The new face of environmental activism

Worrier princess: Lucy Lawless has converted her eco concerns into an on-screen appeal.
Worrier princess: Lucy Lawless has converted her eco concerns into an on-screen appeal.

The respectable faces of environmental activism have plucked eyebrows and discreetly applied lip gloss.

Their names are listed at the end of television shows and the start of company reports.

On a rainy Auckland Tuesday, nobody is scaling a coal-fired power station or storming a whaling ship. But they are pushing an environmental message. The rich, the famous, the as-seen-on-Shortland-Street have gathered in a Mt Eden film studio to convince government to act faster against climate change.

Actors Lucy Lawless and Keisha Castle Hughes are here. So is former vodka mogul Geoff Ross, The Warehouse founder Stephen Tindall and recently sacked Niwa scientist Jim Salinger. Roll out the green carpet the celebrity activist has something to say.

"There is no Planet B," says Lawless.

"The science is bloody obvious," says Salinger.

They take their place in front of a video camera, on the gaffer-taped mark on the floor, and prepare to take Greenpeace where it's never been before: the middle market.

Over the next seven months, local celebrities will attempt to convince 300,000 Kiwis to sign-on to a call for a 40 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. It's the biggest and most mainstream public mobilisation the usually radical environmental movement has attempted.

"We believe government does not feel it has a clear mandate to take strong action on climate change," says Greenpeace. "We need to change this perception."

In December, world leaders will gather in Copenhagen for the United Nations climate change conference. The Danish government is calling it the "crucial conference" where the aim is global agreement on a plan to reduce the total quantity of greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity. New Zealand has committed to a 50% reduction on its 1990 emission levels by 2050.

That's not fast enough, says Greenpeace executive director Bunny McDiarmid.

"Most of the people in government won't be around in 2050, so they won't be held accountable. If you're being a responsible government, what happens in the next 10 years on climate change is going to be what counts."

McDiarmid was a 28-year-old deckhand when Greenpeace protest ship the Rainbow Warrior en route to protest nuclear weapons testing was bombed in Auckland harbour by French secret service agents

Climate change is, says McDiarmid, "the biggest thing humanity has faced". Bigger than nuclear bombs?

"As long as we didn't push that button we were OK. But we have pushed this button already.

"In my 25 years of working in the environmental movement I have never felt so scared and motivated by what is at stake for all of us... this is an issue that will touch every single person's life, if it hasn't already."

McDiarmid says the Greenpeace target is based on work by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Implementing a 40% cut in emissions, in a country where half of those emissions come from agriculture, would, she acknowledges, require "a transformation of the way we're doing our farming".

Why bother when, as a nation, we contribute to less than half a percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions?

"The world economy is already being affected by climate change. To think our little economy is going to survive and be different because we choose not to participate in these negotiations at the level at which we should...

"We're all in the same little boat. There is a lot of work going into what the impacts will be for countries like New Zealand, but I would argue we're probably already seeing them in terms of our droughts, and the cost of those droughts, here and internationally. You're talking millions and millions of dollars and people's livelihoods and lives being wiped out, and that has to be weighted against the cost of acting now."

In March 2008, six Greenpeace climate change activists were arrested when they took to sea to stop a coal ship leaving Lyttelton harbour. In October, four protesters were arrested when they chained themselves to forestry equipment near Tokoroa.

No one was arrested in the making of the new celebrity Sign On campaign. Has Greenpeace gone soft?

"Hopefully we always remain a little unpredictable," McDiarmid says. "This may be the necessary and unpredictable strand of this campaign.

"The more diverse the Kiwis are who are saying this is important, the better.

"They almost need to be an odd bunch of bedfellows."

Lucy Lawlessthe Warrior Princess turned eco-Queen gets "one, maybe two" requests a week to endorse products and causes.

"I just can't get that jazzed about getting a free, I don't know, washing machine. How do I choose what I support? By my gut and by the integrity of the organisation."

She says she has inherited a planet that has been rubbished. "I'm pissed at former generations for having been ignorant and stupid and greedy, but it's our job to start cleaning up."

Lights. Camera. Action. "Hi, I'm Robyn Malcolm... Cliff Curtis... Peter Gordon... Emily Barclay... Toni Potter..."

