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Greenpeace CEO John Sauven: “The most dangerous moment is now”

After 30 years on the climate frontline, the long-serving head of Greenpeace UK is stepping down with a call for leaders to “take more risks”.

By India Bourke

Even for a hardened environmental activist, drinking “far too much vodka” into the early hours with a Russian secret-service official in a London hotel is an unusual practice. But in 2013 that is what was required from John Sauven, Greenpeace’s CEO. Twenty-eight activists and two freelance journalists had been arrested at gunpoint by Russian commandos after attempting to board a Gazprom oil rig in the Arctic Ocean. Unless their release could be secured, the captives faced 10-15 year prison sentences for piracy.

Sauven had a choice. The Foreign Office had advised the NGO to “keep quiet” and let diplomats manage the situation. Keeping quiet, however, went against Sauven and his organisation’s instincts. “The only thing that is going to work is if we make more noise than has ever been made before,” he recalled thinking at the time.

Watch the full interview with John Sauven here

The result was a global campaign to put pressure on the Russian regime from every direction. Ambassadors, London-based oligarchs and popstars all came out in support, with Sauven personally plying a senior Russian official for contacts. “We mapped where everybody was, and we went and knocked on a lot of doors […] trying to get Putin to see some sense,” he explained when we met this month in his north London home.

That the Arctic activists were eventually released is a timely example of what unrelenting pressure can achieve. But as Sauven steps down this year from a 14-year stint as CEO, he is more concerned today than ever that environmentalists’ warnings are being ignored.

The present moment is “absolutely the most dangerous” humanity has ever faced – and not just because of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly “Tsar-like” behaviour he tells the New Statesman. “With Putin, we have sleep walked into a major geopolitical crisis because we didn’t take seriously the need to get off fossil fuels. They were always the cause of war as well as climate change. Now we have a food crisis thrown into the mix.” Over the past 30 years “more climate change emissions have been pumped into the atmosphere than the entire preceding sweep of human history,” he said. “That’s why we’re facing such a catastrophic situation.”

If he had his time again, Sauven said he would consequently take even “more risks” in the name of averting the unfolding planetary emergency – specifically pushing for a ban on industrial fishing on the high seas, and to end industrial meat consumption and a much tougher response to all fossil fuel development, not just coal. “There are too many round tables, too much talking,” he said in relation to the slow progress made since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. “We don’t have time for that anymore.” 

[See also: Who is to blame for 30 years of climate change inertia?]

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Sauven, 67, is dressed plainly when we meet – in jeans, shirt and a navy woollen jumper. But a wilder side to his personality is suggested in everything from the bold primary colours scattered throughout his house, to his two-seater electric car from Bangalore, fondly named “Gee-whizz”.

“I had to make a lot of noise to get attention,” Sauven stated with reference to his upbringing in a six-sibling strong Catholic family in the London borough of Ealing. Before long, standing out from the crowd had also become a professional hallmark of the campaigns he oversaw during his 30-year career at Greenpeace. From protecting rainforests, to helping kickstart the UK offshore wind industry and dreaming up two of the organisation’s viral videos – Wasteminster: a Downing Street Disaster and Rang-tan: the story of dirty palm oil – the lifelong campaigner has rewritten the rulebook on what activism can achieve.

“One of the things about running an organisation like Greenpeace is that you’ve got to have an appetite for risk,” he explains. “You’ve got to be able to take risks, not just in terms of your own personal liberty, but also organisationally.”

Offshore wind is a case in point. “Everyone said it was too expensive, that it wouldn’t work,” he recalled of the UK’s first major farm, which was built in 2003 with Greenpeace’s support. Yet fast forward two decades and offshore wind is now the backbone of Britain’s energy system. “We kept at that campaign and that’s what you have to do. You’ve got to continuously battle to keep these things happening until they get established.”

The UK, however, which prides itself on being a climate leader, is not fully facing up to the challenge of the era. “We’re still in a situation where governments will not act with the urgency that’s required,” Sauven expanded. “We react when an emergency comes along: financial crises, Covid, war; [but] we are really bad at reacting to things that are a slow, ongoing unravelling, even if the consequences are far worse.”

David Cameron bears particular responsibility for this state of affairs, Sauven believes. “Although he’s known as a bit of a liberal, he was probably the most disastrous prime minister this country has had in a very long time,” he explains. Cameron sold himself as a husky-hugging climate campaigner, yet oversaw the dismantling of green policies, such as improved energy-efficiency standards for new homes. Reportedly Cameron told aides in 2013 to “get rid of all the green crap”; Sauven says that this statement “was bad for the climate, green industries, jobs, and for the system change we need. It was a tragedy all around.”

In his own position of leadership, Sauven sat down with the heads of some of the most powerful multinationals in the world in an effort to get corporations and governments to embrace the green transition – with mixed results.

Some, such as the BP CEO Bernard Looney, have undergone “something of a conversion” to green action. “Back in 2019, BP was trying to get me sent to jail for breaking an injunction when Greenpeace opposed drilling for new oil and gas in the North Sea; we had a very big fight with them,” Sauven explains. Yet today, the company’s energy strategy pledges to cut oil and gas production by 40 per cent by 2030 without using offsets. In contrast, its competitor Shell’s net-zero ambitions rely heavily on offsetting promises, which Greenpeace argues does not add up.

By focusing on holding corporations to account, has Greenpeace failed to nurture a mass grassroots activist movement, as suggested by groups such as Extinction Rebellion (XR)? 

It is important for different kinds of organisations to play to their strengths, Sauven responded, and that includes NGOs directly putting pressure on powerful corporate interests. But he also supports XR and hopes their existence “creates a space” for everyone to be more radical. “It’s a very positive thing.”

Greenpeace’s own radicalism is also still paying dividends today. In 2008, a jury found six activists not guilty of criminal damage to the Kingsnorth coal power station in Kent, deeming they had a lawful excuse for their actions. The Daily Mail may have decried the result at the time as giving “a green light to anarchy”, but the government consequently introduced restrictions preventing the use of unabated coal – and, at last year’s Cop26 in Glasgow, 40 countries committed to shift away from the highly polluting fuel. 

Sauven believes such direct actions are still “absolutely critical”. And if he were to repeat the Kingsnorth exercise today, he would go after the meat industry, describing it as “the new coal” in the extent of its environmental threat. “When you start a ripple, it makes a wave, and it reverberates around the world.”

[See also: The climate diplomacy crisis]

On leaving Sauven’s house, I pass through a hallway covered in black and white photos of protests past. Why these images in particular I ask? “To remind me of some of the struggles,” he replied, “and some of the fun.”

As Sauven hands over the role of CEO to Greenpeace’s new interim executive director, Pat Venditti, struggle and fun will remain a part of Sauven’s story. Plans are in place to remain engaged in Greenpeace as a volunteer and activist, as well as through his work with the NANN-K Trust, a charity he co-founded with the Senegalese musician and UN human rights ambassador Baaba Maal, which works on desertification and sustainable development in the Sahel.

“In some ways, it’s a huge relief; I feel a lot lighter,” he said of passing on the baton after 30 years. “But at the same time, you know, I miss it. If you wanted to do something, you had the ability to make things happen.”

[See also: How Vladimir Putin weaponised the environment in Ukraine]

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