Still rainbow, but more warrior: The latest Greenpeace protests mark a strategic change in its approach

  • @S_R_Morrison

Almost 30 Greenpeace activists face up to 15 years in a Russian prison after protesting at an Arctic oil drilling rig. Others brought a Champions League match in Switzerland to a standstill, dropping down on ropes from a stadium roof before unfurling a banner critical of the Russian oil giant Gazprom. Still more activists scaled the Shard in central London, western Europe's largest building, to object to Shell's oil exploration at the top of the world.

The rapid succession of audacious protests used by Greenpeace to dominate newspaper headlines and television bulletins has been the starkest sign of a renewed vigour coursing through the world's largest independent, direct action environmental organisation.

"There is no question, we are changing," Greenpeace's international executive director, Kumi Naidoo, said. "When we look at the scale of what we are fighting for – in the context of our leaders being in denial about how urgent things are – we believe that intensifying peaceful civil disobedience is not only ethically justifiable but morally necessary."

Expect to see some adjustments: a redirection of resources away from Europe and into emerging economies, including China, India and Brazil. Expect to see less lobbying, less dialogue with corporations and companies, and an increased emphasis on public mobilisation, education and direct action – with the help of the organisation's 2.8 million members. In short: expect an angrier Greenpeace.

The organisation, set up in 1971 when a small boat of volunteers and journalists took to the Pacific to protest against US nuclear testing, has always used a variety of strategies to get its point across. While direct action has always been at its core, so has dialogue with governments and corporations, including Coca-Cola and McDonald's.

Its future will see "more emphasis on mobilising public opinion and educating people about what is happening," according to Mr Naidoo. "We'll put more energy into that than actual lobbying and advocacy work within climate negotiations."

Why? Because the extent of the crisis is now understood, Mr Naidoo explained. "At this point, we have to make a call. [Governments and corporations] know what the right thing to do is, and they agree with us in meetings, but then they continue business as usual. When they have that analytical understanding, what gets them to change? Is it us spending tons more hours chatting with them and telling them what we have always told them a thousand times before? Or do we intensify public understanding and pressure so that it makes it difficult for them not to act urgently?" he asked.

It's clear what his preferred answer is. But what about the activists taking the risks? All 30 of Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise crew have been charged with piracy for taking part in a direct action at a Russian oil rig. They are being held in cells in Murmansk, north-west Russia.

Mr Naidoo admits that the organisation was "taken by surprise" by the charges, which he thinks are "completely disproportionate". He said that freeing his colleagues was a "top priority" but added that, as in other movements, the world needs people who are "prepared to go to prison, put their lives on the line if necessary, in the struggle for climate justice and addressing the reality of runaway catastrophic climate change".

Greenpeace certainly has the numbers. It has spent more than £116m on campaigns around the world. It is present in more than 40 countries, employs 2,500 staff and still accepts no money from companies, governments or political parties. Greenpeace International's income last year was more than £59m, an annual increase of more than 16 per cent.

Case studies

John Bowler, 61, from Ireland, has been at Greenpeace for over a quarter of a century. He was the expedition leader on one anti-whaling trip, spending 70 days at sea in the southern ocean. Now, he works as a forest campaigner in Amsterdam.

"When we were at sea, activists would be given inflatables and put themselves between the harpooner and whale, acting as human shields. Spending two to three months on board a ship builds strong bonds. It was also very hard, but I believed in it. In the early days, we were an organisation saying, 'Stop.' Now, we saying: 'Stop, but do this instead.'

Victoria Henry, 32, from London, works for Greenpeace's digital campaigns. She was also one of six women who scaled the height of the shard in protest against oil drilling in the Arctic.

"If you have a message you want to shout from the rooftops, the Shard is the perfect building. It was big, daring, and audacious. We broadcast it so everyone could live the story together. In the past we might have seen six anonymous people in jumpsuits; in this case we were individuals – giving out our own names, tweeting and giving interviews. We want to show people we're normal. Not superheroes or activists extraordinaire, but ordinary people."

Anna Jones, 32, from Leeds, is a senior campaigner in Greenpeace's energy division. She has climbed the Houses of Parliament, perched on top of a plane and bought Heathrow land to delay a third runway, all in the name of activism.

"I was a Greenpeace kid in the 80s and was inspired by the whaling campaign. In 2008, I stopped a short-haul flight from London to Manchester by climbing on to a plane. I was arrested and charged with minor offences. Greenpeace is willing to take risks. Direct action is seen as radical, but we would say it's appropriate for the level of the crisis."

Steve Sawyer, 57, was an activist at Greenpeace for 29 years. He was on the Rainbow Warrior ship hours before it was bombed by the French secret service agents in 1985. Sawyer acted as International Executive Director for the organisation for five years.

"It was my 29th birthday. I had left the boat at 11.30am and shortly after I reached the hotel [for a meeting], there was a phone call. There had been an explosion; the ship had sunk. They had blown up the boat and killed Fernando. The main-end game for most of the campaigns in the 70s, 80s and well into the 90s was a government decision - a treaty being passed, or a policy change. Environmental issues now are a great deal more complex. It's not a few corporations or governments; it's a total process of reinventing industrial civilisation. It's not something we can win. The strategy becomes more complex."

Sarah Morrison