How to Stay Optimistic About Climate Change: Greenpeace Interview - Rolling Stone
Home Politics Politics Features

How to Tackle the Climate Crisis and (Hopefully) Save the Planet

Greenpeace Executive Director Jennifer Morgan explains that, while the fight against climate change may seem dire, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Namely: Europe, women, and young people

Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan speaks at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan speaks at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan speaks at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

World Economic Forum/Walter Duerst

DAVOS, SWITZERLAND — Greenpeace knows how to protest. The nongovernmental organization has been demonstrating on behalf of the environment for nearly half a century, and it certainly hasn’t let up since the climate crisis’ exacerbation in recent years. During this week’s World Economic Forum, its representatives have flooded the snow-packed streets of Davos in an effort to bring attention to the boatloads of cash the financial sector is pumping into the fossil-fuel industry. According to, a site created by Greenpeace in anticipation of the WEF, the 24 banks participating in the forum have invested a combined $1.4 trillion into fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015.

But just because Greenpeace has protesters out on the streets doesn’t mean the organization doesn’t have someone on the inside, too. Jennifer Morgan, the organization’s executive director, has been appearing on panels all week, preaching the need for the corporations that drive the WEF to divest from the fossil-fuel industry. On Thursday, she made time to sit down for lunch with Rolling Stone to discuss why banks are just as responsible for the climate crisis as the fossil-fuel industry, the inspiring ways Europe is beginning to attack the issue, the young people leaving the movement for change, and more.

Last year, you wrote, “We came to Davos looking for moral, business, and political leadership, and we did not find it.” Can you say the same about this week, or has progress been made?
What I feel this year is more energy in the innovation, but not in the big companies. I just got stopped on my way here by some entrepreneur who is making recyclable rubber, making tires out of recyclable materials. There are a lot more of the young shapers at Davos. That’s where I see the positive energy, and they’re almost all 30 or younger. But it’s the same story with the old energy guys and the old bankers.

You’ve been pressing the old energy guys and bankers really hard this year.
They all claim that they’re Paris-compliant, and then they come here. Like [Bank of America CEO] Brian Moynihan is on the stage claiming they’re climate neutral and sending out letters calling on other companies to go net zero by 2050, but then they invested $100 billion in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement. You just see that unless we get financial regulation, they’re not going to move.

Yeah, we probably can’t count on corporations to suddenly decide to sacrifice their profits to help save the world.
They could say maybe in 2008 that they didn’t see the financial crisis coming, but they can’t say that with the climate crisis.

The information is out in front of everyone at this point.
The risks are very clear. It’s happening much faster than what scientists had even worried about. There’s work that’s been done like this carbon disclosure task force that [Bank of England governor] Mark Carney and Mike Bloomberg set up a few years ago, which gives ways to report and disclose climate risk. The methodological work has been done. It’s just leadership. If they can’t do it themselves, then they need to be regulated.

One of the worst offenders as far as pumping money into fossil fuels has been BlackRock, but a few weeks ago CEO Larry Fink wrote a letter committing to move the company toward more sustainable investments. How much faith do you have in overtures like this? Could this lead to real change, both within BlackRock and among other investment firms, or is it more likely just another form of greenwashing?
It’s taken BlackRock a bit too long, I think. It’s been five years since Paris. But I think that we need both those in the financial sector who understand it — like Mark Carney gets it, and he has put stuff in place at the Bank of England so that they are stress-testing their investments — and you need the regulation. The proof will be what happens next. What does Larry Fink do next? How much time does he devote to this? What timeframe does he have on the coal phaseout? When does he bring other fossil fuels into the mix? That’s what we’ll be looking at, because if he engages with the regulators, if he puts dates on everything, if he goes around and this is a big part of what he does, it could be very significant. If he just makes this announcement and not much happens, then it’s greenwash. It’s really in the actions now, because there’s been so many statements of things happening.

Fink’s letter is at least an indication that corporate interests could be starting to see the writing on the wall and move away from fossil-fuel investments. Have you seen any indications that governments are more willing to start putting meaningful regulations in place?
There are a couple of examples, and I think this is one of the key discussions going into [the U.N. Climate Change Conference in] Glasgow at the end of the year. If you go to the U.K. and you go to France, there are discussions there. I understand the Spanish are starting to look at it. The Chinese have dabbled around some of this stuff around their G-20 presidency, where they had a whole finance component to it. The Japanese banks are at least engaging in the task force on climate disclosure.

