider being a candidate?" And I said, you know, "Thank you very much, but I can't make such a big decision in the state that I'm in at the moment, having been out here for–"

BILL MOYERS: Fasting, hungry?

KUMI NAIDOO: Yeah, just on water for 19 days. And then my daughter said, "What did Greenpeace want?" I told her. And then she said, "Dad, I won't talk to you if you don't seriously consider this position when you finish your stupid hunger strike."

And I said, "Why?" And then she said, "Greenpeace is about my future. This planet is being destroyed. And Greenpeace is not like some other organizations that talk too much and don't act. At least Greenpeace is prepared to put their lives on the line." And so that was a major, major motivation. And I'm sitting there, I'm thinking, "Well, my darling, if I fall and break my neck and die here, I hope you remember you told me to do it."

BILL MOYERS: Interesting because I brought with me a very recent report from UNICEF just out. The study's titled “Climate Change: Children's Challenge.” And the report argues that children bear the brunt of climate change, even though they are the least responsible for it. And that they are passionate and vocal, as your daughter was, about the need for action.

KUMI NAIDOO: Absolutely right. Everywhere in the world I go, from the United States to China, young people get it, they're concerned. They understand that we are running out of time. And they believe more and more that the current adult leadership of the world is betraying their future.

But I want to believe that there is enough humanity in all of us that even the CEO of a coal company, an oil company or a gas company can actually– fossil fuel companies, have children and grandchildren. And I'm constantly in my conversations with the leaders of the fossil fuel companies, as well as other polluting companies. I'm saying to them, "Listen, put your children and your grandchildren's future in the middle of this conversation." And I think history is going to judge this generation of adult leaders extremely harshly because, you know, maybe 30 years ago you could say we didn't know, the climate science was not so clear and so on.

Today there is no excuse for not taking bold, urgent action. And to do it in a creative way that gives us a win for the climate, but also gives us a win, for example, on jobs and on addressing things like economic development.

BILL MOYERS: In that context, take the Arctic. You have said it's insane to drill in the Arctic. Why?


Well, the very fact that drilling in the Arctic is even a possibility today in the parts where they're going is precisely as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, of burning coal, oil and gas, right? And you know, it wouldn't have been possible, the Arctic is melting in the summer months. And last year when I was there in the Arctic, the day that the world record for the lowest minimum ice levels ever recorded in human history was last year, August.

Now, you know, I say to my American friends always, you know how Americans have this saying which says, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?" I say, "Unfortunately, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic."


KUMI NAIDOO: Because the Arctic serves as a refrigerator and air conditioner for the planet. It helps regulate global temperature and the climate. And by reflecting the harsh rays of the sunlight away. Now– so the whole climate system in the world is related to the level of the Arctic sea ice. That's one.

Secondly, when we look at the melting of glaciers in places like Greenland, for example, that melting has already contributed to sea level rise around the world. And there are glaciers that are at risk, massive glaciers the size of countries, that could easily, with further melting, move off the land and end up in the sea again causing, you know, further sea level rise.

If we continue as we are, right? If we continue as we are, essentially–

BILL MOYERS: Many people–

KUMI NAIDOO: –we are signing a death warrant for the future generations.

BILL MOYERS: Many people think we're doing that, as you know, from just reading the press.

KUMI NAIDOO: Yeah, yeah, no–

BILL MOYERS: They say it’s too late.

KUMI NAIDOO: Yes. Well, you know, this is a good question because I got asked recently, "There are some people who say it's too late. What is your view?" And they ask, "Do you agree?" I say, "I agree and I disagree. I agree because for some people in the world, it's already too late."

For those people who are losing their lives from climate impacts now, let's be very clear, it's too late for them. For parts of Africa, it's too late. Let me give you an example. And, you know, one of the problems is our leaders don't connect the different issues and challenges that we face because if you take the genocide in Darfur–

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