Greenpeace a hippie no more

2011-10-18 14:04

Bremen - The gleaming green schooner in Bremen's shipyard says everything about how Greenpeace has grown up through the years.

Three decades ago, Greenpeace acquired a converted fishing trawler for $40 000, painted it green and set out to bump hulls with Japanese whalers and disrupt nuclear weapons testing; the first Rainbow Warrior was sunk by French intelligence agents in 1985.

Last week, with a traditional bottle of champagne, the movement christened Rainbow Warrior III - a $33m marvel, part helicopter-capable warship equipped to do battle with "environmental criminals" and part high-tech PR vessel, with widescreen conference facilities and state-of-the-art communications.

Like the ship, environment activists of all stripes are showing hallmarks of maturity. The public image remains true: Young idealists parading in polar bear outfits, climbing smokestacks of coal-burning power plants, hoisting a global-warming protest banner on Mount Rushmore.

At the same time, the leaders are no longer scruffy children of the 60s. Many full-time campaigners are scientists or graduates with advanced degrees in politics, business and, of course, public relations.


Envoys from non-profit groups will make their mark at the next UN climate conference when 194 parties reconvene on November 28 for two weeks in Durban to resume work on a worldwide agreement to control emissions of greenhouse gases causing global warming.

While cameras focus on banner-waving demonstrators outside the halls, lobbyists inside will distribute science-based studies, detailed plans to protect endangered forests or proposals to raise billions of dollars a year to fight climate change.

Nongovernment organisations "are playing a very important role" in the negotiations, said Connie Hedegaard, the European Union's climate action commissioner and the former Danish minister who organised the Copenhagen climate summit two years ago.

Not only are the NGOs "very knowledgeable people", but they are well co-ordinated and have made alliances with businesses, giving them maximum leverage on negotiators, she said.

"They come with constructive proposals and they know exactly where the difficulties are," she said.

Climate talks show the interplay between theatre and diplomacy, and activists say both are necessary.

Photogenic stunts "not only propel the issues on to the front pages and into the public consciousness, they also open doors in the corridors of power", said veteran Greenpeace activist and spokesperson Mike Townsley.


Critics accuse the NGOs of "cherry picking" science to promote their causes, of issuing alarmist and unbalanced reports to gain attention, and of losing their roots in social action as they grow into corporate-like entities, some of them - like Greenpeace - having budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But they have served a vital, if controversial, function for treaty negotiators, who often are professional diplomats or civil servants with neither a scientific background nor deep understanding of the technical aspects of global warming.

"There's a need for somebody to translate the science and help decision makers understand what science has to say about the decisions that they're making. And NGOs have often stepped in to fill that role," said Michele Betsill, a political science professor at Colorado State University.

The problem is that advocates are not neutral, as scientists are supposed to be.

"Science becomes linked to particular positions, and this gets to the whole politicisation of science," said Betsill, author of the book NGO Diplomacy: The Influence of Nongovernmental Organisations in International Environmental Negotiations.

In a subject as complex as climate change, it is often the NGOs who compile the necessary research.

In 2007, for example, Oxfam calculated that developing countries need $50bn a year to adapt to changing climate conditions, like building sea walls against rising ocean levels or changing crops to adjust to new rainfall patterns.


That figure, subsequently backed by independent analysts, has became the basis for the finance element of all further negotiations.

Nongovernment lobbyists also serve as back channels for delegations.

"Civil society can be the glue that binds the different negotiating blocs together," said Tim Gore, Oxfam's policy adviser on climate change.

Tracking the positions of all countries on all issues is too much for most delegations.

"NGOs can play a critical role in piecing together knowledge and intelligence that we hear from parties. We actually have better access to many parties than many negotiating groups," Gore said.

On board the new Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace chief Kumi Naidoo reflected on the organisation's double role.

"We see more leaders of the business community, more governments actually wanting dialogue with us, to try to understand, to draw on our knowledge and scientific base. So we are very open to dialogue and engagement," he said.

"But we also recognise that time is running out for the planet. And Rainbow Warrior and all our activism will, if need be, celebrate the best traditions of civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action."

Founding members

Of the thousands of local, national and international environmental groups, Greenpeace is among the most visible.

It has not only tussled with oil giants and major polluters, it has targeted less obvious brands that it denounces as environmental offenders: Apple, for stuffing Macbooks and iPods with toxic chemicals; Mattel, for packing its doll Barbie in a box with materials from Indonesian rain forests; and Nike and Adidas, whose Chinese shoe factories it says pollute rivers.

"Whatever you say about us, we're difficult to ignore," said Townsley.

It has had notable fallings-out with some of its founding members.

Patrick Moore, who wrote a book called Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout, accuses his former colleagues of inventing "gloom and doom scenarios" about climate change and of abandoning logic "in favour of emotion and sensationalism".

Paul Watson, who founded Sea Shepherd, left Greenpeace for the opposite reason - he found it too moderate. He accuses it of devoting more energy to fundraising than to environmental causes.

Jeremy Leggitt, a scientist and university professor who left the group in the 1980s for private business, discounts those highly public spats as "egotistic" and common to any big group.

"The world needs Greenpeace desperately and other organisations like it," said Leggitt.


Greenpeace was born in 1971 when young conservationists set off in a fishing boat from Canada toward the Aleutian islands off Alaska hoping to block a US nuclear test. They were intercepted by the Coast Guard and sent away, but the voyage inflamed an anti-nuclear campaign.

The first Rainbow Warrior, bought in 1978, was sunk in New Zealand's Auckland harbour before it set out to protest French nuclear testing at Muroroa Atoll. Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira drowned.

Greenpeace now claims that the nuclear test ban treaty would not have happened without its action. It also claims credit for international laws banning the dumping of toxic chemicals into the ocean, and for forcing Apple, Mattel the shoe manufacturers, and many more big companies to become more ecologically responsible.

"It's pretty typical to see NGOs making claims that they've changed the world," said Betsill, the academic. That may be "bit exaggerated - but not untrue".