Q&A with Greenpeace’s Ben Ayliffe: “The Arctic is the defining environmental battleground of our age”

Greenpeace have really pushed on the Arctic for a couple of years now, can you give us a sense as to why it’s such a key campaign for you?

Ben Ayliffe — Greenpeace see the Arctic as the defining environmental battleground of our age. It is at the forefront of the fight to do what we can to limit the impact of catastrophic climate change.

The Arctic is the front line, it’s warming faster than anywhere else, and what happens there will affect every man, woman and child on the planet. From melting ice caps to increased warming to geopolitical instability to things like fish stocks and global food security. What we’re seeing is the tragedy of the melting Arctic being used as a business opportunity by the oil industry to go and explore – to drill – for more of the fossil fuels that are causing the ice to disappear in the first place.

What we’re trying to do is keep the Arctic off limits to industrial exploitation – be it fishing, oil, gas, minerals – and to create a protected sanctuary at the top of the world that will protect this very special place. We’ve already got over 5 million people who have joined the campaign. The Arctic is the canary in a sort of climate change mine, and it’s of fundamental importance that we have to do what we can to try to limit the changes that are happening.

So you feel it is important, and you mentioned you’ve had a lot of public support, but do you feel that other bodies around the world share this view? Do you feel you are getting enough support from governments, other NGOs, or the scientific community?

I think so. It’s an interesting one, as there is a bit of a divide. If you look historically what happens in the Arctic has been governed by the self-interest of the Arctic littoral states, centered around the Arctic Council, and although it was set up under the auspices of environmental protection for the far north, they have done very little to ensure that, and it seems as if the Arctic Council are more about maintaining the governance status quo and allowing access to mineral resources and extractives rather than protecting the nature, the biodiversity of the Arctic itself.

That’s one side, but on the other side the scientists are telling us very clearly that the Arctic is changing fundamentally, and changing very rapidly. And that inactivity is not an option. And we’re starting to see some of the more progressive nations starting to back the Greenpeace call for a global sanctuary. So last year the Finnish government who are a member of the Arctic Council publicly supported the call for a protected area in the far north.

So there is a bit of a divide, and what the Save the Arctic campaign is trying to do is break open the politics of the far north to allow people and countries who will be fundamentally affected by the changes happening there to be given a voice, but at the moment they don’t have that.

So who do you feel are the main power brokers on the other side of the fight from you? Are they nation states, or oil companies, or a mix?

I think it’s a mix of the two. The biggest power brokers are the Arctic nations, and first and foremost the littoral states – the countries with coastlines on the Arctic Ocean – but then the oil and gas industry is very keen on opening up the Arctic, they think there may be upwards of 90 billion barrels of oil that are locked away under the ice, and they are very keen to get access and what we’ve seen is that the Arctic nations themselves are by and large supportive of this push. We see companies such as Statoil, for instance, the Norwegian state-owned energy company looking very aggressively at opening up the Arctic be it in the Bering Sea, be it in Greenland, Alaska, Russia.

So it’s a combination of the two. Even non-Arctic nations seem to be aligned behind the narrow interests of the oil and gas industry. Take the UK for instance. We’re an observer on the Arctic Council, and our government, despite saying they are very keen to do what they can to protect the Arctic and be at the front line of the fight against global climate change, basically act as a desk office for people like Shell or BP, promoting their interests and promoting their bid to open up the far north. It’s a heady mixture of the two we’re up against.

The first few barrels of Arctic oil arrived in Europe in April. Do you feel that was significant, as a milestone?

Yes, I think it was. It represents quite a fundamental shift. This is the first time any oil from the icy waters of the offshore Arctic had arrived, to enter into our fuel systems, our heating systems. So yes, it was a defining moment. But we have to put it into some context too. The oil industry talked up the prospects of the Arctic for a long time, even a few years ago they were saying that it was inevitable that there would be widespread drilling in the Arctic. But the truth has been slightly different. The industry has faced a lot of problems. Be it technical challenges of working in one of the most extreme environments in the planet. Be it regularity difficulties in getting their operations the green light. Be it public protest against plans to open up the North. And the other think to bear in mind is that is it just one tanker load of rather poor quality heavy crude. So although it does signify the opening up of the oil industry in the Arctic, at the moment it is a trickle, and our job is to stop that trickle becoming a flood.

You’ve been pushing on Lego for the last few weeks, as part of your Arctic work, can you let us know more why that’s a target for you?

The oil industry, people like Shell, they need the tacit support of the general public to do what they do. To drill in places around the world. And this includes the Arctic. And what Shell do in particular is ally themselves with popular brands to promote a vision of the company as considerate and a good corporate citizen. But the truth is that Shell is undertaking one of the most reckless drilling operations on the planet, if they go back to Alaska in 2015 as they want to.

Lego gives them that ability to say to the world that they are a great company, we are aligned with these brands that everyone knows and loves. And we think Lego have let themselves down, because they are a very forward thinking company. They are one of the most progressive companies Greenpeace have ever worked with. They care passionately about the environment and are very keen to help reduce their environmental footprint, and yet they’ve signed a deal to promote one of the most reckless oil companies on the planet, and we think that is a very bad move.

Finally, what do you see as the next big challenge for your campaign, or just for the Arctic? And where do you see space for opportunities? Do you still have hope for this campaign?

Fundamentally, the Arctic is still melting and there is still that urgency, to try to do what we can to stave off the worst effects of climate change in the Arctic. So that means we need to carry on the fight to keep out the oil companies, but also we need to try to crack the politics. We need to make sure that the governance of the Arctic isn’t dictated by the very narrow self-interests of a couple of countries in the far north because the impact of the changes that we’re seeing in the Arctic will effect everyone, right around the world and we need to ensure that other voices are heard in that debate, and have a role, and fundamentally we actually get a protected area at the top of the world.

But Greenpeace wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think there was hope. Obviously it is a very tough challenge and there are some strong vested interests that we’re up against. But that we’ve got nearly 6 million people supporting us and states like Finland publicly backing the call for a sanctuary, that’s testament to the way people feel about the Arctic. There is a lot of energy and support for what we are doing. The momentum is shifting and we’ll be doing everything we can to save the Arctic, because the alternative and consequences of rapid melting in the Arctic are just the sort of thing that keep you awake at night.

Ben Ayliffe

Ben Ayliffe is Head of the Arctic Oil campaign at Greenpeace International. He is on Twitter as @benayliffe.


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