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Kumi Naidoo on How We'll Win at Copenhagen

Forget the cynicism. The activists who made Copenhagen possible are ramping up the pressure for a strong and binding deal on climate change.
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Kumi Naidoo, photo by Matthew McDermott

Kumi Naidoo in Copenhagen.

It takes a hefty serving of moxie to believe that you can lead an environmental movement that will be powerful enough to cut through the bickering, chaos, and doublespeak among Copenhagen’s lead actors. But Kumi Naidoo has earned his optimism. In the 1980s, Naidoo was a young organizer in the activist movements that toppled apartheid in South Africa. He is now the first African leader of Greenpeace and the face of a new wave of worldwide climate activism that has grown ever more savvy about how to harness the internet to organize a vast netroots coalition and stage massive, coordinated global demonstrations. Naidoo also chairs TckTckTck, the coalition behind a “Global Wake-up Call” in September, a series of worldwide demonstrations that pressured leaders to come to Copenhagen to pursue a successor treaty to Kyoto.

According to Naidoo, Copenhagen wouldn’t even be happening were it not for the sweat of activist groups like Greenpeace. He describes a backroom scene at Copenhagen that is as influenced by colorful and spirited demonstrations, quiet consultations between activists and climate delegations, and throngs of young people, as it is by the heavy-hitting leaders who command the world’s spotlight. I caught up with him by phone in Copenhagen. He confessed that he was exhausted from the frenzied pace of the negotiations, but his voice conveyed his enthusiasm.

Madeline Ostrander: Experts in the media and policy analysts have expressed skepticism about whether it’s politically feasible to get any serious commitments to reduce greenhouse gases in the next two weeks. What kind of a deal can we hope for from Copenhagen?

Kumi Naidoo: The negotiations are just starting in earnest now. There are serious divisions among the negotiators, and they’re raising tough issues. But that’s what happens during negotiations. It doesn’t warrant the kind of negativity we’ve seen from news media and analysts.

The vigils, the fasting, the protests, and the marches that citizens around the world have organized in the last months are sending a signal to the political leaders. They support those of us who are inside Copenhagen, fighting the good fight: Our position is strengthened by large public mobilization on the outside.

Remember that two years ago at the U.N. climate meeting in Bali, negotiators developed a roadmap that charted the two-year process leading to this meeting in Copenhagen. Bali happened during the Bush Administration. The pessimism was even higher. But in the last plenary on the last day, there was an intervention from the floor by the Pacific island states and Papua New Guinea. The whole momentum of the meeting shifted, and the United States signed on to the agreement.

In Copenhagen there is lots to fight for, and I have jokingly been saying, “It ain't over until the thin man from Washington, D.C., sings”—Barack Obama. What happens right now becomes a building block to create the one foundation that's missing, political will. What’s really important is that on December 18, we need a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty. And we in civil society are not throwing in the towel. We are going to keep fighting up to the last moments of the negotiations.

Madeline: This week we heard reports that the negotiations were in an uproar after the U.K. Guardian newspaper published a leaked Danish proposal describing a secret agreement among industrial nations that would have placed tighter carbon emission restrictions on developing countries than on developed countries. Has that memo damaged prospects for a deal?

Kumi: It’s an unfortunate distraction, a storm in a tea cup. But that memo is now dead in the water. I quite frankly think it was a good thing that the memo got leaked early in the negotiations.

The leak has put the countries that were involved on the defensive. Yesterday, Todd Stern, the United States’ lead negotiator, said quite a ridiculous thing. He said that the reason the U.S. was not pushing for a legally binding treaty is because the Danish government didn't seem to want it. I mean, since when does the Danish government influence U.S. policy?

The leak strengthened unity among developing countries. There was concern over a part of the memo that would have involved giving the World Bank power over climate finance, rather than the U.N. Now I think there's a total recognition that we need to keep within the U.N. process and ensure that this is a U.N. treaty.

Avaaz Aliens at COP 15

Aliens—activists with Avaaz.org—are circulating through the Bella Center in Copenhagen, looking for "climate leaders."

Madeline: How are activists putting pressure on leaders?

Kumi: We are working both inside the negotiations and outside, organizing actions.
Inside the meetings, Greenpeace and its partners in the TckTckTck campaign have set up a rapid response process. 