My feeling is that the financial sector is the one that has to move fast and can move fast. There are pockets where those conversations are happening, but I think by Glasgow there needs to be real movement from a number of key players. That would then start driving this, because if you get enough — if 30 percent of those markets start moving — then the banks have to, even if they’re located in the United States. We’re focused on the banks, but our very first call is to get this regulation in place.

Obviously none of this is happening in the United States. Trump focused his speech Tuesday around how he’s cut regulations. What kind of impact has America’s total abdication of any climate responsibility had on global climate action?
I think as far as the U.S. goes, there’s a whole coalition of states and cities that have shown up at the COPs and said, “We’re still implementing.” It’s more than 50 percent of the U.S. economy. It’s far from being enough, but I think there’s been a real attempt by those players to say, “Wait a minute. We don’t agree with the president on this.” If there had been a progressive U.S. president, I think it would be easier, but it’s interesting. It’s forced countries to come together more quickly.

It does almost seem inspirational, like it’s led to a solidarity among countries outside the U.S.
It has, and you’ve seen them stand up to Trump at G-7 and G-20 meetings and say, “No, we’re moving forward, and we’re not going to let you stop doing this.” The thing I’ve been asking is what the American corporations are going to do. A couple of them here are like, “Oh, well, he’s going to help us with this and this.” I say, “Did you ask him about climate? Did you say climate change is important for risk and an opportunity for your company?” And it’s just, “Oh, heh, heh, heh.” So companies in the U.S. are hiding behind Trump and using him so they can keep doing business as usual.

He’s their cover.
It’s cover. But it’s also not only him. It’s the whole fossil-fuel system that’s there, and that’s what we’re up against. But I think the forces of resistance in the U.S. are incredibly strong. Jane Fonda and her Fire Drill Fridays. She cut up her Chase card. I’m doing mine later this afternoon. I was like, “Oh my God, how did I not think about this?”

[Editor’s note: She wasn’t kidding.]

The European Commission recently unveiled a plan for the European Green Deal, which is similar to the Green New Deal in the U.S. in that it calls for a total overhaul of the economy. How have these proposals changed the debate about what is possible politically?
In Europe it’s beyond the conceptual phase now, because they’re moving into actually developing the laws and directives. They’re running their models. It includes mobility. It includes agriculture. It includes energy. It also has a just transition fund that’s been put on the table for those countries that are going to need support, like Poland, which needs to shift away from coal. It does need to have more ambition on the climate target.

But why this is happening now politically is because of the youth movement and because of people engaging in the debate in Europe like they never have before. The elections that happened and the fact that [European Commission President] Ursula von der Leyen feels that she has a responsibility, a mandate, to the people of Europe has totally changed the game. You have different commissions now. There’s been Fridays for Future. There’s been Scientists for Future. There are parents. There have been strikes. The disruption of a schoolchild saying, “I’m not going to school.” You should see the debates in Germany, where I spend a lot of time, where you’re required to go to school. It makes people go, “Whoa, wait a minute.” That’s a disruption in the system that was opened up by Greta [Thunberg] and many, many, many other kids. It’s created a shift in the politics. A lot of it’s in Western Europe, but even the mayor of Budapest in Hungary has declared a climate emergency and is moving forward.

But they have to deliver. They’re a huge economic machine, and they have to deliver in a way that takes care of the transition for the workers and also puts in place policies that don’t harm the lower parts of society, so that they don’t have to pay more for anything. That’s the next eight months. That’s the most important thing in the world to watch right now on climate.

Does any particular nation stand out to you as a model for how to address the climate crisis?
Spain. It’s really interesting because they’re often not talked about. Everybody talks about Germany, but Germany has a long way to go. The Spanish government has done quite a good job of bringing in the social concerns, negotiating them through, getting the unions on board, and phasing out coal. Now the election is through, and the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, totally gets this issue. He made the minister for ecological transition, Teresa Ribera, his deputy prime minister. If you think back to a couple of years ago, young men in Spain didn’t have any jobs. Now [the country is] working to attract people and provide them with new jobs in the renewable energy industry. They’ve managed to negotiate with their utilities. They’re not putting in gas infrastructure. They’re going to renewables.

The Danes and the Finns too, the Swedes less so. Denmark has a 70 percent [carbon reduction target] by 2030. Again, an election mattered. Finland, same thing: election. It makes me believe in democracy still.

