In 1994, Greenpeace produced a report called Climate Time Bomb: Signs of Climate Change from the Greenpeace Database. They are so proud of it, they have a short copy archived on their website [1]. Odd as it may seem, in those days, Greenpeace was not considered a source of scientific wisdom. Indeed at the time, Peter John Newell observed, the report was dismissed as “unscientific” in the media “via reference to the opinion of climate scientists” [2].

Greenpeace's time bomb

Nevertheless Greenpeace nurtured their ‘alliance with science’, to increase the acceptability of their message [2]. Theirs was a homegrown effort – collecting news-reports of weather events and disasters in the media into a ‘database’. The cataloging served a dual purpose. By indulging in such scholar-like activity Greenpeace “…position[ed] itself as both legitimator and interpreter of scientific knowledge” [3].

In the introduction of their 1994 report, Greenpeace writes (emphasis mine):

…Now we must set targets and timetables within that convention to reduce emissions. Solutions to global warming do exist – the clean energy alternatives and the energy saving processes only require political will to be implemented.

Fast forward to 2010, the third version of the Greenpeace Energy Revolution report writes about technological ‘solutions to global warming’ [4]:

“the technology is here, all we need is political will.”

A bit further in early 2011, the official IPCC press release on the occasion of their ‘special report’ on renewable energy said [5]:

Close to 80 percent of the world‘s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies a new report shows.

Ramon Pichs, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III is quoted as saying:

The report shows that it is not the availability of the resource, but the public policies that will either expand or constrain renewable energy development over the coming decades


It is clear from the above that that a basic premise of an activist organization, Greenpeace, has come to be adopted as scientific truth, over the course of 17 years. What is more astonishing, is that the basis for accepting the facile premise that ‘only political will’ stands in the way of renewable energy, is a publication by the same environmental pressure group.

In the early 90’s, the issue of global warming captured intense global attention briefly. It died down quickly as well. The post-1988 slump, awakened activists who wished to use global warming to advance their aims, to highlighting ‘extreme events’ and disasters to mobilize a largely disaffected audience. The dynamic that was sought to be exploited was the social scare – “acute episodes of collective fear that lead to accelerated demands on the political arena” [6].

The enlisting of natural disasters to campaign for global warming therefore started this way – as a means to capture attention to an otherwise near-invisible problem. Greenpeace was no exception. Julie Boyle, a Greenpeace insider who explored the communication strategies of the pressure group noted [2]:

Viewed in retrospect, framing climate change as an imminent catastrophe about to happen [by Greenpeace] draws attention to the issue through shock tactics; understandable given the political and media climate at the time, which had acknowledged (in 1988) then ignored (from 1992) the issue.

Today, the relentless campaigning of environmental pressure groups has turned the tables. The association between natural disasters and global warming, has been repeated so often, that this constructed reality masquerades as an independent case for action. The switch from Houghton’s “If we want to have a good environmental policy in the future, we’ll have to have a disaster” to “if you don’t listen, there will be a disaster” is complete [5]. The ‘shock tactics’ that an activist organization adopted to make its claims look like science has become science.

In its day, in 1994, the Greenpeace report was criticized by the scientific community for its alarm-ism. Such nudges impelled organizations as Greenpeace to don the mantle of science. Science and scientists set the agenda in the climate debate; others had to mimic its forms to attain salience. In a February issue the same year, Nick Nuttal explained IPCC activity in the Times [6]:

“It’s about reporting the growth in the understanding in the scientific community about these issues… I think it is a little conceited to believe that you can set your own individual agenda outside that of scientific opinion and evidence”

17 years later, the pressure groups have turned the tables. In an ironical twist of fate, very likely, the same Nick Nuttal transcribed the wishes of Greenpeace, so to speak, into the now-famous official IPCC SRREN press release [7]. The activists had managed to set their ‘individual agenda’. Greenpeace had no need to set its plans outside of scientific opinion – its opinions, were considered scientific.

All those years ago, Greenpeace stepped gingerly into science. Today, science heartily embraces activism. This is where, perhaps, Mark Lynas and Steve McIntyre are a bit astray – they both express horror that a scientific body, the IPCC, would see nothing wrong with the Greenpeace involvement [8]. Lynas, especially, chides the organization for not realizing that just doing ‘pious banner drops’ won’t work; in the academic-policy arena, scientific propriety is paramount.

Science, and climate science, however feels otherwise. Just as Greenpeace infused its output with science, the IPCC ‘s output is infused with activism. What Fred Pearce said once of Greenpeace is now true of the IPCC:  it “exists by spectacular campaigning, and swiftly implodes if the headlines falter” [8]. Metaphorically, it is the IPCC that is doing the banner drops now.


[1] The Climate Time Bomb. Greenpeace.
[2] Newell PJ Climate for change: non-state actors and the global politics of greenhouse  Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 92
[3] Doyle J Picturing the Clima(c)tic: Greenpeace and the Representational Politics of Climate Change Communication Science as Culture Vol. 16, No. 2, 129–150, June 2007
[4] Teske S. Greenpeace Energy [R]evolution: A sustainable global energy outlook 2010 Greenpeace International. ( Available at climate/2010/fullreport.pdf )
[5] IPCC Press Release. on the SRREN. 2011. (Available at
[6] Ungar S. Social Scares and Global Warming: Beyond the Rio Convention.Society and Natural Resources. 1994 8: 443-456
[7] Lynas M. The IPCC Renewables Controversy. 2011. (Available at )
[8] Lynas M. Questions the IPCC must now urgently answer. 2011. (Available at
[9] Pearce F. Greenpeace: Storm-Tossed on the High Sea Green Globe Yearbook 1996 p. 73-79 (Available at )



  1. Richard Tol

    I think you’re on the wrong track here. The “Climate Time Bomb” is about the impacts of climate change, not about emission reduction policy.

    The Climate Time Bomb was one of the first in climate to use the tactic of listing a large number of anecdotes to suggest a trend. That tactic has become widespread, including in the IPCC.

    Note that the Climate Time Bomb was known to the authors of IPCC AR2 and ignored despite government calls to include it.

  2. Shub Niggurath

    Hi Richard
    The ‘Time Bomb’ was about impacts, but a small idea presented in that document is now part of the IPCC dogma (or at least made very, very famous).

    The central conclusion of the SRREN revolves around the ‘doability’ of the high renewable scenario. And the message given out is that only ‘political will’/’lack of the right policies’ stand in the way. Without ‘showing’ how this is done, the IPCC, just as Greenpeace did in 1994, claims that it can be done.

    Also note also the change in the general approach (1994 vs 2011):

    The climate time bomb was known to the AR2 authors but they did not take it seriously. Today, by some misfortune, or otherwise, three Greenpeace generated ‘memes’ are accepted, and taken very seriously, by the IPCC. Greenpeace is taken seriously by the IPCC.

    a) Is there a link between extreme weather and AGW? The IPCC will create a special report on this question. (Well, you cannot lay the blame at Greenpeace’s feet for that, but as you point out, Greenpeace was among the first to popularize this question – which was, as I point out, carried out for reasons completely unconnected from any evidence suggesting such connection. More specifically, it was done to draw attention to their advocated cause.)
    b) ‘Almost all of the world’s energy needs can be met by renewable energy’
    c) ‘Only political will stands in the way of renewable energy adoption’

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