Kumi Naidoo, Shell and the manufacturing of consent for climate change

Greenpeace's executive director discusses how the oil industry has manufactured consent for the carbon age, and how they are going to be defeated.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay Kumi Naidoo
16 December 2015


Kumi Naidoo - Greenpeace

Kumi Naidoo is one of those rare people who can dominate even a vast room. Tall, colourfully shirted, and full of energy, I first saw him speak a decade ago. Back then, he was co-ordinating the global coalition of which Make Poverty History was the UK wing. Then, he wowed us with tales of the injustice of the World Trade Organisation negotiations. In the eyes of a young student, he was inspiring and fascinating.

These days, he's Executive Director of Greenpeace International, making headlines for his willingness to spend time in a Greenlandic police cell after occupying an oil rig and for tying the environmental struggle to movements against racism and sexism. The arrival of a black South African, who was expelled from school for fighting apartheid, at the Greenpeace helm seemed to many to steer the organisation away from the mainstream of Western politics and back to where it belongs: the front line of political struggle. He is, though, still spending time at international conferences.

When we settled down in the cafe at Le Bourget, the converted airport where COP21 was held, his bright shirt stood out in a crowd of dark suits, as did the charisma of someone confident about the side of history they stand on. The contrast with the whinging oil industry lobbyists and delusional climate deniers I'd spent time with the previous week couldn't be greater.

I started out by explaining the work openDemocracy and the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power are doing around COP21: following corporate influence over media coverage of climate change. How has big business succeeded or failed in shaping narratives around the conference and climate change more generally?

“It's really different” says Naidoo, “when you compare Copenhagen (where the 2009 climate conference was held) and here, because actually now, big business is not as homogenous as they were perhaps at the time of Copenhagen.

“On Sunday, I joined... two business coalitions which are pushing for more urgent action... Their language is different from us but its sufficiently in the direction of the long term goal that we felt we should encourage that voice to be elevated.”

“The fossil fuel companies”, on the other hand, “have been a lot more aggressive and a lot more strategic. And they don't actually need to lobby here, because they actually own many of the governments.

Borrowing from the investigative journalist Greg Palast, he describes the United States as “the best democracy money can buy... “if you unpack which money actually buys the influence, it's disproportionately oil, coal, gas, nuclear, military, and other polluting industries... For every member of Congress, there is... up to eight full time lobbyists to make sure that no progressive climate legislation goes through.

“So just to be clear, whatever lobbying they do here (at the Paris conference) is very marginal to the actual control and strangulation they have on policy making back in the capital cities of the most powerful countries around the world.

“It's a little bit obscene the way they are allowed to be sponsors... I said in a tweet the other day that having the fossil fuel companies fund a climate conference is like having alcohol companies fund a meeting of alcoholics anonymous. Because we are addicted to fossil fuels, and they have actually spread the lie that we don't have the ability to make the transition”.

Having fossil fuel companies fund the COP is like having alcohol companies fund meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous #greenpeace #oxfam

— Kumi Naidoo (@kuminaidoo) December 3, 2015

Greenpeace's strategy in the face of the power of business has been, he says, divide and rule.

“We have the largest energy utility in Italy, which is also the second largest in Europe and the 7th largest in the world – ENEL – who, earlier this year, said 'we will not invest one cent more in oil, coal, gas or nuclear', and they will phase out all their existing operations by 2030... they are taking the responsibility of shutting it down.”

“The other thing that we're doing is really supporting the president of Kiribati and the Pacific Island States, who unitedly are calling for a moratorium on new coal mines and coal mine expansions... The fossil fuel sector up to now has been a pretty united block.

“So we need to split coal from oil and gas. And because coal is probably the most dangerous, what you're going to see... is oil and gas putting some distance from coal... The moratorium on new coal mines and coal mine expansion is not up for discussion here (at the climate conference), but that's the post-COP agenda for us... The end of the coal era is clearly there.

“I think division will actually serve the transition from a dirty brown fossil fuel driven economy to an economy driven by clean, green renewable based energy.”

Ten oil and gas companies signed a statement earlier in the year professing their support for action on climate change, including BP and Shell. In the UK media, journalists seem largely to have accepted this professed conversion with little questioning. What does Greenpeace's man make of these public commitments, and whether they represent true conversions, or spin?

“Once upon a time” he replies, “slave owners were very respectable in certain parts of the world. They were invited to the events of the monarchy and certain parts of the political establishment. They were seen as respectable gentlemen of society. In the same way today that the fossil fuel executives are treated.”