For instance, on Wednesday, Tuvalu called for a suspension of the talks because they wanted leaders to discuss committing to a legally binding treaty with more ambitious emissions cuts and goals. They cited threats to Tuvalu’s people because of rising sea levels. The negotiations were actually suspended briefly.

Within half an hour, our rapid response team mobilized 300 activists to stage a demonstration inside the convention center. They held banners with the slogan, "Tuvalu is the real deal," to support Tuvalu’s call for an ambitious climate deal. The story of that demonstration was covered on media channels around the globe. It put pressure on the negotiators. It also got us into a little trouble with the security inside here.

And every day the NGO community gives an award to the “fossil of the day” and the “ray of the day.” The fossil calls out the most obstructionist country. The ray applauds the country that has done the most. On Wednesday, Tuvalu got the ray. On Thursday, France got a ray because they made specific interventions to stop tropical deforestation.

Fossil of the Day, photo by Matthew McDermott

On December 8, Ukraine received the award for "Fossil of the Day" for having the least ambitious carbon emissions reduction target: a 20 percent increase from 1990 levels.

Another wonderful thing about this summit is the high attendance of youth. As I'm standing here, clusters of young people are walking past me with T-shirts that say, "How old will you be in 2050?" on the front. On the back, they say, "Don't bracket our future." That refers to part of the negotiation process: When delegates can't agree on firm targets, they put language in brackets. The youth are saying they want firm commitments from the negotiators.

They've made orange scarves that say, "Survival is non-negotiable." So the Bella Center, where the negotiations are happening, is like a sea of orange.

To get into the meetings, the negotiators have to walk through a tunnel of protesters from all around the world. And outside the meeting, Greenpeace has sponsored a massive video screen that displays work of activists from around the world, along with images of the impacts of climate change. It's quite powerful, and I think the negotiators are feeling the pressure from civil society.

Madeline: How are you linking actions in Copenhagen with the climate movement that’s been organizing around the world?

Kumi: This Saturday, December 12, there will be a global day of action.

Direct action training, Matt Leonard photoRise, People
As the urgency of the crisis grows, so do the world's climate justice movements. People power is injecting new strength into a process stymied by big business and cautious governments..

TckTckTck, 350.org, and Avaaz are coordinating 3,000 candlelight vigils and other events around the world in virtually every country. In Copenhagen, tens of thousands of people will march from the Danish Parliament to the Bella Center, demanding that world leaders deliver a binding climate agreement. And on Sunday, the World Council of Churches has called on congregations worldwide to ring their bells at 3 p.m., Copenhagen time, to support climate justice.

The vigils, the fasting, the protests, and the marches that citizens around the world have organized in the last months are sending a signal to the political leaders. They support those of us who are inside Copenhagen, fighting the good fight: Our position is strengthened by large public mobilization on the outside.

Madeline: What signs are you seeing that negotiators are responding to these actions?

Kumi: Well, the first sign is the announcement that Obama is coming to Copenhagen. For a long time, his administration was saying that he probably wouldn't be able to come. Then they announced that he’d arrive on December 9. We said, "Right city, wrong date." On December 9, few of the other world leaders would have been here. Now he is coming at a key time at the end of the negotiations, on December 18.

The fact that this summit is happening is in itself an expression of innovation, courage, and willingness to speak truth to power.

Just about six weeks ago, only about 40 world leaders had confirmed. But we campaigned really hard. We said that the whole world depends on this meeting. You better get your butts here and be accountable for the future of our children and grandchildren. We now have more than 100 world leaders planning to attend, and that number is growing.

Second, many of the delegations are coming to us for guidance. I can’t go into details because this happens confidentially, behind the scenes. But delegations are reaching out to us as they try to figure out what’s happening. Sometimes we civil society folks get to know what these countries are doing and thinking before some of the other negotiators do.

And let's face it. This summit itself would not be taking place had it not been for groups like Greenpeace and others who have fought for a very, very long time. The fact that we are here is in itself an expression of innovation, courage, and willingness to speak truth to power.

Madeline: If the negotiations fail or don’t reach adequate goals and targets, how will activist groups respond?

Kumi: Right now, we are focused on delivering a fair, ambitious, and legally binding deal. We refuse to accept that such a deal is not possible. And if that’s not the outcome, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.


Madeline OstranderMadeline Ostrander interviewed Kumi Naidoo for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Madeline is YES! Magazine's senior editor.

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