Potter aka Shortland Street's nurse Alice Piper is first up. She wears Ugg Boots and carries a "one less plastic bag" bag. When the Greenpeace team made its pitch to the South Pacific Pictures cast, the response was rapid. Four actors from the hospital soap have fronted up.

"It's now or never," Potter paints on a giant banner. "It's time to be a good global citizen," scrawls cast-mate Sarah Thomson. Harry McNaughton, who plays fresh-faced Gerald, says he struggles with the concept of fame; the idea people might care about his opinion. "I can't deal with that at all. But if people do, if they want to put this on TV or a billboard or a bus stop, that's awesome... if it makes someone sign up, then I've done my job."

What hits home, says McNaughton, 21, "is the idea this is going to be within your lifetime, or my little niece and nephew's lifetime.

"The stuff about Pacific atolls that are only just above sea level as it is, the fact that a third of the world's population lives within 100ft of the water's edge. If that starts to get f---ed with, that's pretty devastating."

Did he just use the F-word? The newly image-conscious Greenpeace would rather he didn't. "OK," says McNaughton, "change it..."

There are no scripts at today's video shoot. Everybody is working for free. Advertising agency Publicis Mojo has pulled in international fashion photographer Derek Henderson and high end television commercial company Curious Films. They've also supplied lunch: egg sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, small rolls with thinly sliced beef and frilly lettuce. Not a dollop of hummus in sight.

Geoff Ross, the man who sold 42Below to liquor giant Bacardi, is waiting patiently for his turn in front of the camera. What's a nice right-wing capitalist doing painting placards in a place like this?

"I think this is a business opportunity for New Zealand and New Zealanders. There's a huge social change going to happen. Probably the biggest growth industry in the first part of this century will be around climate change. It's the classic case of supply and demand. There's going to be increasing demand for brands, services and products that are doing their bit to help clean up the globe."

But does he believe in anthropogenic or human induced climate change? "Common sense tells me there's an issue. Some of those cities in south China, you look up at the sky and what you see isn't that flash. I've been to Mexico City and the minute I stepped out of the airport, my eyes were stinging."

He imagines a set of scales: on the one side, "all this shit" going into the atmosphere. On the other, the forests that are supposed to suck up our bad behaviour. "My gut tells me that scale is leaning a bit too much one way."

Ross's very presence in a Greenpeace campaign provides balance.

"In some quarters, the issue is something for lefty, hemp wearing, mung bean eaters. I'm a mega National supporter and proud of that.

"This is not something that just lefties should think about. It's something New Zealanders need to think about, because we should care about what's happening to our globe and we should care, because here's an opportunity to make a lot of money."

Last week, National's Nick Smith told a conference in Wellington that climate change was "government's No1 environmental priority".

He said the science was mind-blowingly complicated and the issue was as much about economics as the environment. "Our modern societies are dependent on fossil fuels that every industry will need to radically change, and that change will come at a cost."

New Zealand's emissions, he said, had been growing at one of the fastest rates in the developed world.

"Since 2000, the proportion of renewable energy has steadily declined and we have doubled coal-generated power production. The reversal from five decades of impressive afforestation to significant deforestation in recent years has added to our ugly numbers.

"It is just unrealistic to continue to pretend we are, or can be, world leaders in reducing emissions."

Back at the Sign On set, Outrageous Fortune actor Robyn Malcolm is in the makeup chair, battling with clumpy mascara and saying why she wants government to commit to a 40 percent reduction in emissions in the next decade. "I grew up in the 70s and 80s when the wealth and success of the individual took precedence over the health of the community. That has to change. We live in a global community facing the biggest crisis we've ever known.

"We have to lobby the government, lobby John Key, to do the right thing this year in Copenhagen. We've got to send a message to our government to send a message to the world."

Climate change sceptics argue weather patterns change naturally, but Malcolm says she's read both sides of the debate. "We're at a point where most of the scientists, all the peer-reviewed reports, all say they're now 98% sure that climate change is happening and it's a result of what human beings are doing to the planet."

Can a celebrity sound bite save the world? "Whether you like it or not, celebrities get noticed. So you might as well get noticed doing something you believe in. It's not about turning up to the opening of an envelope, it's about standing up for what you believe in."

And then she faces the camera: "I've signed on because it's my responsibility as a citizen of New Zealand and a mother to my children."

Sunday Star Times