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Civil Disobedience Needed to Win Action on Climate Change, New Greenpeace Chief Says

Laurie Goering

On 3 February 2009 2,500 people encircled Canberra's Parliament House in a riveting conclusion of a weekend of outspoken and highly informed dissent with the Rudd government's carbon reduction targets, by more than 150 NGO's, groups and organisations. The upcoming Copenhagen summit will see the global climate action movement converge. (Image from the Climate Action Summit website:

LONDON - Getting world leaders to move from rhetoric to action on climate change will require peaceful civil disobedience "on a scale that we have not seen before," says Greenpeace International's new executive director.

Kumi Naidoo, a former South African anti-apartheid activist and long-time campaigner on human rights, poverty and climate issues, took the reins of Greenpeace last month and aims to get even former U.S. Vice President Al Gore out on the streets.

AlertNet spoke with him in the lead-up to next week's climate summit in Copenhagen, which aims to build a new global treaty to cut climate-changing emissions and adapt to already inevitable climate shifts.

Q: Why is it so difficult to get people and politicians to take action on climate change?

A: Unlike a human rights violation or something like poverty, where you can see a physical image of what's happening there and then, climate change is a slow-burning issue. The physical presentation of the problem in an accessible way people can understand is more difficult with something that's happening slowly but surely.

The science is another problem. I know very educated people who say to me, 'You'll never win the climate change debate until you can talk in a way that's more accessible.' When we go into 350 parts per million (of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) or percentages by 2050, it becomes difficult for ordinary people to get their head around.

Q: Given those problems, what will it take to spur people to understanding and action on climate change?

A: We have to recognise that leaders will not act until they are pushed. They have shown the complete inability - particularly the most powerful ones - to move from rhetoric to implementation.

It would be better if these politicians honestly said, 'We don't think climate change is such a problem.' Now everyone acknowledges it's a problem but their actions are not in line with what they say publicly.

You have to look at history and what it teaches. That's that we have only managed to reverse major injustices and win struggles - take the civil rights movement, or the anti-apartheid movement - when decent men and women are willing to say, 'Enough is enough,' and put their lives on the line, go to prison if necessary.

Right now what is needed is peaceful civil disobedience on a scale that we have not seen before.

Q: You've talked Al Gore into joining in?

A: At a meeting last year I told him that I could go and get arrested but who would care if I did? Isn't it time for you to engage in civil disobedience? Gore's response was that nobody had ever put that to him, and that he'd have to check it out with Tipper (his wife). But subsequent to that, he's been talking up the importance of civil disobedience.

One thing we have to recognise is that politicians have a chronic hearing problem on climate change. They can't hear what the science is saying, what people are saying.

Q: But are people really saying they want action on climate change? Look at what's just happened in Australia, where a new climate sceptic opposition leader was just chosen, or in the United States where polls show a declining number of people believe human behaviour is influencing the world's climate.

A: I find taxi drivers a good source of information. They're noting to me the number of natural disasters, saying we only need to watch the news to see that climate change is happening.

If you look at U.S. politics, given how divided the country is, having 54 percent of people on your side (a Nature Conservancy study recently found that 90 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans believe in man-made climate change) is not too bad. Especially in a context where the financial crisis has hit the lower middle class and middle class people quite hard. When you put the numbers in context, I'm not too worried.

But we're quite disappointed with President (Barack) Obama. We feel he should be using some of his political capital to have a public conversation with the people in the United States on climate change. If he did, with a joint sitting of Congress, public meetings and so on, I think he could shift the politics as he did around health care.

Q: So should we expect civil disobedience at Copenhagen?

A: My guess is there will certainly be activities in Copenhagen and an escalation of activities post-Copenhagen, especially if nothing of substance is delivered.

But we still hold out hope we might get movement in Copenhagen. The Bali conference taught us that (when the U.S. negotiating team agreed at the last moment to withdraw some of its objections and let a proposed action plan move ahead). I don't think we should underestimate what might actually happen at Copenhagen.

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