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Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard says to be a climate leader, California Governor Jerry Brown must stop issuing new fossil fuel permits, protect frontline communities instead of the oil and gas industry, and begin a just transition to sustainable energy

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DHARNA NOOR: Here in San Francisco, Governor Jerry Brown has convened thousands of scientists, civic leaders, business leaders and advocates at the Global Climate Action Summit, which is aiming to ensure that the goals of the Paris Climate Accord are met. But many activists out here believe that the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and the goals of the Global Climate Action Summit are not enough to fight climate change. That’s what we’re here to talk about today. We’re standing in front of the Arctic Sunrise, which is one of the organization Greenpeace’s ships, and we’re here to talk to Greenpeace executive director, Annie Leonard. You may know Annie Leonard as the creator of the short film, The Story of Stuff. She’s also the author of a book by the same name, and we are here to talk to her about the Global Climate Action Summit and about the thousands of organizers who are out in the streets demanding decisive action on climate change here in San Francisco this week.

ANNIE LEONARD: We’re on our one of our three big ships. We’re on the Arctic Sunrise, and we’re docked at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. I hope you can see how beautiful the Bay Area is. This is our icebreaking ship, so it can actually go up to the Arctic and down to Antarctica. And it has been to both places recently, as well as many other places. We use it for scientific research, for campaigns, all kinds of things. And we’re here in San Francisco because of the Global Climate Action Summit.

In theory we would be very supportive of people coming together to solve the climate crisis. But what happens is we have the people coming together and not the solving the climate crisis part. Throughout the period of the global climate summit there will be all kinds of announcements made about things that companies and municipalities and states, and hopefully even countries, are going to do to address climate. So far what we’ve heard is that none of them are commensurate with the scale of the problem. They’re still thinking that half steps or nice rhetoric or transactional little tiny things or market solutions can solve it, when none of that has worked yet, and the window to turn the trajectory is shrinking. The time that we have to really step up is shrinking, and we’re just not seeing that kind of leadership.

When you think about how we’re going to deal with solving climate there’s lots of different ways you can look, right. Where I would like to look is to government. Government is supposed to represent the people. Government has a mandate to keep things safe and healthy and fair. The government should be implementing strong, aggressive policies to keep oil in the ground, promote clean renewable energy, and above all else protect frontline communities and environmental health and justice. We’re not seeing that. What we’re seeing is too many people, both business leaders and government leaders, looking at the same forces that caused this problem to then solve it.

So they’re looking at things like cap and trade, which is a market-based mechanism that is supposed to reduce carbon emissions, but has not actually proved to do that, thinking that the very market forces that led to this problem are now going to solve it. I mean, it’s really crazy. Isn’t that the definition of insanity, is to continue doing what you’re doing and hope for something else? What we really need to do is we need strong government leadership. And those government leaders need to listen to the frontline communities, to the Indigenous folks, to the people living with these oil and gas drilling wells and petrochemical facilities in their communities, because they know better than anyone what the reality is.

I have no doubt that Jerry Brown deeply, deeply cares about climate change. I have no doubt that Jerry Brown understands the science. I have been in a meeting with him where we went through the charts and the reports, and like, he gets this. And right now, he’s not running for re-election. This is his moment. He is liberated from having to appease corporate donors. This is his last few months. He wants to be seen as a climate leader. He has no corporate donors. Like, this, this is his moment. The entire world is watching him. So we’re still hoping he will step up. He cares about climate, but I have to conclude he doesn’t actually care about the communities that are bearing the brunt of these impacts, or he would do something.

I also think it’s a real clarion call to all of us activists in the United States that we have got to get more serious about getting corporate money out of our politics. We have all the science, we have the common sense, we have the economic arguments, we have the innovative technologies, we have every single thing we need to live in a sustainable and just way except the power to make it so. So we need to be building power, and we need to be getting corporate money out of our political system, because our democracy should be the best tool that we have to advance solutions. And we just can’t use it, because it’s been hijacked by special interests, and the people who share our values are obstructed from participating. So I- that just has to be a big issue here, is he doesn’t want to alienate the oil and gas industry.

Our task as humanity is to transition from dirty polluting fossil fuel energy to clean renewable energy, and to make sure that transition happens in a just and managed way.

