Naomi Ages is the climate liability project lead at Greenpeace USA, out there fighting the good environmental fight day after day. Our editor Tori Telfer chatted with her about keeping the oil and gas industry accountable, the hidden human rights side of environmentalism, and how our green globe became a political battlefield in the first place.
TORI TELFER: Your job description mentions that you work to establish “legal, political, and financial accountability for climate change.” What does this sort of accountability look like?
NAOMI AGES: Think about the tobacco litigation of the 1990s. Tobacco companies were very profitable, powerful, and well-connected; they knew that nicotine caused cancer, and decided that if people knew about that it would be detrimental to their profit. So they hired scientists and doctors to say that smoking wasn’t dangerous. Forty-six state attorney generals found out, were horrified, and took legal action from the public side, while private attorneys did the same for people suffering from diseases caused by smoking.
In a sense, we have evidence that the same thing is going on with the fossil fuel industry—they knew carbon emissions would cause massive damages to the planet, and they caused doubt about it for about 40 years. In the same way that the public and politicians mobilized about tobacco, the same accountability can be brought to fossil fuel companies. And with these companies, there’s another level of accountability: there’s legal, financial, political accountability, and every one of these levers need to be pulled against them because this is a global problem that affects all sectors. In this case, accountability isn’t just about having some legal settlement, but it’s about the fact that fossil fuel companies shouldn’t be involved in setting emissions policies at the domestic or international level. It’s really the separation of oil and state. We don’t think that you should have the proverbial fox in the hen house.
What sorts of changes are you seeing right now in the environmental fight in the US?
In the US we’re going to see a renewed focus on infrastructure battles—take the water protectors in North Dakota. That’s just one instance of where people are literally putting their bodies on the line. We’re going to be looking at infrastructure battles state by state. We’re already seeing people mobilizing in huge numbers to contact their representatives.
Another example of a change: just yesterday Chevron released its quarterly report to shareholders, where they acknowledged that litigation against them is now a material risk—that’s the first time we’ve seen a fossil fuel giant warn its shareholders about this. They also made some extensive disclosure about what carbon regulations could mean for their assets, which is something that we’ve been saying for years—that there is a carbon bubble and these companies won’t be able to continue operating anywhere near the way they have been. Just because Donald Trump is the president, the carbon bubble isn’t going away.
Talk to me about how the Trump administration is affecting your work.
Everybody here was pretty shocked after the election, of course. We certainly had to re-prioritize, re-strategize. It’s actually been very heartening to work here after the election because it really feels like we’re doing something; we’re working to give people an avenue to plug into the movement. There’s a lot of energy in the environmental movement and across the progressive board right now, which is exciting to see. You’re seeing the progressive groups band together in a way that they hadn’t before; there’s no way we can say we only care about the environment right now. We show up for an immigration rights fights; we know they’ll show up for a pipeline fight.
In general, there’s a lot coming at us really quickly. Bad things are going to happen. We can’t do everything. We’re working long hours. It’s all about prioritizing.
Does it feel like you’re moving forward with the fight—or just trying not to lose ground?
The election of Trump, the appointment of Scott Pruitt to the EPA, etc. has really shone a spotlight on how the oil and gas industry has completely co-opted the government and the Republican party. In that sense, we can move forward and show people that there are corporate interests working directly against these public health safeguards that citizens have long enjoyed. When people see that these leaders, who are industry shills, are creating negative effects that actually damage their health, they’ll see the connection between oil and state right away. Now is our chance to show citizens this.
Ironically, Pruitt was a big champion of state’s rights before working at the EPA, and thought the EPA was overreaching. He’ll see that come home to roost when states like California push forward with environmental progress anyway. Unfortunately, the United States might get left behind when places like China grab onto this renewable energy revolution, but I think we will see progress in states that are committed to doing it anyway.
How did the environment become a partisan issue in the first place?
The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act—these were not controversial when they were passed. The EPA used to be very bipartisan. But the oil and gas industry has done a very good job framing the issue as “environment” vs. “jobs.” Since Citizens United, corporations have been able to pour as much money into their messaging as they want, and a lot has poured into Republicans who have taken the side of “jobs.” It has made the quote unquote debate over climate change political, turning the question from “What are we going to do about it?” into “Should we do anything about it?” and you can trace that back to the front groups (PR firms, etc.) that the fossil fuel industry hired. These front groups absolutely pushed the climate change doubt so that it’s become a legitimate policy position—but only in the United States, and only as a Republican. There is no other world leader who denies the existence of manmade climate change.
So right now, as a citizen, is it more important to be an activist—to protest and donate and so on—or to make environmentally-friendly changes to your everyday life?
If you talk to ten environmental activists they’ll tell you ten different things. Right now, it’s not so much about recycling or driving your car less, though those are great things—it’s about really advocating for policies that will have an impact on a community, state, federal, or international level. Like, we have terrible public transit in the US; the transit sector uses a huge amount of fossil fuel. If you can advocate for better public transit in your community with your vote, that’s really important. It’s really about staying engaged and knowing the regulations so you can advocate for or against them. Engagement at the town council level will be really important over the next four years.
And then there’s really just showing the US government that you’re not going to stand for these things. Voicing your opposition every chance you get to your elected officials is really important. Voting in 2018. Recognizing that in the US, we’re the biggest historical emitter in the world. Our emissions are having bad effects on developing countries who don’t have the resources to deal with it. Climate change is going to create a refugee crisis the likes of which the worlds have never seen—floods, drought, and so on.
Has the environmental movement suffered because people care about what they perceive as human rights-centric movements more?
Climate change is this remote problem in the US. You know it’s happening but you feel like you can’t do anything about it. I do caution people to really think about how climate affects all the things that they actively care about. Climate change is a human rights issue. Global emissions are causing super-typhoons in the Philippines and the country doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with it and people are dying. Climate change is an amplifying factor. The Department of Defense calls it a “threat multiplier.” But if it isn’t impacting your life right now, it’s easy to ignore it.
Last year. 150 environmental activists were killed in countries for opposing things like dams and logging. Child asthma rates are growing because of environmental issues. Cancer rates are growing because of fracking. There’s no way the environmental movement isn’t a human rights movement: you can care about both and you should care about both.
Is there an element of the environmental movement that’s actually more positive than citizens believe it to be?
Renewable energy is booming whether or not Trump and the billionaires in his cabinet admit it. Since 2014, solar installation has given us more jobs than oil/gas pipeline construction and crude petroleum/natural gas extraction combined. That’s just the market telling us how things are going. And the renewable fuel industry isn’t subsidized like the fossil fuel industry, so that’s huge. There are a lot of companies aggressively pursuing weaning us off fossil fuels. Money in tech is flowing into renewables. It looks grim because we hear more about the melting Arctic, and so on, but if you look back: it took four years for the Obama administration to act on the Keystone Pipeline. It took them four months to act on DAPL. This awareness, and people’s willingness to get involved, should make people feel better. Still, the Trump administration needs to hear us louder than ever.
Featured image courtesy of the Library of Congress.