Cold Call

Sally Chatterton rings Peter Melchett
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The Independent Culture
LORD MELCHETT, not to be confused with his ineffective namesake from Blackadder, is "the 215th most powerful man in Britain" and currently the power behind Greenpeace UK. He is a man driven by the Greenpeace ethic - at the cost of his family, whom he once described as "irrelevant" - and was certainly on message when I spoke to him. To budge him from the Greenpeace party line during our brief, inter-meeting telephone conversation was practically an impossibility. I thought I had smelt a victory for Greenpeace when I read of the Government's implementation of 35 indicators to detect initial signs of climate change. But no.

"It's not a victory. What we're looking for is action to combat global warming. So far we've seen a positive attitude, but as yet no action. The Government is saying the right things. But there is no action.

"So the fuss made by the Government about the 35 measures was just a placatory measure, a stalling tactic. On balance I think the Government's measures were probably the right thing to do. It's a step, but it is a very small step.

"How green is Labour? I remember a Greenpeace representative saying before the last election that Labour was in fact the greyest of the parties in that respect.

"We make our comments based on what the politicians do. Before the elections Labour had a progressive agenda on climate change and targets. But action hasn't been taken... What's particularly worrying is that progressive, forward- looking members such as Prescott and Meacher are obviously being stymied somewhere."

Where do you think that is?

"Well, the responsibility is the Prime Minister's."

So environmental issues aren't an important issue for him?

"Well, you're trying to put words in my mouth - I don't want to pursue the subject."

Do you think the Green party might help make a difference to your cause? I know that the Greens in Germany are making a difference.

"I'd rather not speculate. But I will say that in Germany the Greens have punctured the nuclear bubble by engineering the end of Germany's contract with the UK for reprocessing plutonium. But the British Government's reaction is to stop them... which is ill informed, unthinking and pig-ignorant."

Is public opinion changing regarding environmental issues?

"Certainly. The public is more optimistic about the possibility of change. And there's no doubt the key issue for people is food safety and genetic engineering."

Engendered by the BSE scare?

"That's a very British reaction. In German-speaking countries in Europe, opposition to genetic engineering is just as strong. You find apologists for it dismissing the opposition by saying that it's not genuine as it's not rooted in an understanding of genetic manipulation. But that's wrong. People do understand it."

Has extreme active campaigning softened because of the change in public opinion? Could you condone that sort of protest?

"I don't think bearing witness to environmental abuse and trying to stop it is an extreme act. I think it is a reasonable thing to do, because of the disastrous consequences of the abuses. It is desperately important for people to take action and protest, and particularly to take action that will effect change. Public opinion has to effect change and if the Government doesn't do it then someone must. And we are not getting a lead from the Prime Minister yet. Yet..."