More than a million students are expected to walk out of class on Friday in a Global Climate Strike, with more than 800 climate strikes scheduled in the United States alone. Strikes are also being organized in another 150 countries around the world. In our New York studio, we speak to Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo, who has urged school districts across the globe to allow students to walk out of school on Friday without facing punishment. In a letter, Naidoo, who is also the former executive director of Greenpeace, writes, “(c)hildren should not be punished for speaking out about the great injustices of our age. In fact, when it has fallen on young people to show the leadership that many adults who hold great positions of power have failed to, it is not young people’s behavior we should be questioning. It is ours.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: More than a million students around the world are expected to walk out of class on Friday in a Global Climate Strike. More than 800 climate strikes are scheduled in the United States. Strikes are also being organized in 150 other countries. On Wednesday, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who inspired the movement, testified before the U.S. Congress.
GRETA THUNBERG: My name is Greta Thunberg. I have not come to offer any prepared remarks at this hearing. I am instead attaching my testimony. It is the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius, the SR1.5, which was released on October 8th, 2018. I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists, and I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo has urged school districts across the globe to allow students to skip school Friday without facing punishment. In an open letter to school leaders, Naidoo recently wrote, quote, “(c)hildren should not be punished for speaking out about the great injustices of our age. In fact, when it has fallen on young people to show the leadership that many adults who hold great positions of power have failed to, it is not young people’s behaviour we should be questioning. It is ours,” he said.
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Kumi Naidoo joins us now in our New York studio. He became the secretary general of Amnesty International a year ago. He previously served as the international executive director of Greenpeace and was also involved in the anti-apartheid movement in his home country of South Africa, where he was also kicked out of school for protesting.
Kumi Naidoo, it’s great to have you back. Welcome back to Democracy Now!
KUMI NAIDOO: Thank you very much, Amy. It’s good to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: So, it’s interesting, your titles, where you have been. Now you’re at Amnesty International. You’re the head of it. You were at the head of Greenpeace. And you are here in New York. You’ll be part of the Global Climate Strike. But you’re also at this unprecedented meeting of environmentalists and human rights activists, pulling together all of your activism in your life.
KUMI NAIDOO: I think one of the catastrophic mistakes we made in 1992, when the Rio Earth Summit happened, was framing our response to the threat of climate change solely or primarily as an environmental issue. I think we needed to have done then what we are trying to do now — it’s late, but better late than never — which is to ensure that we bring a crosscutting understanding of climate change and bring a more human-centric approach to addressing climate change. So, the summit that we’re having is primarily nonenvironmental activisms coming together and asking ourself the question: What can the human rights movement bring to ensuring there’s an urgency on the climate question? Because, basically, climate change today constitutes a mass death penalty on the entire population of our planet.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you talk about that a little bit more? Who are the populations that are most affected?
KUMI NAIDOO: Well, the sad reality is that the people that are paying the first and most brutal impacts of climate change are those that actually have been the least responsible for it. So, these are people in Mozambique, where we saw — I grew up in southern Africa. That’s my home. I don’t have any recollection of cyclones ever. And then Mozambique has two cyclones in two weeks, wiping out almost an entire city, with hundreds of people’s lives being devastated and lost. But if we look at the disproportional effect of the impacts, it’s still very much — it’s not as if there’s no impacts in rich countries. There is. But in comparative terms, it is the poor countries that are suffering.
Yesterday, in my opening address to the climate summit, the People’s Summit, I said, “Just because it’s not yet, you know, in the North, you can be assured it’s coming to a theater near you quite soon.” And the reality is that we have to get this right, as rich and poor countries acting together, and we secure the future of all our children and their children. If we continue to be as divided as we are, true, people in poor countries unfairly are paying the first price, but people in rich countries need to know that they are not sanitized on a long-term basis from the impacts of climate change.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But it seems, in fact, that the differential impact is not just now between rich and poor countries, but also between the rich and poor within countries.
KUMI NAIDOO: Within countries, correct.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights earlier this year warned that the unequal distribution of these impacts could lead to climate apartheid, whereby, quote, he said, “[T]he wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.” Could you say a little about the ways in which you see both wealthy countries and the wealthy within all countries kind of shielding themselves from the worst effects and how so many people are left out of that?
KUMI NAIDOO: Absolutely. I mean, you know, when we think about the climate crisis, you can think about the sinking of the Titanic. Right? Everybody in the Titanic, when it struck that iceberg, was under threat. But we know that based on your wealth, you had a different opportunity of succeeding or not. Even in the United States, if you look at Hurricane Katrina in 2005, you know, the wealthier folks were able to jump in their cars and drive away. Poorer folks were left stranded in hospitals and prisons and communities and so on.
So, when we look at this challenge, we need to recognize that climate change is also — at its heart, one of the biggest problems is our consumption patterns, our — you know, how the material benefits of the world are distributed. And the bottom line is, if we do not address as part of our climate solution deep structural inequality that exists in the world, we’re never going to get to a place of really addressing climate on the long-term basis. There is no question that those of us who are at the top end of society, who actually lead lives of overconsumption, need to recognize that the poor are actually subsidizing our lifestyle by the pain that they have to take. And this is an uncomfortable, you know, thing to accept. A lot of well-meaning people around the world say how they are opposed to poverty and so on. But we need to understand that the scale of poverty, inequality, and therefore, unsustainability practices, is there because a relatively handful of people in the world insist on living a particular lifestyle, which is actually so unequal and so indefensible. So, yes, we need to understand this problem is between rich and poor countries, but also within individual countries.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. After Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Amnesty International, we’ll be joined by the Gambian beauty queen who says she was raped by the former dictator. We’ll talk about the truth and reconciliation commission that is going there now and her bravery in saying she will return to confront him. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Kumi Naidoo in a minute.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.