I want to ask about the media. There certainly seems to be a lot of interest in covering the climate crisis, but at the same time it’s not really being taken as seriously as it should be. In the Democratic primary debate a few weeks ago, Bernie Sanders tried to bring up climate change while speaking about trade and was rebuffed by the moderators. What do you make of the media’s role in all of this?
I think for the most part, the media has not treated this as the central issue that it is for the future of humanity. It’s not just governments. If you really would understand what’s at stake, you would be understanding that you need to cover it in all of the different parts of your newspaper or your website, from economics to foreign policy to politics to local news. I think still treating this like this side issue, like it’s an environmental issue, has been a big problem. For years there was this need [to] show both sides of the story.

Which is still going on in the U.S.
When we learned that tobacco causes cancer, it’s a similar analogy. I think there’s that piece of it. I think in weather, that’s such a responsibility of the meteorologist, as well. People trust their weather person. I don’t know what else needs to happen. I don’t know if that has anything to do with advertising. The New York Times is a great newspaper, but it runs Exxon ads. I think that in order to be serious about it the news agencies need to divest from that kind of advertising. They shouldn’t want to be seen next to Exxon. There’s also the Murdochs, if you look at what’s been happening in Australia with the fires and the very clear campaign that’s happened to spread disinformation. That whole machine that’s there, I think, is another indication of the interests that are trying to hold back Congress.

You’ve been operating in this space for decades, and it’s largely been a boys’ club. What has it been like for you to see the how many women have stepped up to lead the movement for climate action in recent years?
It gives me goose bumps. I’ve always experienced in a small way how when there’s more women involved in this, in the discussion, there’s a level of collaboration which is required for something that is this complex, where we’re up against such big interests. The willingness to speak truth to power I find is much higher in women, at least in the climate field, than I have ever experienced before.

So I feel less alone. I feel more empowered, obviously. It’s hard. Davos is, what, 24 percent women? And a lot of them are probably from NGOs, because if you look at the big banks, if you look at the oil companies, it’s mostly men. I just had an experience actually on my last panel where this guy clearly wasn’t a business guy and wasn’t happy with what I said. He basically accused me of being emotional instead of fact-based. I said to him that I can’t believe in 2020 that you’re saying this. If I was a man you would never say this.

So it’s still very pervasive, but I think we’re going in a good direction. I think women are supporting each other, and there’s intergenerational empowerment and support that goes all around. It’s not just me supporting younger women, they give me support and they make me feel like I’m connected and doing the right thing. I think that’s very powerful psychologically and emotionally when you’re up against the interests we’re up against.

Greta Thunberg, who has been the talk of Davos for the second year in a row, is leading the movement right now. Why do you think she’s been able to resonate to the degree she has?
I think there’s a lot of different components of it. Obviously there are now many, many people like her around the world, especially in developing countries where these impacts are happening. But Greta took a single act of courage, of boycotting school, and gave voice to the words of so many kids. She gave them permission to voice what probably was in the back of their heads. She showed them that their voices really can matter. I also think about her understanding of the science, and her superpower to just hone in and not let all this other stuff around her take her attention over the fact of the carbon budget. She is so true to her soul, and she’s just opened up the gates to all the young girls and women.

But I hope that that can also inspire adults to participate. Because my worry is that the adults relax and they pass the responsibility on to the children. And it’s not Greta’s responsibility. She should be in school, not writing an op-ed about the financial sector.

Greenpeace has a long history of protesting and has been on the street at the World Economic Forum all week. How do you see this kind of activism, the on-the-ground protests, evolving as the climate crisis becomes more and more urgent?
I think the demonstrations are just going to grow. I mean it’s pretty clear. I believe that those who are in and fighting for climate justice are also nonviolent people. I think that the one thing I am hearing from the crowd [at Davos] is that they are scared of them. I heard that today. Last year I had a company say, “Well, but the strikers and the demonstrators are going to get tired, right? They’re going to go away, right?” And I said, “I don’t think so.” And they tried to say, “And you can control them, right?” And I was like, “Are you kidding me? These are independent individuals going out on the street.” I think it’s a civil society engagement as you haven’t seen it before. I don’t see that going away, and Greenpeace’s nonviolent direct action and peaceful protest is a big part of who we are.

But you do that after you’ve tried everything. I’ve been talking to people about this for 25 years, and they’re not listening and they’re not acting. So then you move in to different levels of getting their attention. How do you tip the power balance? Because the power is so firmly in the hands of the fossil-fuel industry. So yeah, I think it will grow, and we embrace every form of nonviolent direct action.

I have to say I feel way more optimistic after talking to you about all of this. It’s an uphill battle, but the youth movement, the protest movement, and a lot of what is happening in Europe is genuinely encouraging.
I don’t think that’s going to go away, and I do think there’s a tipping point where you get enough momentum that you get there. The question is can we get there fast enough?


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.