Greenpeace Leader Moving On at 38

Phil Radford has been the youngest executive director in the environmental group’s 43-year history, but he’s looking for even greener pastures.

National Journal
Mike Magner
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Mike Magner
April 22, 2014, 8 a.m.

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.

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