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COP26: Ex Greenpeace head Kumi Naidoo on climate crisis

Activists symbolically set George Square on fire with an art installation of faux flames and smoke ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland. Picture: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Activists symbolically set George Square on fire with an art installation of faux flames and smoke ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland. Picture: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Published Oct 29, 2021

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As the world descends on Glasgow on Sunday for Cop 26, described as one of the most important meetings that could change the trajectory of the climate crisis, we speak to environmental and justice activist Kumi Naidoo as he calls on international political and business leaders to act with urgency.

What gets decided in Glasgow is likely to have the most profound effect on the type of future a baby born today will have in 30 years’ time – and it lies mostly in the choices these leaders make.

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“If they act with the urgency that science is calling for and we rapidly transition from the use of fossil fuel and other climate destructive behaviour, things could be better in the future for a baby being born today,” says Naidoo.

“If they act it will give the children of the future an opportunity of not just their lives, but an even better life than we have; a life where we all have protected water, food and air resources.

“However, if we continue on the current trajectory, then they are looking at a horrible future; one with water shortages, food shortages, increased violence and much worse.”

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But how likely is it that COP26 will achieve this?

“What I hope,” says Naidoo, “is that, finally, the negotiators will stop the ‘blah-blah-blah and will recognise that the window of opportunity is fast closing. What is needed now is not rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while humanity sinks, but bold and massive change.

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“After the Covid-19 pandemic, we cannot have an approach of system recovery, system maintenance or system protection. What we need are system innovation, system redesign and system transformation.

“I would hope that they will commit to getting us off oil, coal, and gas as fast as possible; use transparent and just ways of ensuring that there are resources available for the global south to adapt to the changes that we're seeing in our agriculture practices, sea-level rise and so on.

“I hope that they stop playing political poker with the future of our children.

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“What I think will happen, in real terms, is that the balance of forces in the world is most likely to see marginal improvements in terms of how to move forward.

“There'll be a lot of nice words, statements, proposals and ‘commitments’, but I don't think that those in the fossil fuel industry, who control those in power, are at a point where, sadly, they are going to allow COP26 to deliver what it needs.”

Just last week, leaked documents revealed how some wealthy nations were in fact working behind the scenes to slow down efforts to address climate change.

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The leak reveals Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels. It also shows some wealthy nations are questioning paying more to poorer states to move to greener technologies, says Naidoo.

This lobbying raises questions for the COP26 climate summit.

“I wish we could say that we are surprised. But this happens all the time – governments saying one thing to appease the public but doing another to support the fossil fuel industry, which sometimes appears to own and control these governments.”

Not only this, the climate crisis has another issue to face: the sometimes condescending arrogant attitudes of an older generation in the west - who are adamant their way is the only way to solve the crisis.

“They do not only believe that they hold the knowledge and solutions on climate change, but also on pretty much every challenge that humanity faces, from trade justice to inequality, and so on.

“The way to deal with this arrogance is, firstly, to recognise that they are only being what their societies have moulded them into being. Secondly, we must recognise, whether we like it or not, that they hold far too much power in the world as it exists today, even though, thankfully, it is reducing.

“We must forthrightly present alternatives to their analysis of the world and pathways to justice and sustainability if we are to prevent a climate catastrophe.

“I draw a lot of my inspiration from the wisdom and knowledge of indigenous peoples across the world. Sadly, one of the worst things that colonialism did was seek to destroy indigenous knowledge systems; an effort that was successful to a large extent. But thankfully the resilience of indigenous peoples across the world, from Africa to the Amazon, has seen those cultures survive.

“Those wisdoms are critically needed now as part of our solution to climate change.

“To the folks in the global north that created many of the challenges we face today – unjust and unequal economic systems; climate change; the exploitation of fossil fuels and the destruction of biodiversity – these are all practices that came with colonialism and have stayed with us in the post-colonial era.

“It is sad that our leaders have not been able to resist the madness of some of these policies.

“I wish that the leaders of the global south could have the courage to imagine very different ways of organising society rather than being slaves to a system of being that has not worked in poor or rich countries alike, bearing in mind that a growing underclass of poor people in rich countries exists today.”

Turning to philanthropy – does it have a role to play in averting the climate crisis?

“Philanthropy, generally, has the potential to make a big difference if the philanthropists are willing to contribute to the efforts of activists who are pushing innovative thinking, like those captured in the Climate Justice Charter in South Africa, where the extent of thinking is needed for those kinds of changes to happen.

“We would hope that there would be courage to even go against some of the very things that the founders of these foundations have done, but the question for philanthropy remains whether they would finally engage in system-changing philanthropy, or whether they will continue to engage in ‘foolanthropy’, which creates an illusion of change, but actually treats the symptoms more than the root causes.”

As for next year’s COP in Egypt? “The last time the COP came to Africa was 2011 in Durban, my hometown. Next year’s COP will be in Egypt.

“Africa has contributed least to the problem but is facing some of the first and most brutal impacts of climate change.

“However, we must note, both sadly and embarrassingly, that South Africa, unlike most of the countries in the continent, is the 12th highest emitter culprit in the world.

“We carry a massive responsibility because we carry a system of dependence on coal which was key to the apartheid system, and continues in the present.”

T minus three days to COP26.

* We will keep you updated on iolnews/environment.co.za

Kumi Naidoo is a veteran social and environmental justice campaigner. Picture: Facebook

** Follow Kumi Naidoo on social media on Learn More about Power, People & Planet by visiting: https://powerpeopleplanet.org, on his Facebook page or on Twitter.

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