Why Greenpeace is part of the problem on global climate policy

by | Jul 26, 2012

On Twitter a couple of days ago, Greenpeace International’s executive director Kumi Naidoo penned an appeal for people to become Greenpeace members. I threw off a series of tweets in reply saying that Greenpeace was part of the problem rather than part of the solution on global climate policy and that there was no way I would ever join Greenpeace given its current position – prompting a few people (including Kumi himself) to ask what I meant, and why I was on such a downer on Greenpeace. Here’s my answer.

Global climate policy, when you strip it down, is about one thing: stabilising levels of greenhouse gases in the air at a safe level. To do that, you have to define that safe level; quantify a global carbon budget that decreases in size over time, to keep us within the safe operating space; and figure out national shares of that emissions budget, through binding targets for everyone (not just developed countries).

Of course, the question of who gets what in a global carbon budget is about as charged and political as it gets. So much so, that the international climate policy process has spent the last two decades studiously ignoring it. As a result, it’s impossible even to talk about concrete scenarios for stabilising the climate. The deadlock is more or less complete, making the UNFCCC process the world’s number one multilateral zombie.

As regular readers will know, I’ve been arguing for a long time that the only way we’ll ever get countries to agree on how to share out a global carbon budget is by using a simple principle that everyone can understand: namely, that each of the earth’s human inhabitants has the same right to emit carbon.

To bridge the political divide, countries could negotiate a gradual process of convergence towards equal per capita shares, over anything from 1 to 100 years. But everyone would still be clear and confident about the ultimate destination of the process: fair shares of the atmosphere for everyone.

Now, I recognise that there are other views on how to share out a global emissions budget, like Greenhouse Development Rights. That’s fine. We may differ on the allocation mechanism, but we agree on the fundamental issue – that we need a stabilisation target, that then leads to a global carbon budget.

But what’s not OK – especially for NGOs, given that their job is supposed to be about setting the forward agenda – is to duck the whole issue of carbon budgets and how to share them out, instead sticking to an incrementalist approach that’s long on rhetoric and painfully short on specifics. Yet that’s exactly what we see from the big environmental NGOs.

It’s what we saw, for example, with the TckTckTck coalition (whom I critiqued here both before and during Copenhagen). And it’s emphatically what we see with Greenpeace. All Greenpeace call for is global emissions to peak by 2015, developed country emissions to fall 40% below 1990 levels by 2020, and developing countries to slow emissions growth by 15-30% by the same year.

There’s no mention of a carbon budget, or of a stabilisation target. And while Greenpeace’s 2009 position paper on ‘Equity and Climate Action’ expresses a degree of sympathy with Greenhouse Development Rights, it says in the next breath that “Greenpeace is not calling for its immediate implementation”. In other words, Greenpeace files both carbon budgets and how to share them out under the “too difficult” heading – just like the politicians they criticise so vociferously.

I think the job of NGOs is to speak truth to power, and tell policymakers what’s necessaryIt’s not their job not to try to be negotiators themselves, or to make judgements about what’s “realistic”. What’s politically realistic can change overnight after a shock, creating a (usually brief) window of opportunity for thinking the unthinkable. At times like that, the people who’ve patiently been telling it like it really is get listened to. Think of Winston Churchill after the failure of appeasement.

A few NGOs, like 350.org, do that – which is probably why, following a spate of extreme weather in the US and around the world this year, it’s 350 founder Bill McKibben’s analysis that’s been going massively viral around the web (an analysis, incidentally, that puts the idea of carbon budgets front and centre).

But most of the big, mainstream NGOs just keep trimming their sails and ducking the hard issues. Just like they’ve been doing since long before Kyoto in 1997.

Of course, all this still leaves the question: why single out Greenpeace, if all the big environment NGOs are equally guilty of this failing? Because Greenpeace is a special case – or at least, it has the potential to be.

Kumi Naidoo is one of the most respected development campaigners out there. Before he went to Greenpeace, he was head of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, the world’s largest civil society movement. GCAP are the people who gave the world white wrist bands at the time of Make Poverty History – an achievement that was in large part Naidoo’s doing. When I was Hilary Benn’s special adviser at DFID at the time, friends working as development campaigners would speak his name in hushed tones of reverence.

So ever since his arrival at Greenpeace, I’ve been quietly wondering whether he’d be the man to take Greenpeace to a more credible place on climate change. Because I felt sure that someone with such impeccable development credentials would just get it about equity and carbon budgets.

I figured he’d get it that until policymakers grasp the nettle and start talking about fair shares for real – which means in numbers, not words – then climate stabilisation will continue to be kept off the agenda by developing countries’ acute concerns about being left with no space to develop (and the consequent ability of countries like the US to hide behind them and refuse to take action unless the emerging economies do too).

I figured he’d get it that a genuinely equitable way of sharing out emissions allocations would not only save the planet by unlocking a carbon budget, but would also (once coupled with emissions trading) create a massive new source of finance for development – something that Bono spotted a while back.

And above all, I figured he’d get it that opposition to talking about how to share out a carbon budget amounts to complicity in a 21st century version of enclosure.

Land grabs aren’t just happening on the ground in poor countries around the world; they’re happening in the sky as well. Consider this: the global carbon market was in 2010 worth $142 billion. That’s $13 billion more than total global aid flows in the same year. A hugely valuable new asset class has been created – literally out of thin air. And low income countries haven’t been given any. Despite the fact that their per capita emissions are a tiny fraction of everyone else’s.

Meanwhile, as richer countries keep pumping out the emissions, the size of the carbon budget that we’ll have to share out once we do finally decide to talk about it, keeps getting a little smaller every day. And, breathtakingly, this approach is described by Greenpeace and others as fair.

I used to love Greenpeace when I was a kid. The first book on environment that I ever read electrified me with their story as an organisation. But that was before I got to see them up close.

I’m still hoping that Kumi Naidoo can put them back on their pedestal. Then I’ll be the first to sign up as a member, get everyone I know to do the same, and run a marathon to raise cash for them. But until then – no way.

Update: Kumi Naidoo has now replied to this post. You can read what he had to say, and my response, here.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

More from Global Dashboard

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

As COVID-19 plunges the world into its most serious economic crisis for a century, a surge in demand for justice is inevitable. Businesses face bankruptcy – and whole industries may be insolvent. Similar pain is being felt in the public and non-profit sectors....

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see...