Page last updated at 14:20 GMT, Friday, 30 May 2008 15:20 UK

The campaign group: Greenpeace

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

Few campaign groups can boast the global reach and influence of Greenpeace.

Greenpeace protest at Heathrow airport
Founded: 1971
Leading figures Gerd Liepold, executive director, Greenpeace International; John Sauven, executive director, Greenpeace UK
Aims:Defend the natural world and promote peace through action
Funding: Donations from individuals, grants from foundations
Legal status: Greenpeace UK is a limited company, operating under licence from Greenpeace International, in the Netherlands, which owns the name
Membership: About 2.8 million worldwide

Whether pursuing Japanese whaling ships across the Antarctic, demonstrating against logging in the Amazon or storming oil rigs in the North Sea to protest against global warming, Greenpeace activists grab headlines around the world.

They have perfected the art of using high profile media events to exert pressure on politicians and big business.

Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter believed in the idea of the "media mind bomb" - reaching the public consciousness through dramatic, photo-friendly opposition to perceived environmental crimes.

But the organisation is not without its critics.

It has been accused of employing alarmist, even scaremongering, tactics in some of its campaigns and of undermining its serious message on climate change with its trademark publicity stunts.

'Direct action'

In the UK, Greenpeace was most recently in the headlines when four protesters breached security at Heathrow airport to protest against a third runway.

Greenpeace UK's executive director, John Sauven, says such examples of "direct action" are an important part of the group's overall lobbying effort.

"I think the action at Heathrow and what the protesters did on the roof of the House of Commons, are quite important moments actually, in actually raising the issue.

Greenpeace protest in Tarragona
Greenpeace claims a presence in more than 40 countries

"It has put the government on the back foot on something they thought they were going to just railroad through. This is no longer going to be the case. It is going to be quite a hot political potato for them."

Mr Sauven, who cut his teeth protesting against logging in the rainforests of British Columbia, says much of Greenpeace's work - its scientific research and relentless arm-twisting in boardrooms and the corridors of power - goes unreported.

"Sometimes you can slap a big, thick report on the desk and it has the impact you want and sometimes you need to do a direct action to raise the profile, or sometimes you need to use an artist or somebody else from the creative industries."

People join Greenpeace, he says, because in an age when politics seems to have been drained of values and meaning, with politicians becoming increasingly "cut off" from the public and obsessed with media manipulation, it seems to stand for something.

"I think there are certain core values that Greenpeace and other groups stand for, that is attractive to people.

"And that gives a sense of purpose or a sense of belonging, a sense of actually standing for something - or standing up for something."

Core beliefs

Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver in 1971 to protest against underground nuclear testing. It now has 27 national and regional offices around the world and claims a campaigning presence in 41 countries.

In the UK, Greenpeace employs about 100 people, in a former animal testing laboratory in the back streets of Islington, North London ("we had to change the karma of the building," jokes Mr Sauven).

Like a political party, its supporters sign up to a raft of different campaigns based around core beliefs and values.

Greenpeace Friday the 13th video
Some Greenpeace campaigns have used shock tactics

But - unlike a party - they have no direct input into policy formation. There are no leadership elections or conference debates.

Most national offices elect a board of directors, who make decisions on local campaigns, but global objectives and budgets are decided by Greenpeace International, which owns the Greenpeace name and has its headquarters in Amsterdam.

"Globally, the organisation decides on its priorities, through a joint programme meeting, where the campaigners representing the offices around the world meet once a year to decide on priority campaigns, so that's where our big global campaigns are decided, collectively by offices from China to Russia, to Europe, North America and so on," explains Mr Sauven.

'Frightening facts'

But, he argues, Greenpeace does not gain its legitimacy from the number of people it represents - the size of its membership - but from the strength of its arguments, its independence and willingness to speak up for its beliefs.

"I hold my beliefs and I will always take the consequences of what I stand for," he says.

Crucially, he adds, it receives no direct funding from governments or business - adding to the sense that it is an independent voice.

But what about the accusation - made by, among others, Guardian journalist Nick Davies in his recent Flat Earth News book - that it can sometimes be guilty of overstating the threat posed by nuclear energy or climate change in order to grab headlines?

In one video clip on the Greenpeace website, entitled "Friday 13th - watch your worst nightmares unfold", a family trip to the beach ends in horror when a passenger jet crashes into a nuclear power station.

The accompanying press release contains a list of "frightening facts" on the risk of nuclear installations being targeted by terrorists.

'Big issues'

Such shock tactics are justified if they can be supported by facts, argues Mr Sauven, pointing to a US report on the risk of terrorists flying a plane into a nuclear plant.

