Greenpeace leader Naidoo outlines anti-global warming strategies

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Molly Peterson/KPCC

Durban-born Kumi Naidoo heads Greenpeace International.

As congressional leaders challenge the federal Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gases, advocates of policies to combat global warming are seeking other venues in which to argue their cause.

One of those activists is South African-born Kumi Naidoo - the head of Greenpeace International. Not long ago, KPCC's Molly Peterson sat down with Naidoo when he visited Los Angeles.

In the Netherlands, where he lives, Kumi Naidoo rarely drives. But studies at Oxford have trained him to offer systemic analyses. A common reaction to L.A. traffic spins easily into a thought on high-speed rail.

"You know, apart from anything about pollution and climate change and so on, what is the quality of life people are having by having to spend so much time driving?" says Naidoo. "If we think we are going to address the problem of pollution by everybody simply going on a car that is lower emissions, and not invest in a better public transport system, then we're just fooling ourselves."

During his visit, Naidoo met with celebrities and activists during a United Nations event at the Hammer Museum. He said he valued the face time.

"And yes, there are a lot of people in Hollywood who are already engaged, and the importance of getting folks who have power to communicate with large numbers of people, both in the United States, but also globally, is to get them to use that access to actually shift the public debate."

Naidoo seeks now to shift the debate about coal. Greenpeace is campaigning for Facebook to use less-polluting forms of energy as it grows.

"Their electricity needs will multiply at least by three to four times what it is now. So how they plan and invest, in terms of thinking about their energy needs, is critically, critically important. Facebook, in terms of its new data center in Prineville, Oregon, has some good things about it. However, to have a dependency that the majority of the generation of the electricity is coming from coal just doesn't make sense."

Like other climate activists, Naidoo has felt frustrated at the dialogue in the United States about global warming and its solutions.

"I have many questions, really, about the quality of the democracy in the United States and what this debate actually says about it, because we have to look at why so many politicians, in the one-to-one conversations with organizations like Greenpeace and other environmental organizations, will concede that we are right. But, for example, the campaign, the 'Clean Coal' campaign, that's just a fiction."

That's a phrase that the president used in his most recent State of the Union.

"The president has to also remind himself, President Obama must remind himself about what he said in the run-up to his election. 'A planet in peril.' You go back and look at his speeches, the phrase 'a planet in peril' was used several times. I mean, I heard it, and he was talking about climate change. So he needs to understand succumbing to a false propaganda campaign, which is what it is, is an act that will come to haunt him when he looks back at his presidency legacy in future years."

But Naidoo says he's watched Los Angeles closely since Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced his intention to move the city's Department of Water and Power away from coal energy.

"What California has done, what Los Angeles is doing, is really important," says Naidoo. "Not just from an environmental perspective, but from the United States' place in the world, because it shows that there are some people and some leaders – maybe not as many as we would like – get it, and are willing to show the moral courage, and act on it."

At the same time, the local and the state goals are foundering on the rough seas of the economy. There's a sense that we need to slow down these goals, both at the local level and at the national level, because they are not necessarily seen as economic goods in and of themselves in the United States.

"The thinking that, because of challenges in the economy at the moment, therefore we have to not make these investments now and not make the right policies will be disastrous for the California economy, as well as of the U.S. economy in the future."

Naidoo is new to environmental activism. Until a year-and-a-half ago, he was best known as a civil rights organizer during South Africa's apartheid era. Now, he says, he sees a cleaner environment as a civil right worth seeking for the whole planet.

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