So if we want to transition from dirty energy to clean energy, there’s two things we have to do, right. We have to build up the clean energy, which he’s really into. But you have to also stop building the dirty energy. Isn’t that the first rule when you find yourself with a problem, is stop making it worse? You know, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. In this case, actually stop digging. We have to stop investing in the energy infrastructure that we need to leave behind. He has been unwilling to stand up to big oil and gas and do that.

So we have three asks to him. The first is immediately stop issuing new oil and gas permits, new petrochemical facilities. Stop making the problem worse. Under Jerry Brown’s leadership, his administration has approved over 20,000 new oil and gas permits. That doesn’t sound like a climate leader to me. So that’s number one, stop expanding the problem. Number two is immediately issue a safety buffer. Right now all around California, but especially down in Southern California, there’s oil and gas drilling in people’s yards. Right next to schools. Right next to playgrounds. I mean, it’s, it’s absolutely horrific. And so we want a 2500-foot- which is so small, I can’t believe we have to fight for this- a 2500-foot safety buffer between these oil and gas facilities and places where people live, work, and play. So stop expanding it. A 2500-foot safety buffer to protect those frontline communities that have disproportionately borne the brunt of the fossil fuel economy.

And then our third request is longer term. It’s begin a just and managed decline to the clean energy future. Those are the three things. So far he has been absolutely unwilling to do any of those. And if you don’t do any of those you are not a climate leader.

Brown’s Last Chance is a very vibrant coalition of 800 organizations that signed onto a letter to Jerry Brown earlier, much earlier this year, asking him to use this incredible moment that he has, this moment where he’s not running for re-election, so he’s liberated from corporate donors, where he has a reputation for being a climate leader and where the entire global climate community is spotlighting on him. We’re saying use this moment, step up and be the kind of climate leader that the world really needs now, and stop new fossil fuel expansions. What we are worry, that if he would not do that, if we did not push back on his lack of leadership, we risked enshrining the model that you can be celebrated as a climate leader even when you are not. People are coming from all over the world and celebrating Jerry Brown. They call the President of the United States of Climate, and holding him up. And he has done some good things. But half measures aren’t enough in this moment.

The stakes could not be higher for California, for the country, for the entire planet. I live in California, so I’ve seen the changes. We have extreme droughts. We have incredible wildfires. We’re having such extreme weather that it’s no longer people saying this isn’t normal. It’s like it’s the new un-normal. Like, it is absolute climate chaos. The kinds of impossible impacts of climate that we learned about 20 years ago when we were first figuring this out, those are all happening now. Climate change is here. Climate change is now. In this context especially it is outrageous that he will not be a leader.

But I will also note that the communities that are living with this stuff, I mean, it’s been here now for a long, long time. This is not normal, nor is it new, is the impacts of climate.

The Climate March in San Francisco was a great example. There had been some tension with these climate marches around the world where some within labor- not all- some within labor weren’t comfortable really elevating the need to get off fossil fuels. And so there was a struggle in the months leading up to this climate march about can this climate march come out and say we need to get off fossil fuels? And in the past a number of environmentalists were so deferential to this, to the subgroup within labor who said they don’t want to talk about fossil fuels. And they said OK, we won’t talk about that. We won’t make you nervous. But you know, the time for that is done. We actually have to get off fossil fuels. And rather than fighting with the workers, let’s work together to create paths for meaningful, safe, dignified, just transitions.

And so what we saw here in San Francisco is the environmentalists won that battle, and they said we’re going to talk about- we’re going to talk about fossil fuel. And the great thing is there were tons of labor in that march. Everywhere I looked there were labor. It’s not true that we have to divide. We really can stay together and find a win-win solution for everybody except the fossil fuel executives. Those guys don’t win. But they had their century.

If we try to keep our current systems of production and consumption in place and run it by solar energy instead of fossil fuel, we’re still doomed. We’re not just using dirty energy, we’re using too much energy and too much resources overall. So all over the planet the ecological systems that sustain life are being maxed out. We’re using too much water. We’re fishing too much fish. We’re using too much minerals. We’re using too much timber. We’re trying to get too much harvest out of the soil. I mean, we’re depleting our soils, depleting our forests, depleting our oceans. We’re really, really stressing the planet. And we use more each year than the planet can replenish.