I don't think any of them have really got the seriousness of the issue of climate change in their DNA
John Sauven
Greenpeace executive director on the government

"Some of this is slightly artistic license in terms of... these are short films made to grab attention, create a stir and so on and so forth, but I think that they are legitimate in the sense that these are big issues."

He adds: "I am not saying that we never have got our facts wrong. I am not saying we never make mistakes - sometimes we do - but certainly getting our facts right is critical for me."

It seems the internet is posing a particular challenge to Greenpeace when it comes to editorial standards.

If you trawl through the "vast amounts of information" put out by the organisation across the world, Mr Sauven concedes that you will probably be able to "pick out things that were inaccurate or have been overstated".

He is "not happy about that", he says.

"It does pose certain issues for us, in terms of how we guarantee the same kind of quality of standard in the new media area that we have done traditionally."

'Tough decisions'

A large part of Mr Sauven's time is taken up with political lobbying - he has "constant" meetings with senior ministers.

But few, with the possible exception of David Miliband, seem to take the issue of global warming as seriously as Greenpeace, he argues.

"I don't think any of them have really got the seriousness of the issue of climate change in their DNA. It's not that they don't mouth it, it's not that they don't talk about it, it's not that they don't say it's an absolute global priority.

"But you don't get the sense when you talk to them that this is a really critical issue, we have got to do something about it - come hell or high water we are going to make some tough decisions."

He believes Prime Minister Gordon Brown's unwillingness to halt the construction of a third runway at Heathrow and a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent, speaks volumes about the prime minister's true priorities.

"Brown will say to you, he's said to me before: 'What are you doing to mobilise the public? Why aren't you getting the public on board? Why aren't you opening up the political space?'

"And you think, well why don't you make it easier for us to do that?"

'Vested interests'

He is cautiously optimistic about the Conservative Party: "There are some people definitely within the Tory Party, where there is climate change in their DNA. They definitely get it. They see it as one of their key issues".

But he says leader David Cameron will have to be prepared to take on some "powerful vested interests" if he is to deliver on the pledges included in the party's recent Quality of Life Commission report ("a "really excellent study, a fascinating document to read. I was very surprised that it came out of the Tory Party").

And he remains unrepentant about Greenpeace's buccaneering, publicity-grabbing approach to campaigning.

"I am not unhappy with the situation that exists because it's a bit like an iceberg - you see the tip of it but 90% of the work goes on underneath."

Here are some of your comments:

Although I remain acutely in favour of an environmentally sustainable future, I find myself along with many, many Britons receiving the environmental message with an increased note of bitterness. Why? In two words; "Green Taxes". Incentivising the public to change their behaviour through taxation is massively counter-productive and will backfire on both the government and the green lobby. Until we see ALL of our green taxes being used to fund badly needed improvements in our public transport infrastructure and being used to subsidise genuine low impact energy production, the message will be received with a measure of cynicism.
Paul, London, UK

The problem with Greenpeace is that they DO exaggerate threat. A US F4 phantom jet was crashed at 700mph (far faster than a passenger jet could go) into the containment vessel of a nuclear power station and it barely scratched the concrete. You won't find that on Greenpeaces website even though the test footage is quite famous.
Peter, Nottingham

Greenpeace are doing themselves great harm getting so tightly bound up with the Global warming issue. When that greatly overinflated balloon bursts we will be left with a situation where nobody believes a word they or other "Green" lobby groups say. I supported them in protecting Whales and other endangered species but they have now leapt on a bandwagon built on shoddy science and self interest that can't be sustained.
Peter Smith, Cary, USA

While saving the planet is a great cause we have to think about normal people first. Should all the poorer people in this country pay more so they can live their lives even worse off. The problem with Greenpeace is the want to impose their values onto everyone, if the green agenda was so popular with people then the green party would be in government but they aren't. The cost of living is rising and if we followed greenpeaces plans to the T, we would fall behind the rest of the world in our economy and would cost a fortune. People would be paying more taxes and life would be harder for many people. Its great to say no to nuclear power or add tax to petrol and flights and anything else that damages the planet but alternatives aren't as easy as they are made out. If you push the green agenda with tax people will turn their back on the Green agenda and vote for a party that will ignore it. Investment in technology is the best way forward, as well as moving to hydrogen will help cu! t C02. Going green costs a lot of money to the ordinary person, but it wont affect the reach, pushing the green agenda hard will only result in a greater divide between reach and poor. Before we make everyone worse off lets try to fix the problems this country has first. Greens great but not at the cost to normal everyday hard working people, especially if you break their moral with ever spiralling green taxes that don't seem to go anywhere near research into green technologies.
Al, London

