Phil Radford's first day as executive director of Greenpeace USA in 2009 ended with his arrest at a protest outside the State Department. It seemed a fitting start for the head of an environmental group known for its confrontational tactics since 1971, when activists leased a fishing vessel they renamed Greenpeace and tried to enter a U.S. nuclear testing zone off the coast of Alaska.
Five years after he started, at the ripe young age of 38, Radford is stepping down as Greenpeace's U.S. leader after broadening the organization's mission to include more grassroots activism that has pressured dozens of global corporations to lighten their ecological footprint.
"What we've done is increase our impact," Radford said. "I consider direct action one of many tools. The real answer to what we've done is, we've changed over 100 companies and their practices."
Radford started working on environmental issues as a high school student in Oak Park, Ill., when a major waste-disposal company was planning to build an incinerator on Chicago's West Side, not far from his home. The son of two educators and the grandson of a botanist, Radford had a love of nature and the environment instilled in him at an early age, "but I really got the bug fighting the incinerator," he said.
The local protests brought a halt to the incinerator, and Radford moved on to other issues working for the Public Interest Research Groups while studying political science and business at Washington University in St. Louis. He later helped organize Green Corps, a nonprofit focused on grassroots organizing, and the group was hired as a contractor for Ozone Action, which prodded politicians to address climate change and protect the Earth's ozone layer.
The group targeted the Global Climate Coalition, a front group for major industries seeking to ward off action on global warming. "We decided to run divestiture campaigns against them," Radford said. "We took a page out of the antiapartheid book." One by one, companies like Ford and General Motors left the coalition, and it was dismantled in 2002.
Around that time, Radford founded Power Shift, a group advocating for clean energy, and, among other accomplishments, it persuaded Citigroup to allow people to include financing for solar power in their mortgages. But after 9/11, foundation grants started to dry up, and Radford joined Greenpeace to help launch the group's first "grassroots department."
In early 2009, Radford was named the youngest-ever executive director at Greenpeace, and before he even christened his new office in Washington he made a detour to the State Department, where world leaders were meeting to discuss an upcoming summit on global warming.
"The Obama White House was dragging its feet on climate change," Radford said, and environmentalists — borrowing a phrase from the financial crisis a year earlier — wanted to remind the president and his peers that the planet was "too big to fail." Radford scaled a crane across from the State Department and hung a banner with those words; he was arrested as soon as he came down.
More powerful than any protests, though, have been Greenpeace's actions targeting companies like Asia Pulp and Paper, a massive company that was almost single-handedly wiping out the forests of Indochina. "We got them to change by going after their customers," Radford said. "We cut 80 percent of their market." The economic pressure was so intense that APP announced a new conservation policy last year aimed at preventing deforestation.
Greenpeace is making similar efforts today to shift major utilities away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner power sources, though Radford acknowledged that it's not easy.
Still, Radford is optimistic that market forces along with a concerned public will bring about changes in America's policies on climate change. "We will move on global warming when the cost is cheap enough," he said. "Coal plants are shutting down, and if gas exports are allowed we'll see the price of gas go up, too. You will start to see stranded assets, price spikes.
"We need to change the grassroots base on global warming," he said, "and focus on local solutions." Cities like San Francisco and Cincinnati are already moving toward cleaner energy, and college campuses across the country are cleaning up their acts because of pressure from students, Radford said. "The solution is clean energy, which produces more jobs and fewer toxins," he said.
As for what's next for him, Radford isn't sure yet. But it's a safe bet that some type of environmental activism will be involved.