One of our favorite sons of South Africa, Kumi Naidoo -- executive director of Greenpeace International -- faces his biggest test of leadership: wrestling with a Russian bear over the intentions of Gazprom, the Russian state-owned oil company, to drill for oil in the Arctic.
Forty-three days ago, 30 Greenpeace activists on board the Arctic Sunrise were arrested for attempting to board the Prirazlomnaya oil platform to stop its plan to start drilling. The Greenpeace ship was boarded in a military-style assault, seized by Russian security and towed to the nearest port in Murmansk region.
They were charged with "piracy" -- a heavy-handed action through which the Russian authorities sent a message to the world. They have since softened a little, dropping their prosecution to a lesser charge of hooliganism. (It still carries a seven-year jail term.)
It is clear that the scramble for the Arctic has intensified as Arctic sea ice continues to disappear. It opens up the vista of new shipping routes, the exploitation of untapped deposits of fossil fuels, commercial fishing and industrial development.
Given that the region has no single government, the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum, works to promote coordination and interaction among the eight sovereign states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States). Certainly vested economic interests will trounce environmental interests in many of these countries.
But why is the Arctic important for us?
The Arctic region covers more than 30 million square kilometers - one sixth of the planet's landmass. It spans 24 time zones. It is one of Earth's last pristine ecosystems. It is critical to global biodiversity with hundreds of unique plant and animal species. Scientists concur that the Arctic sea ice serves as the air conditioner of the planet, regulating the global temperature.
The Arctic is experiencing the effects of climate change more than anywhere else, with air temperatures warming about twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Water temperatures are rising and seasonal sea ice is melting at a record-breaking pace.
In addition, four million indigenous people, from over thirty tribes, have lived here for thousands for years in harmony with their environment. Now their very way of life is threatened by human greed and global economic interests.
So why are these Greenpeace activists so determined to stop drilling in the Arctic?
This is a harsh environment. No proven methods exist to effectively clean up oil spilled in icy Arctic waters. Even Shell Oil had to abandon its plans to drill into sub-sea oil reservoirs in 2012, and the company announced in early 2013 that it would it would suspend its attempts at further oil exploration in the Arctic for the rest of the year.
As Kumi Naidoo says:
"We know from our experience with the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that more science is needed to inform decisions about whether, where and how to drill. There is no effective technology or plan to clean up an oil spill in Arctic conditions. In the worst- case scenario up to 140,000 square km of the sea and 3,000 km of the shore could be damaged."
"Time is running out. The ocean absorbs carbon emissions from the atmosphere. But as our carbon emissions have increased, the ocean has become increasingly acidic. Colder water is more susceptible to ocean acidification and the Arctic is among the first regions to experience its effects. Caught between commercial trawling and ocean acidification, fish stocks are declining and livelihoods of fishing communities are under threat."
Naidoo added, "The Arctic is a big treasure for all Russians and the world. According to Russian scientists, a comprehensive approach to the issue of the Arctic shows clearly that Russia's main interest lies not in the development of new fields, but in an efficient operation of the land based ones."
Is the Greenpeace action not unfairly targeting Russia? "Definitely not," argues Naidoo, adding:
"The Arctic is a treasure for the Russian people and the world. We are against any commercial exploitation of the Arctic. We believe there needs to be a similar UN Treaty as governs Antarctica that sets aside the continent as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation and bans military activity."
(You can read more about the Antarctic treaty here.)
Naidoo denies emphatically allegations that Greenpeace life rafts tried to ram the Russian coastguard boats.
"Absolutely not, the crews are fully trained and experienced. But manoeuvering in Arctic swells is hazardous. We have never endangered lives or property. Our modus operandi is non-violent action. But we make no apology about being militant about protecting the rights and livelihoods of our people and our planet. Fighting for justice is not a popularity contest."
Asked what Greenpeace sought to achieve he replied:
"Right now we face a jury of intergenerational justice because of the harm we are causing to the environment. Our militant actions, like in the Arctic, in protecting our planet are only a quarter of what we do. The rest is involves scientific research, policy positions, lobbying governments and international organisations and educating citizens on climate change and changing consumer behaviors."
Yes, I can certainly understand why large multinationals and governments are threatened, then. He nods:
"That is true. I must say that I now understand the power an organization like Greenpeace has in influencing consumer behavior towards global brands. Millions of citizens associate our brand with social and climate justice. They trust us even if they may at times worry about our tactics. But young people are inspired by us. We talk about their world."
Scientists in the climate-observing station in Hawaii in May this year said that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere recently topped the threshold of 400 parts per million. It means that for every one million molecules in the Earth's atmosphere, there are 400 molecules of carbon dioxide. If global warming is to be below 2 degrees Celsius, we need to stay below 450 parts per million.
They argue that a two-degree rise in temperature threatens the survival of most island states and low-lying deltas. They also agree that between 60 to 80 percent of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies are 'unburnable' if the world is to have a chance of not exceeding global warming of 2 degrees Celsius.
As glacial ice on land masses such as Greenland melt, we will have a definite rise in seal levels, threatening low-lying coastlines deltas such as in Bangladesh, Mekong and elsewhere. There will be increased threats such as flooding, storm surge, cyclones and landslides. Other cities with low institutional capacity categorized as facing extreme risk from climate change impacts are Mumbai, Manila, Kolkata, Bangkok and Lagos.
For Sub-Saharan Africa, prolonged droughts and extreme weather will reduce maize yields by 40 percent and destroy much of the grasslands that support pastoral livelihoods. At a time when Africa's population is projected to reach 2 billion by 2050, there will be widespread hunger, civil conflict and social instability driven by the competition over scarce land, water and food.
Therefore it matters to all of us what happens in the clash of David and Goliath in Russia.
If the vested interests and securocrats win the Arctic battle, then the world loses. The preservation of the Arctic is about our planetary sovereignty. We need to challenge the prevailing economic orthodoxy that threatens the very survival of the human species and our planet. Is it not the first rule of humanity that we do not kill our children?
One of the world's most eminent climate experts and former NASA scientist, James Hansen, warns that climate change has brought us to the precipice of a great "tipping point." If we go over the edge, it will be a transition to "a different planet", an environment far outside the range that has been experienced by humanity. There will be no return within the lifetime of any generation that can be imagined, and the trip will exterminate a large fraction of species on the planet. The loss of ice sheets will raise sea level and change how much sunlight is reflected off the planet's surface.
Russia can lead the world if it chooses to do so. Modern Russian leaders agree that Russia should change its economy from the resource-based model to more technologically-driven development. "Resource-based economy puts us on the lowest position in the world's differentiation of labor. It hinders us from coming to the new level of development of society and providing modern social standards," said President Putin.
Greenpeace has made drilling in the Arctic part of our global agenda. It has come at great personal cost as their activists languish in the shocking state of prisons even for prisoners on trial. It's time to sit around the table and to work out a sensible solution forward. Let's hope that common sense and negotiations prevail. And the world becomes a better place because of wise leadership on all sides.
The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate. As Hivshu Peary, an Inuit and former hunter from Northern Greenland, said, "When everything is gone, everything is gone. The oil and mining is leaving emptiness behind. Even our culture and way of life is dead."
(Greenpeace exists only on private individual donations. Every year the organization has an independent audit. The organization does not accept funds from corporations, governments or intelligence secret services.)