First of all GO GREENPEACE!!! I'm a German born American, i have been living in the us for about a year and a half now. i was born and raised in Germany.. as we all know that Germany has a very high standard of environmental protection. it is a huge disappointment to live here in the us and see what a wasteful society my motherland has produced. complaining about gas prices when the rest of the world has been paying double or more for at least the last 5 years. AMERICA WAKE UP!!! Start to care, for Christ sake there isn't even public paper recycling. I think the yellow bag program would go well here, as well a providing lots of jobs!
cameron fielding, orlando, florida

Greenpeace is a vital group dedicated to demonstrating that intoxicating greed has wreaked havoc on our planet. Their work can never be questioned politically. This is more about morality. No issue of GDP or national security can be a sideline to the actual reality. If it were not for the effort of Greenpeace we may not beat the challenge of climatic change on earth, the increasing use of aggressive and unpredictable chemicals and the proliferation of dangerous nuclear technology. No primitive political compromise process can generate other sided views to global warming. We shouldn't stop focusing on the science to give us answers to weather the actions of groups such as Greenpeace are acting disproportionately to the reality on the ground.
Oli, Plymouth

Having been affiliated with Greenpeace in the past I'm disappointed that at least some aspects of the group have been corrupted by left wing interests. I have no problem with some socialist inputus however they pursue leftist 'green' issues with no real idea of how or more worryingly what they are trying to change. They completely eschew the previous pragmatic position in favour of ridiculous extremes, and when the extremes become the norm they simple become more extreme seemingly revealing in what can only be described, and it has in some sections of the movement as a blatant attack on capitalism rather then focusing on real issues, it is a disgrace. More pragmatic greenism, less extreme socialism.
Matthew Price, Epsom

Like all activists, they are always right, and every one else wrong. I'm a chemist by profession and I'm not a climate change denier, but I find their approach to facts cavalier and their attitude to alternative views contemptuous. Truly, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially in the hands of these middle class warriors.
Gordon Thompson, Crich, Derbyshire

Yes, sometimes it appears to me that Greenpeace goes over the top. But when we're talking about things like mass extinctions, our own species included, I can forgive people for having strong feelings. Maybe that's what it takes to get the message across to people who by and large have their eyes shut. I'm proud to be a Greenpeace supporter.
G.W. Haywood., Alfreton England

Why do you not question Greenpeace about their stance to fossil fuel? Where are the campaigns against coal power, where against natural gas? Both virtually nonexistent. Why? Why did Greenpeace not start campaigning against climate change before end of 1990's? The scientific community has already talked about it since 1890's (not typo, Arrhenius) and public debate has existed since the 1980's. As said Al Gore in his book "Earth in Balance" in 1990, the environmentalists changed the subject every time climate change and greenhouse gas emissions came to discussion - as they had "other priorities", i.e. against nuclear power. Greenpeace is no champion of the battle against climate change - quite the opposite. Why does the media not delve into the real finances of the international Greenpeace to see if they say the truth about their monetary sources? With regards, Iiro Jantunen
Iiro Jantunen, Helsinki, Finland

I think direct action subverts democracy. Of course Greenpeace might argue that big business and other lobbies do the same for democracy. But why can't they get local petitions handed to MPs, so that they truly represent the voice of the people? Perhaps they are so sure of the general populations apathy that they instead choose direct action - the shouting voices of the few heard over the quiet voices of many. It seems a bit pious to me.
John, London

They lost the plot years ago. They have adopted the same "information" strategy as the big corporations and politicians and consequently have become mine of misinformation. You can't really trust a word they say. I also can't forgive them for their conspicuous absence when lorry drivers and motorists are protesting about fuel prices. Their preference for 'soft' but largely irrelevant targets like airlines are cowardly and pathetic.
Neil Hoskins, Aylesbury, UK

The Climate is always changing. It hasn't warmed for 10 years and now scientists say it will cool for the next 5. There is no evidence to suggest man has any impact on these cycles - the whole theory was based on correlation of c02/temp MUST equal causation for a small time period, even though it doesn't match in others. Flawed. There hasn't always been ice at the poles either! Greenpeace are wasting their time. They should be saving animal species, not trying to 'protest against Global Warming'.
Tim Hart, Leeds

So the facts do not really matter to the Greenpeace movement as long as the statistics are correct? is that what they are saying? Isn't that a little reprehensible? And wow, lets use shock tactics where children can see it... And they wonder why kids are becoming numb to death, murder, and abuse... Way to go Greenpeace. i have to hand it to you, the death of the Family couldn't have been handed a better proponent then you. Nor could the factor of violence witnessed by our children. You really want to change the way things are, try giving out facts, and not using sensationalism to get your point across where my 5 year old daughter can see it.
lawrence obern, Laurel, USA

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