Points of No Return – an Interview with Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace

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Editor’s Note

Jennifer Morgan became executive director of Greenpeace International in 2016, a post she shares with Bunny McDiarmid. A veteran environmentalist, Ms. Morgan was formerly global director of the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute, global climate change director at Third Generation Environmentalism (E3G), and leader of the Global Climate Change Program of Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). The following interview was carried out by Gabriel Corsetti in Greenpeace’s Beijing office on the 7th of May 2019.

Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan.


Could you briefly introduce what Greenpeace’s global strategy is going to be over the next few years, and what your main areas of work are going to be as an organization?


Jennifer: Certainly, and thank you for the interview, it’s great to connect! Globally, Greenpeace has two major overarching priorities. One is climate change, and specifically keeping the global average temperature increase below 1.5 degrees. The other is halting the loss of biodiversity. And of course those are interlinked in some places and in some ways. We have a ten year-framework that we adopted three years ago that really lays out our approach, which is to try and address the root causes of these problems and work towards systems change.

It is a continued work in progress, but part of our theory of change is that we need to move away from, for example, trying to stop one particular coal power plant project, and really work at the root causes. In the US, for example, that can be something like looking at who funds an electoral campaign and trying to get at that problem. One might not think of that as an environmental campaign, but when you understand that the fossil fuel industries fund the US elections and that really affects the policies, then you can understand the example. Corruption is another one of the root causes that you really have to try and reach.

Another part of our framework or theory of change is building alliances with others. There are things that Greenpeace continues to do on its own, but it’s very important for us to work with other organizations, both local and global, both environmental and of other kinds, and also to be a bridge into society and what’s happening in society. Our key goals over the coming years are to phase out fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, and stop deforestation, but also try and address the power dynamics, and shift the power dynamics that drive environmental destruction.

In many societies you have vested interests that are dictating what happens, and we think that they shouldn’t be making all the decisions, but rather impacted people should be much more involved. Working to shift mindsets is another part of our strategy that has become more important than it used to be. It’s hard, but we have to try and work on it; for example, we have one project called the “make something project”, which is trying to shift mindsets from buying people gifts to making things for them instead. We have also had “make something days”, the most recent of which was on Black Friday, which is a big consumer day. So it’s about really trying to shift away from a consumer mindset towards a togetherness mindset, towards cooperation between people and away from individualism – a different way of doing things. We are deliberately trying to get at some very basic values and mindsets, because we think that in order to have systems change we have to try and work on these things and shift them over time.


Greenpeace has been working in China for 17 years. Could you describe some of Greenpeace’s most important achievements in this country?


Jennifer: In China we have worked in a number of areas over the years. Some of our biggest successes and achievements have come from corporate campaigns. For example, we had a detox campaign that tried to make supply chains and products greener and get chemicals out of the production processes, and we had 70 suppliers and brands actually commit to remove chemicals from their processes. We also had another corporate campaign to save the forests, and timber giants like APP actually agreed to make major deforestation commitments.

So we have seen many achievements on the corporate side. We have also worked behind the scenes in the field of renewable energy, getting both research and analysis moving to increase and raise public awareness around renewables, creating an incubator platform for entrepreneurs and supporting the growth of green energy and eco-farming. Another area that we’ve worked on is trying to prevent ecological destruction, for instance in forested areas, where we’ve highlighted illegal mining and logging activities and managed to get protection for some areas. We therefore also supported the government’s ecological redline policy and its implementation. And these are just some examples of campaigns that we’ve run here.


Would you say that Greenpeace’s approach in China differs from its approach in other countries? Over the last couple of years Greenpeace China has worked mainly by applying for “temporary activity” permits. What have the main advantages and disadvantages of this mode of work been?


Jennifer: Each Greenpeace office has different political and legal conditions under which it works, so the approach we take in China would be different than the approach we would take in Germany, or the approach we would take in South Africa. Our role here has been very much one of research analysis, public education and awareness, but also bringing in solutions. The 28 permits for temporary activities that we have now attained have helped us learn more.

The benefit is that this has pushed us to enhance our work with our allies and partners, because we work around a common permit, and it has got us into deeper dialogue and cooperation with partners in China. We have learned a lot from them, and I am a big believer in collaboration. I think this is a long-term benefit, because it really builds up mutual understanding between different types of partners. The disadvantage is the administrative cost, which is pretty high in order to get everything set up and moving, and this may cause lower efficiency. That’s the main disadvantage that we’ve encountered so far.


You’ve described Greenpeace’s two major global aims as keeping the temperature increase under 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial times, and halting the loss of biodiversity. Could you explain why these two targets are so important for humanity?


Jennifer: If you think about our climate, it represents the stability that lets us live the way we live. It’s not just the weather, it’s the conditions all around us. For millions and millions of years we have lived within a certain temperature-range. It goes up and down over the seasons, but it’s been pretty consistent. Since the industrial revolution however, with the burning of fossil fuels, we have seen a consistent temperature rise. With that temperature rise comes a set of impacts, and with those impacts come things like extreme weather events. If you are looking at why climate change matters, when you have extreme droughts, which we are seeing around the world, that impacts agriculture and food availability and prices.

That then hits the average consumer, whether it be how much it costs to buy something or if it’s even available. It also has a big impact on the farmers themselves, and whether they are able to survive these long pronounced droughts. In some countries they are able to adapt, but what we are seeing in the models is a continued and prolonged set of droughts. Even today this is starting to affect a place like Germany, that everyone sees as being so successful and robust; last summer there was a drought due to which farmers asked for two billion euros. Another one is being projected this year. The costs to government and society are huge.