So there’s a term that some people use called ‘one planet living,’ which is can we use, can we figure out how to live on this planet to use the amount of resources that one planet can produce? And it’s not like a theoretical question, we actually literally only have one planet. So we have to figure this out. So we need to use cleaner energy. We also have to use less energy. The good news is there’s so much potential to do that. We could design our buildings different. We could design our cities different. We could design our cultural norms around consumption differently. And we use more resources than any other country on the planet, and we’re not anywhere near the top of the happiest or the healthiest. So it’s like, let’s look at some of these other countries, some of the ways that they organize our society, and get in shape.

Whether you’re talking about in one particular town, or in a state, or in a country, or the world, over and over the communities that are most impacted by climate change and other environmental harm are low-income and communities of color, Indigenous communities, and women. I’ve worked on the issue of toxic waste for many, many years, and I often think of it as toxic waste follows the path of least resistance. It will seek out communities that are perceived to not have the educational or political or financial resources to fight back. And so whole areas of the planet have just been written off as sacrifice zones. They get the sewage treatment plants, they get the garbage incinerators, they often get the frontline of the brunt, impacts of climate change. They don’t have the resources to move.

That is why we’ve got to have solidarity. We’ve got to- we’ve got to change NIMBY. Some people talk about NIMBY, means not in my backyard. We’ve got to change NIMBY to NOPE, not on planet earth. If a facility is too toxic for my child, it is too toxic for a child in Louisiana, or Bangladesh, or anywhere. And until we can really see that interconnectedness of all people and realize that we are all better off when we are all better off, until we realize that, we’re going to continue to have injustice. And that’s one of the things that increasingly the environmental movement just has zero tolerance for.

Greenpeace is very supportive of the campaigns to divest against fossil fuels. Now, we did not think, nobody thought that getting institutions to divest from fossil fuels would actually bring down the fossil fuel industry or reduce CO2. That was not the plan. Getting institutions and individuals to divest from fossil fuels is part of a much broader strategy with lots of different pieces. This piece is really about removing our support, removing the social validation of these companies, removing what we call their social license. We want politicians and others to think of the fossil fuel industries like they think of the tobacco industry. Like a politician doesn’t want to see their picture in the newspaper shaking hands with the tobacco industry, because we all know they are pariahs. The tobacco industry was willing to lie and undermine public health for their profits. It’s the exact same thing with the fossil fuel industry. Their fundamental business model is threatening humanity. It is killing people right now. Yet we name our stadiums after them, we let them sponsor jazz festivals. We act like they’re a functional member of society when they are literally killing people.

And so the idea of advancing the divestment campaign was to withdraw financial support, to withdraw our social approval of them, really sort of tobacco-ify them, in terms of make them the pariah that they are. The divestment campaign is often modeled after and inspired by the divestment in South Africa campaign. And we believe that the fossil fuel industry is the same kind of moral outrage as fighting apartheid in South Africa. So the more that we can tarnish their social license, the weaker they become, the more vulnerable they become. And then we can boom in with all of our other strategies. But no one thought alone this would do it.

To the people who don’t have hope right now, I share the frustration, I share their fear. But I say that I feel more hopeful than ever. I’ve been an environmental activist for 30 years, and I think we are closer to victory than ever. And there’s a few reasons why. One is that the problems are so apparent now. They’re much more visible. They’re not hidden, hidden away sort of out of sight and out of mind. And so it’s much easier to get people to be involved and want to help. You know, I feel like we can skip the there’s a problem, let me tell you about it part of the conversation. And you can just say, what are we going to do? I mean, Greenpeace has our phone ringing off the hook from supporters who say I’ve been a member, I’ve made a donation for years. I want to do more. What can I do? We are so ripe for action and real movement building.

The other thing is I’ll say the environmental movement has learned a lot over the last couple of decades. We have learned that good science alone is not going to help us win. And we need good science, for sure. But it’s not going to let us win. That we can’t win alone. And so I see such a desired appetite for cross-movement organizing, for learning from others, for really elevating and following the leadership of Indigenous and frontline communities. If we had this kind of intersectional analysis 30 years ago when I became an activist, we’d be done. But we wasted- we the environmental movement- wasted a lot of years being polite, being siloed, accepting moderation, believing the ridiculous myth that this is all you can get; you know, aren’t you lucky you got this little thing. We’re done with that. We’re done with half measures. We’re done with rhetoric. And we’re also done with going this alone. We need a broad, multicultural, powerful, ambitious, bold movement, and increasingly that’s what we’re getting. So I feel more hopeful than ever.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.