Greenpeace has never been a particularly shy organisation when it comes to courting media attention. From activists scaling The Shard skyscraper in London, to interrupting UEFA Champions League football matches with campaign banners, the organisation is rarely out of the news.
But when 30 activists and journalists were arrested by Russian special forces on piracy charges, while protesting the actions of Russian-owned oil giant Gazprom, even John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK and a seasoned activist, admits to being surprised.
“It was completely disproportionate, I mean, this was a completely peaceful protest and they were arrested on piracy charges, facing up to 15 years in prison – even Putin said they weren’t pirates. It was an extreme reaction, completely over the top and not even backed by the president. Then eventually, without it even going to trial, they got an amnesty. So it obviously surprised us that they reacted in such an extreme way to a peaceful protest against a drilling rig in the Arctic, which itself has a history of safety problems, as has their whole Arctic drilling programme.”
Greenpeace sees the Arctic as a key battleground in the global fight against climate change, and Sauven says that Russia’s reaction – the toughest government response to Greenpeace since the French secret service sunk their ship in 1985 – has only strengthened their resolve to keep up the fight.
He says: “The changes that are happening in the Arctic are perhaps the most dramatic that we are seeing anywhere in the world, in terms of a record increase in temperatures, the shrinkage of the icecap in summer months, the retreat of glaciers in places like Greenland. So in a way if you were looking at the effect that the human species is having on the planet, and you want to see it in its most dramatic form, then looking at the Arctic is one place where you can clearly see what has happened over a thirty-year time span.
He continues: “What we are trying to do in the Arctic campaign is hold a mirror up to the world, and particularly to governments and oil companies, and say – ‘look, you are changing the nature of planet earth’. In fact one of the things that kicked off the environment movement, was in 1968 when for the first time, people could go outside the atmosphere and photograph the world from space. People saw the wider ice cap at the roof of the world and saw how small and vulnerable planet earth is. That was a very powerful image in connecting with people: the earth looks big on the ground but small in space, and it needs protecting.
“The Arctic is important in a philosophical as well as scientific sense, because it tells us a lot about how we make decisions. Protecting it will be the mother of all battles because you are going to come up against some extremely powerful forces. The fossil fuel industry has been around for more than a century and these companies are among the most powerful ones in the world. You are also going to come up against powerful states, like Russia, which are dependent on fossil fuels for their income,” he adds.
Sauven points to evidence from the International Energy Agency, demonstrating that humanity can only burn around a third of resources that are left in order to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change. Greenpeace views the idea of drilling for more oil – whether in the Arctic, in tar sands or in deep water – as simply indefensible, given that states cannot burn the reserves that they already hold. As such, it is hard to imagine environmental campaigners, such as Greenpeace, and states that rely on oil revenues, such as Russia, ever finding common ground. Sauven accepts the challenges, but suggests that environmental interests and those of nation states are not worlds apart.
“Well obviously, we are not expecting it to happen tomorrow but you have to remember that this is a double-edged sword, because being dependent on fossil fuels can bring as many problems as benefits. Russia is an utterly corrupt state, it’s a very difficult country to do business or to invest in, and its population is collapsing, it has huge health problems, high rates of alcoholism and no manufacturing base. The money that is made from resource extraction – mainly oil – hasn’t been reinvested in welfare, training or health, it hasn’t been used to build new industries and new technologies. Now compare that to somewhere like Norway, which at least has used its income from fossil fuels to create what is probably the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, it has invested for future generations. They have used the money to invest in clean tech, in a positive way and they have also made sure they have a clean government, a real democracy, where investors are protected.”
He continues: “So you can see one country has done it very well, and another one has done it very badly, and you can see that all over the world – relying on a single fossil fuel can lead to corruption, where states do not look out for their own people. But it is the logic of governments and corporations that wealth is based in the size of reserves, so there is an ever increasing madness that you have to keep drilling to shore up your share price. But also it is not really working either – companies like Shell and BP are not only spending more and more on infrastructure for less to come out the other end (leading to trouble with investors), or they are forced to go into bed with countries like Russia, because they have nowhere else to go. They’re tied into these regimes whether they like it or not – and that is high risk. So I think the chickens are coming home to roost now. There will be new companies, and these industrial behemoths will wither and die – though not without a battle.”
Commending Norway for its prescience in setting up an oil fund – along with lambasting the UK Government for not doing the same – has been a favourite refrain of the Scottish Government over the last couple of years. So would Sauven accept that Environment Minister Richard Lochhead, along with those who came before him, are right to use oil revenues to boost the renewabes sector?
“The logic of the Scottish Government is to make money off of fossil fuels and then invest that in the alternatives. But they haven’t yet taken on board the carbon logic – most of the fossil fuels that we have in the ground need to be locked up and left there. Renewables have to be sped up. Scotland is lucky because it is in a great position to speed up the growth of renewable energy, in terms of wind, tidal and hydro, so in a way it could be far more green now, rather than tomorrow – though Alex Salmond does talk about it and Scotland comes out well in comparison to the rest of the UK.”
The SNP is proud of its renewables record and with the Greens backing the Yes campaign, along with the news that the UK Government negotiated against tighter renewables targets for 2030 at a European level, the environmental lobby seems to be falling on the side of independence. Sauven may be London-based, but how would he vote in the referendum if he had the chance?
“One of the things that I have found quite extraordinary is the extent to which corporations, governments and institutions have all collectively threatened Scotland with hell and brimstone, and I do find it interesting that there has been nothing positive about what the Union brings as a collective group of countries. The whole thing is based on fear and threats and bullying and so forth, it does show there is something really unhealthy about the nature of our current politics and the relationship between peoples. But I think the outcome is that we will never go back to what we had before – whether Salmond wins or loses – what it has done is completely change the relationship between these powers so Scotland will get, if not independence, then more powers and be far more autonomous.
He continues: “That will be a good thing if they push the renewable agenda and use the opportunity to develop the full potential for Scotland to be involved in renewable energy. If you look at the IceLink – the transmission line between Iceland and Scotland – which can bring gigawatts of clean energy along from Iceland, through geothermal energy, and they can do that relatively cheaply, much cheaper than building a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley. Scotland could be at the centre of that and I think that if that is how the country positioned itself it would be in an extremely powerful, extremely good position. I mean, you are sitting there with the Green Investment Bank in Edinburgh, you have a lot of specialist skills and expertise in Scotland that could be utilised for the green revolution that we need to see.”
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