The other side of the coin is major downpours of precipitation. Whether it is rain and extreme flooding or big snowfalls, what the models are showing and what we are currently seeing are extreme precipitation events, and these can have major impacts on people’s lives, for instance washing away their homes. In some places this combines with factors like an increased intensity of cyclones, as we have just seen in Mozambique. It is as if the whole atmospheric energy system is much more charged, and you have these extreme events that can be absolutely cataclysmic for communities that are living in the area. If you think about the sea level rise, as well as more extreme weather events, the risk in China for people that live on the coastline is quite high.

There are other problems that come with higher temperatures, like pests and diseases migrating to new areas, which is another public health concern. The thing to remember is that the poorest people are the most vulnerable. This seems like an obvious thing to say, because if a storm arrives and you live in a hut rather than a major apartment building, then your house is more likely to be blown away. Or if you live in the horn of Africa and there’s a drought, where are you going to get your food? And so people become displaced, and it is the poorest that are most vulnerable. This is speaking from a development perspective, and for China as a developing country, particularly in some of the rural areas, it’s a key issue.

The thing that it is important for people to realize is that there are points of no return. There will be a point in time when it is no longer possible to recreate the glaciers that melt and then cause the sea levels to rise, even if you were to lower the temperature. Or if you think about the Amazon Rainforest, which plays such an important role as a major absorber of carbon dioxide, there will be a point where it becomes a source of it because there are so many fires, and we won’t be able to turn that back anymore.

The tipping point for some of these phenomena is at around two degrees. We all tend to think that with an issue like air pollution, or other types of pollution, you can just put a scrubber on and clean it up, and then get back to where you were before. With climate change on the other hand, since the gasses stay in the atmosphere so long, there are actually points of no return, so you are setting up your children and grandchildren for a world of utter chaos. This is why there are now a lot of teenagers who are getting involved around the world, because they realize that if we don’t change course rapidly the world they are inheriting from their parents will not be a good one for them to live in.

When it comes to loss of biodiversity, the first thing to realize is that the ecology is an amazing system, and it also brings us great benefits. For instance, if you look at our major medicines they often come from plant life. Or you can think about the oceans and the biodiversity they contain, for example in terms of coral reefs or fisheries, which are important as a food source for humans. But from my perspective there is also the intrinsic value of nature itself, and how important it is for people to spend time in nature in terms of relieving stress and being more present. The richness of biodiversity and the different solutions for human kind that can be found within it are at risk due to the current extinction rate. That would be my explanation as to why people should care.


Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan sails with the Arctic Sunrise on Svalbard, in the high Arctic.
Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan sailing with the Arctic Sunrise on Svalbard, in the high Arctic.


At the Paris climate conference 2015 the target was set to keep the global temperatures increase under 2 degrees. Would you say most countries are on track to meet this target?


Jennifer: The answer is no. The target was to keep the global average temperature increase well below 2 degrees, with 1.5 degrees within sight. The 1.5 degrees target was kept on the table as part of the goal. If you want to achieve an increase below 2 or 1.5 degrees, then that dictates a lot of your decisions, for instance on how fast you need to phase out coal or do certain other things.

If you look at the long-term goal of the Paris agreement, which is basically to phase out fossil fuel and get to net zero emissions by mid-century, we are not on track to do that. As a step towards that long-term agreement, countries put forward a set of what they called “nationally determined contributions”, and if you add all those up, you get something like a 3.2-3.6 degrees increase. This gives you a downward trend from where business as usual would have been, but it’s not enough to get you in line with even the 2 degrees goal, let alone 1.5. This is why the Paris agreement also has a “ratchet mechanism” in it saying that by 2020 all countries should be reviewing and updating or enhancing their National Determined Contributions, so that they get more in line with that long-term goal.

There is also a big moment coming up this September in New York at the UN meeting, where hopefully all countries will announce that they are going to start processes to enhance their ambition. I think if you look at the commitments that have been made and whether implementation is on track or not, it really depends on the country. There is good progress being made in some places, but the challenge is that so much time has been wasted to get on the pathway to zero emissions. Things will have to change faster now than if we had started earlier. That is why this ratcheting up of ambition is so vital. Of course developed countries have to take the lead, but every country has committed to do that.


Talking of which, after the United States retreated from the Paris Agreement, many people starting seeing China as a possible new leader in the international effort on Climate Change. How would you describe China’s efforts to advance the global climate agenda and also switch to renewables?


Jennifer: China has played an extremely important role in getting the Paris agreement in place. Before Paris there was a lot of unprecedented work done between the Obama administration and the Chinese administration to have US-China cooperation on climate change, which helped bring together and set the drive and the direction for the Paris Agreement.

Since the Trump administration has announced that it is going to leave (it can’t officially leave until the day after the 2020 election), China’s role as a torch bearer has been even more important, and the clear statements around the importance of multilateralism and climate cooperation have steadied the ship after the storm of the Trump election. China has also made good progress on meeting its targets and on renewables, of which it has the largest share globally. The key thing is to really double down on these efforts. We’ve seen an increase in coal and emissions in the last two years, and I think getting back on track to reducing coal and emissions for air pollution and climate change will be incredibly important both for China’s own development pathway and for it to be the leader that the world needs and it seems the world is wanting it to be.


Thank you! Is there anything else you would like to add?


Jennifer: I would just like to say that Greenpeace has been in China for 17 years, and as the international executive director I try and come here as often as I can, both to learn about what is happening and contribute as much as I can. I think there are some pretty exciting things happening in China, and often times the understanding of what’s happening here is very simplified in other countries and contexts. So from a global perspective China is a really important priority for us.

In Brief

In this wide-ranging interview with CDB, the International Executive Director of Greenpeace Jennifer Morgan discusses her organization’s strategies in China and worldwide, the importance of fighting climate change and preserving biodiversity and the fallout from the Paris agreement.
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