“Just because slavery then was legal didn't make it right.” The rolled “r” of a South African accent somehow add force to the words “slavery” and “right”. “Just because exploiting fossil fuels now, just because it's legal, does not make it right either. Apartheid was legal. Colonialism was legal. Denying women the right to vote was legal. And right now, allowing our energy to be delivered through fossil fuels, when we know that it's actually the cause of, to put it brutally, the death of our children and their futures, they should be treated and considered even more harshly than slave owners actually were considered.”

“So, right now” he continues, “the CEO of Shell (for example) has been one of the people that's been saying to his peers 'folks, we cannot blatantly be denying the climate science. We have to embrace the climate science, otherwise our industry's shelf life will be even much shorter'. Anything they say must be understood as being driven by a very thoughtful, self interested agenda on their part to extend the shelf life of their industry as long as possible. And they would like to extend it to 2100.

“And so when they very belatedly now say 'oh, we support a carbon price', I believe they are saying that purely to take the heat off themselves, and to present themselves in a context of being... responsible citizens. But they also know that there is a lot of complications with the governments with 'how do you get a carbon price?', 'where do you fix it?', and so on. And they figure that a carbon price will actually take a long time to implement, and so 'we can say we support it, but it won't hurt us in the short term and we'll have enough time to adapt to it'.

Shell has the blood of the people of Africa on its hands

“If I look at the collusion of fossil fuel industries with governments, Shell has the blood of the people of Africa on its hands when you look at what happened in Ogoniland with Ken Sarowiwa, there are many more cases of high levels of collusion between oil and gas companies with dictatorial elites.

“According to Global Witness, two environmental activists get killed every week. All of those deaths, I would say, the fossil fuel industry generally and the oil industry particularly has a measure of culpability.

“Look at Shell as an example. Shell has been doing everything in its power, with the work that Greenpeace and others are doing in the Arctic, to actually criminalise us. They've brought injunctions. They've engaged in smear campaigns. They've lied.

“There are good, descent people who work in the oil and gas industry. These people... these workers are the ones who have delivered prosperity to millions of people in many, many countries. These were the only jobs in the energy sector, and that's what people did. And some of them started working in these industries when the science was maybe not as clear as it is now. And so we support the trade union movement when it says that we want a just transition from dirty energy to clean energy.

“We do not have one percent of confidence in (oil and gas companies') good intentions. We think they are just driven by the self interest of the... top brass of the industry, and the powerful shareholders that control the oil, coal and gas industries.”

I'd had a conversation with Shell's head of climate change the previous week. He had admitted to me that oil companies can't publicly answer questions about what leaving much of their oil in the ground will do to their share value because to do so would involve publicly admitting that they don't see holding warming of the planet to 2°C as “a given”. And that admitting that they don't see 2°C as a given “disenfranchises a lot of people”.

I put the quote to Kumi, who joked:

“I agree with him! I agree with him that 2°C is not a given, because in these negotiations, a majority of countries now are actually saying that the cap we need is actually 1.5°C... In the Pacific Islands, in the Caribbean, and so on, the slogan is “1.5 to stay alive”.

“I spent my July in Kiribati, in Vanuatu, in Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, talking to people, looking at exactly where the impacts are. In Vanuatu, local chiefs will tell you: 'look where the sea is now. Twenty years ago, it was like ten, fifteen metres away. And you see that pole there in the water? That was part of a house that I had to abandon.'

“We have to ask the question, whether in fact this debate about 1.5°C, or 2°C, we would even be having it if Europe was threatened by as imminent sea level rise tragedy that small island states are? Would we be having this conversation if North America, Canada, and the US were threatened by climate induced desertification and drought like my continent, on the scale that we are facing it in Africa? It wouldn't even be a conversation here, because the global power that exists.

“We must ask the question, why is there such a lack of urgency with addressing the plight of the most vulnerable countries?

“If the shoes fit you, you must wear it..: is the lack of urgency that these are small population countries? By the way, not all are small population countries. Because Bangladesh or Philippines are large population countries; Pakistan... had 20 million people displaced in one drought.

“Is it because they are not sitting on diamonds, or platinum, or gold, or other resources?

“Is it because they are so far away from the dominant hegemonic centres of power of London, Washington, Brussels, and Paris and so on?

“Or is it because of the colour of the skin of the people who are impacted?”

is it because of the colour of the skin of the people who are impacted?

