JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- A South African who battled apartheid as a teen, then went on to lead global campaigns to end poverty and protect human rights took over Monday as the new international head of the environmental group Greenpeace.
Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International's new executive director, said climate change makes his new job a logical addition to his resume.
"If the whole planet is under threat ... what's the point of not addressing that and saying we'll do other development work?" he said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.
Naidoo, 44, has fought for the rights of women and children, among the most vulnerable when droughts bring hunger or floods disrupt livelihoods. He has pushed to strengthen international cooperation and ensure the concerns of poor countries are heard when rich nations plan the future.
Greenpeace will be there when negotiators sit down next month in Copenhagen to try to draft an agreement to cut the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.
"We either get it right and all of humanity comes out on the other side with a new world," Naidoo said of climate negotiations. "Or we get it wrong and all the world is going to sink."
World leaders said Sunday it was unrealistic to expect an international, legally binding agreement to emerge from Copenhagen, something for which Naidoo had hoped. Instead, the goal is a political framework, with a fully binding legal agreement left to a second meeting next year in Mexico City.
"Anything short of a binding treaty in Copenhagen must be read as a failure of leadership on the part of the political class," he said Monday. "We can't change the science. The science is clear. We have to change the politics. If we can't change the politics, then we have to put our energies into changing the politicians."
Gerd Leipold, whom Naidoo is replacing at Greenpeace, said his successor represents a watershed for the organization founded in the 1970s by Americans campaigning against U.S. nuclear tests. Naidoo is the first African to head Greenpeace, and the first to come from outside the organization, said Leipold, a German who once headed Greenpeace's nuclear disarmament campaign.
Poor nations, particularly in Africa, are expected to be hardest hit by climate change, though they have contributed little to the pollution that created the phenomenon. Naidoo is among those who argue that industrialized nations that got rich off dirty technology not only need to change their ways, but pay to help developing nations cope with the severe weather associated with climate change and to get access to clean energy to fuel their rise from poverty.
Naidoo took part in nationwide student protests against apartheid as a 15-year-old, and by 16 had been kicked out of school. He completed his high school studies at home and went on to earn a law degree in South Africa and, as a Rhodes scholar, an Oxford doctorate in political sociology.
Following Mandela's release in 1990 after 27 years in prison, Naidoo returned from Britain to work for the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid groups. After apartheid's end in 1994, his work ranged from campaigning against violence against women, promoting adult education and acting as spokesman for South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission.
In 2005, he was among the founders of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty. More recently, he has led the Global Campaign for Climate Action, which brings together environmental, aid and human rights groups, unions, scientists and others and has organized mass demonstrations around climate negotiations.
Naidoo said Greenpeace is committed to dialogue, but knows when to deploy headline-grabbing protest. The activist, who earlier this year went on a monthlong hunger strike to press for solutions to Zimbabwe's political and economic crises, said he learned during the fight against apartheid that it was important to be "strong in our voice and our actions.
"Governments, sadly, are unlikely to change as fast we need them to unless they are pushed," he said.