Can Greenpeace Mobilize Millions to Save the Planet in Time?

The Arctic is melting. The planet is recording the warmest weather on record. The environment is in dire straits. By many accounts, it’s already too late. Yet, we’re on the eve of some of the most important worldwide climate talks. Will the gravity of our predicament finally wake us up and into action? We asked Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, a few burning questions.


Hannah Onstad: Has the environmental movement failed, given there’s still ongoing debate and skepticism about human-caused climate change?

Annie Leonard: There’s nothing failing about the environmental movement right now. Look at what we’re achieving: Shell just quit its Arctic drilling program. Obama just withdrew the option for any oil company to go drill in the Arctic for the next two years. He’s poised to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. None of these things would have happened without today’s vocal, diverse, dedicated and growing movement. At the same time, the clean energy revolution is happening. Solar and wind power are now growing way faster than electricity generated by fossil fuels.

All this doesn’t mean that we’ve won yet. We’re still very much in the thick of it. There’s lots of empirical evidence all around us that things are getting worse — and there’s lots of evidence we’re making progress. The final act hasn’t been written yet.

I remember learning about climate change in college in 1982; no one was talking about it then. Now we have schoolchildren, artists, indigenous people, farmers, business leaders and elected officials speaking up, planning protests, making progress. Look at the upcoming meeting of global leaders in Paris on climate change! I have never seen such widespread public tracking and desire to engage in a UN conference — but that is because people increasingly know what’s at stake and want to help determine our future.

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Annie Leonard (right), executive director of Greenpeace USA on May 6, 2014 in San Francisco. (image credit: © Erin Lubin/Greenpeace)

HO: You’ve been at the helm as executive director of Greenpeace USA for just over a year now and yet many people know you from your successful video series The Story of Stuff Project. Given your experience with the media, how do we get people to think about climate change as much more than an environmental issue and one that affects everyone?

AL: Community organizer Saul Alinksy urged us to talk to people where they’re at, not where we’re at, and that means we have to start by listening. Climate activists and communicators who have moved beyond throwing incomprehensible or depressing data at people are making great strides through storytelling, narratives and even art. Climate change touches so many things in our world. Whether you’re concerned about your children’s health, passionate about local food, worried about job security, interested in building design — or really just about anything — there’s a climate connection.

HO: What happens if a climate-denying Republican gets elected in 2016?

AL: It’s clear that much of our Congress has already been captured by the fossil fuel industry. Koch Industries, ranked the 13th biggest polluter in the U.S., has spent over $22 million on federal political candidates since 1999. This is a huge problem, because it means that our democracy, which should be the best tool we have to advance solutions, is paralyzed. That’s why Greenpeace, along with a growing number of other environmental groups, is increasingly focused on getting corporate money out of our elections, and out of government more broadly (things like regulatory advisory groups, “expert” commissions, etc.), which is crucial to advancing climate solutions.

I make a point of starting every day feeling hopeful, otherwise it would be really hard to do the work I do year on year. So I believe this country will do better by our kids, and their kids than to elect a climate denier into office. But if it does, that’s all the more reason to keep building this incredible people’s movement that’s already underway.

HO: Many people still associate Greenpeace with saving the whales (as explored in the recently released documentary How to Change the World: The Revolution Will Not Be Organized), yet climate change is much harder than saving the whales. How do you attack a much more complex issue?

AL: Our history campaigning for whales has led to decades of experience in direct action and peaceful protest. But the drivers of climate change are complex and systemic, coming from many places at once. That’s why our solutions must be too. Greenpeace is well equipped to take on complex — or what some scientists call “wicked" — problems. We are working in 55 countries with a major presence in every one of the world’s top carbon emitters. Even in mainland China, where freedom of speech and the ability to protest are severely restricted, we’re doing incredible work to highlight the health effects of coal pollution on the Chinese people, and encourage global businesses to champion the switch to renewable energy.

HO: Greenpeace used to get publicity and be in the news regularly, but not as much anymore. How potent is Greenpeace now? And will it have to change to be relevant in the climate fight?

AL: I have to disagree with you that we’re not as much in the news anymore! We’ve had some of the biggest stories in Greenpeace’s history over the past couple years. Our campaign to Save the Arctic has helped bring together a global movement of millions. Two years ago when 28 of our activists and two journalists were arrested in Russia for a peaceful protest at Gazprom’s oil rig, the story was in the spotlight for months. Heads of state from Brazil to Germany stepped in to help free the activists; even Paul McCartney wrote personally to Vladimir Putin!

That said, organizations have to change constantly to stay relevant and to keep learning. We’ve been using new technology like drones, for example, to expose the massive underground peat fires burning across Indonesia.

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A Greenpeace drone recording the effects of drought in Brazil's Serra Azul dam reveals that the water crisis is just beginning. (image: Greenpeace Brazil/Flickr)

One area that’s particularly important to me in terms of learning is efforts we’re making to be a good partner to other organizations and allies across the movement. The incredible protests against Shell’s Arctic drilling this summer — which also got a ton of news coverage—are a great example of that. It didn’t matter whether these were branded as Greenpeace protests or not. What mattered is that as many people as possible felt inspired to join in, and that together we win. Which we did: Shell canceled its Arctic oil exploration with no plans to return in the foreseeable future!

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In July 2015, Greenpeace activists took to kayaks and dangled from St. John's Bridge in Portland, Oregon, to stop the Shell Oil icebreaker Fennica from leaving port to support drilling operations in the Arctic. (image: Twelvizm/Flickr)

Ultimately our goal is not to get "in the news" for the sake of it, but to make change. Sometimes being in the news is an important part of doing that, since it allows us to reach new or influential audiences. Other times, we make change behind the scenes. We use whatever tactic best advances the cause.

HO: How bad will things get if we can't change corporate and public behavior?

AL: First off, corporate behavior definitely has to change. The recent revelations about how terribly companies like Exxon and VW have lied to the world about climate change are inexcusable. It’s interesting that this question leaves off the need for political change though. Climate change has become such a politicized issue in America that our elected representatives are no longer able to act in a way that their moral compass and human compassion would naturally send them. The debate has been reduced to a playground argument of who’s right and who’s wrong. We don’t have time for this because things will get really bad if we don’t set aside our differences and start to tackle this together.

There’s no question the climate is getting worse (the first six months of 2015 were the hottest on record), but public concern and engagement is also growing. The movement for climate solutions needs all kinds of people — students, artists, teachers, farmers, nurses, engineers, you name it. Whatever skill you have, the movement needs it. As temperatures rise, so do we.

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