I go back to David Hone's quote. One of the things which struck me was the ease with which he dismissed 2°C as a maximum figure, and those pushing for it: “and of course that immediately disenfranchises a lot of people” he'd said, because “that's the model they're all discussing over there” – as though preventing changes to the earth's atmosphere scientists tell us are likely to lead to the death and impoverishment of millions is a bureaucratic obsession rather than a moral necessity. What does Naidoo make of the tone?

“It's not surprising for me to hear that, because basically the leadership of the fossil fuel industry, and many of our political leaders as well, are suffering from an acute case of cognitive dissonance, where all the facts are there, they're all in denial.

“In the last IPCC assessment report, they say that we need to leave at least 80% of known fossil fuel reserves underneath the ground if we have the chance to avert catastrophic climate change. So actually right now, Shell and the other fossil fuel companies are effectively sitting on stranded fossil fuel assets. And they are in denial. They are lying to their shareholders. They are lying to themselves, and they are lying to their own children and their own grandchildren.

“And they have to realise that nature does not negotiate. They cannot change the science. However powerful they are, they might control many of our governments. They cannot change the science.”

I was fascinated that the oil industry had an event at COP, and there were only three journalists at it. All of us were from relatively small websites and blogs. None of the traditional media showed up. Why is there so little scrutiny?

“When we think about how governments control and how corporations control the public discourse, policy making and therefore policy implementation, we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that most of the control is exercised through what you would call the repressive state apparatus, you know army, police... But actually, today, the major exercise of control of public policy and action is the ideological state apparatus, which is the framework for the media, the framework for religion, the framework for schooling and all of that.

the major exercise of control of public policy and action is the ideological state apparatus

“If you look at particularly the media environment, it is extremely stacked in their favour. And they have been manipulating the public discourse through either cross-ownership, so for example Gasprom is a significant media owner in Russia.

“Then they manipulated the debate through paying off unethical academics, as the GreenpeaceUK investigation has just shown right now. So they have disproportionate power to contaminate the public debate. And our political leaders give them far too much respectability, and the bottom line is, our political leaders are funding them.

“In 2009, in London... the G20 explicitly said that we need to end fossil fuel subsidies. Today we still have more than half a trillion to a trillion dollars of tax payer money going to these companies to fund the death of our children and grandchildren's future.

“So, given what we know now, from the science, and what we're seeing in terms of extreme weather events and the pace at which they are rising, it's becoming a little more easier, not easy, but a little more easier than in the past to actually call the bluff in the public conversations. And therefore, I think, you know, alternative media organisations and outlets, like openDemocracy, like a range of other independent media, do have a critically important role in a context of a different, broader media environment.

“I am not one of those people who says that social media has equalised us already. Social media has given us a chance to play, and a chance to fight. But if you want to look at which is the penetrative media that shapes public discourse and shapes public conversations, it's still the very right wing controlled electronic media, particularly television and talk radio.

“If you look at how much power Rupert Murdoch has as an individual, Rupert Murdoch has more power than the Prime Minister of the UK. And that's why they pandered so much. All parties pandered to them as those investigations and inquiries into News of the World... but, I'm optimistic that the time is running out for them, for them to be able to continue to ride this wave of controlling the narrative... and controlling the pedalling the false stories... there's enough young people in every country around the world who are standing up and questioning the status quo.

Rupert Murdoch has more power than the Prime Minister of the UK

“Your question is a very appropriate one. It does suggest that in fact, they still have a sizeable amount of hegemony and control of the narrative as things stand. But I think that it's a diminishing curve, and I think it's only a matter of time till the emperor will have no clothes.

Before he leaves, I joke that I might title this interview: “Kumi Naidoo, Antonio Gramsci and the manufacturing of consent”.

“I attribute manufacturing of consent more to Noam Chomsky and that other guy (Edward Herman). I used that for my PhD thesis”.

“That phrase, manufacturing of consent”, he says “is a really powerful phrase to describe the political quagmire that we're in. That's largely what I have been trying to say, that they have been able to manufacture consent based on fallacies, but the most important fallacy of all of this is that there is no alternative.

“Go and see the documentary “who killed the electric car”. And you can see, today, we could have had at least 50% of cars in the world running on electricity had it not been for the collusion between the fossil fuel industry and the car industry.

"We also have too many monopolistic ownerships of different industries. So we've got overlapping interests in oil, coal, gas, with the motorcar industry, with the media industry, and so on, and this is not good for democracy. And given you're openDemocracy, let me end with this quote:

“The very notion of democracy was to balance the wallet with the ballot. The power of rich people was supposed to be balanced with the voices of ordinary people. And if we're brutally honest, if that's the definition of democracy that has any kind of resonance, we are absolutely failing in terms of having meaningful democracy today.”


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