Opinion: 50 years after Greenpeace began, the climate crisis is our biggest threat

Opinion: 50 years after Greenpeace began, the climate crisis is our biggest threat
Everyone understood that Covid needed a rapid response and international cooperation – the same government-led action is needed to save the planet

The first time humanity noticed that we’d become an existential threat to ourselves, nuclear war was the potential armageddon casting its shadow over the world. It was the reason Greenpeace came into existence 50 years ago today. The self-imposed risk of annihilation was justified by the Mad doctrine – the claim that, because nuclear weapons were so terrible, no one would ever use them for fear of “mutually assured destruction”. Today’s superpowers are still negotiating treaties to try to dodge that fate.

Unlike bombs and missiles, climate change’s weapons of mass destruction are genuinely invisible, and so easy and cheap to manufacture that everyone’s doing it. Most worryingly, they’re already airborne. We’ve been launching them in greater and greater volumes for several centuries, and we’ve finally arrived at the moment when the first wave hits.

All of these factors make the climate talks taking place in Glasgow in November fraught and complex, and absolutely urgent. Just hoping that everyone will be sensible enough not to destroy the only known habitable planet doesn’t seem to be working this time.

In 2019, China’s annual emissions exceeded those of all developed countries combined, as their coal addiction proves hard to shake. Meanwhile, the USA’s puny renewables industry is only a third as big as China’s, and their per capita emissions are still twice as big. So everyone has a good reason to call everyone else a hypocrite, ignore the threat and destroy themselves. Yes, Mad.

The glacial pace of the international talks can be incredibly frustrating, but “glacial pace” is a lot faster than it used to be, and is accelerating all the time. Our leaders will move as quickly as we push them, and more and more people are putting their shoulders to the wheel. Politicians are all talking the talk, we’ve got more targets than a rifle range’s performance management review, now we need to force concrete action. Is it realistic to think that ordinary people can make politicians change entire industries in a just transition? Yes, it is. We’ve tested it.

Greenpeace led the campaign to drive coal out of the UK. It provided more than 30 per cent of our energy supply when we started, less than 3 per cent now, and our last coal plant is scheduled to close in 2024. We were business partners in Britain’s first offshore wind farm, the best clean energy technology for a windy island, and it’s now providing tens of thousands of jobs. Last year we helped push the government into a 2030 phase-out for petrol and diesel cars, and we’re still exposing and blocking the worst ideas from the oil and gas industry.

If there’s one thing we need to stop burning even faster than fossil fuels, it’s forests. Humans and our livestock now account for more than 95 per cent of the mammals on our planet. Millions of cows and acres of cattle feed have replaced large chunks of the Amazon and the wildlife that lived there, while oil palms are wreaking the same destruction in Indonesia.

Greenpeace has been at the forefront of tackling the drivers of deforestation, especially for globally traded agricultural commodities like palm oil and soya beans. The “soy moratorium” we painstakingly constructed cut deforestation in Brazil by a huge amount from 2006 until the arrival of President Jair Bolsonaro, the Trump of the tropics. And our work on forests is where we learned about the importance of the Indigenous peoples who own, occupy, or use a quarter of the world’s surface area and safeguard 80 per cent of Earth’s remaining biodiversity. The Bolsonaro government is driving them from their forest homes, and without their protection, we lose the forests, then the climate, and then risk our own homes.

Some 50 years after our first voyage, Greenpeace is still an amphibious organisation. After successful campaigns against nuclear weapons testing, whaling, and the dumping of radioactive and toxic waste at sea, our oceans team are currently campaigning to protect the high seas from being emptied by industrial fishing, and from the creeping contamination of waste plastic.

But we need many more people to get involved in order to get a lot more done, and do it faster. If we want to have any chance of keeping global heating aligned with the Paris Agreement on climate, then we need to cut emissions by half this decade. And if we want to prevent the loss of more than a million species, we must halt biodiversity loss now, not in 2050.

A tall order. As economist John Maynard Keynes said: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as escaping from old ones.” Escaping old ideas is difficult. But many of yesterday’s eternal truths must be discarded if we are to avoid a frightening tomorrow. And the threat which sank the Glasgow talks last year – Covid – may be the thing that saves them this year.

The pandemic’s silver lining, the elusive positive impact that everyone has been searching for, was not the fleeting glimpse of clean air and birdsong some of us enjoyed, unsupported by any structural change. That was just a postcard from a vanishing past. The lasting positive impact of the pandemic will, perhaps, be a reset of the role of the state.

Last year UK government expenditure amounted to more than 50 per cent of gross domestic product, a disaster by orthodox economic thinking. But everyone understood that in such an emergency we needed rapid, government-led action that would have achieved even more with greater international cooperation. It’s an interesting idea. Let’s hope it takes hold in time for the Glasgow talks. The future is rapidly slipping into the present.

John Sauven is executive director of Greenpeace, a post he has held since 2008.