Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Iceland: Greenpeace’s Shameful Silence

Merrick, 15th March 2006ce

The Icelandic government is planning to destroy the largest remaining intact wilderness in Europe by building the Kárahnjúkar dam. It will be the largest dam of its kind in Europe, creating a reservoir of around 60 sq km. It’s not just that the submerged land will be obliterated, but the land beyond the dam will be deprived of water.

The area is land of huge ecological significance, designated an environmentally protected area, the oldest surviving areas of Iceland’s original vegetation. Around 380 square miles will be directly affected, with adjacent rivers, land and sea secondarily impacted.

To give you some context, it’s a reservoir roughly the size of Oxford with devastating direct impact on a surrounding delicate unspoilt ecosystem the size of Greater London.

It is being built solely to power a smelter for American aluminium company Alcoa. Smelters are among the most polluting installations on earth, producing a range of toxic emissions including tetra-fluoromethane and hexa-fluoromethane, which are literally thousands of times more powerful in producing the greenhouse effect than CO2. Smelters are an environmental catastrophe, and all the more so in Iceland where until now there has been very little heavy industry.

Whilst many environmental organisations such as WWF, BirdLife International and Friends of the Earth have made representations about Kárahnjúkar, Greenpeace have said nothing. Clearly, they cannot be unaware of the project. It’s just that they are busy ‘offering to help the government promote nature tourism as an alternative to whaling’. They even have a pledge to sign where you say you’ll visit Iceland if whaling stops.

They tell their subscribers the only ecological concern in Iceland is the slaughter of 500 whales, they encourage the further pollution from tourists flying to Iceland and sweep all other concerns, even one as mighty as Kárahnjúkar, under the carpet.

Greenpeace members are being deliberately kept away from an important environmental issue that they have the power to affect. I suspect a majority of Greenpeace members - especially those who’ve been convinced to sign the pledge - would be shocked to find this out, and feel deceived and betrayed.


Of course, Greenpeace cannot campaign on everything. Like any group concerned with a wide range of issues, by default they are ignoring a great many things they oppose. But that still doesn’t explain the total silence on Kárahnjúkar, especially as they recently stated unequivocally, ‘world governments must also ban large-scale industrial activity in all large intact and sensitive areas’.

To show they mean it, they give an example; ‘Canadian company Noranda plans to flood 10,000ha of forest in order to build dams and a highly polluting aluminium smelter known as Alumysa.’

Remind you of anywhere?

The response for Alumysa was to try to stop the entire project, taking possession of an area of the threatened land.

There’s a reason for the vast discrepancy in their reactions. In the 1970s Greenpeace took a confrontational approach to Icelandic whaling that got them a bad name in the country. Even today Icelanders commonly support whaling, and visits by Greenpeace are greeted with people barbecuing whale meat.

Desperate to make an impact on the issue in a way that avoids the counter-productive head-on approach, Greenpeace has been trying to make the Icelandic government see its wild nature as an opportunity to sell itself as an eco-tourist heaven with the Icelandic people as considerate custodians rather than slaughterers.

If they held their hands up to it, you could at least respect their honesty if not their integrity. ‘We were founded on anti-whaling, and defending these charismatic megafauna is what keep the subscribers opening their wallets, so if there’s a clash between anything and whales, the whales win’.

This would be taking a somewhat narrow view, as the climate change encouraged by the smelters and dams will have a devastating effect on the currents and fish that the whales depend on, but it would at least be honest. However, such an admission would make Greenpeace look really bad, so they ignore the issue until directly confronted, then sidestep it.


In personal correspondence, Greenpeace staff say the organisation opposes the dam. But I can’t find a single published example of them saying so.

Ludmilla Baars of Greenpeace International dismisses the Icelandic dams as a mere ‘local issue’, too small for them to confront; ‘Greenpeace has limited resources and so chooses to focus on major threats to ecosystems and species - we simply don't have the ability to address destruction at all places and all levels.’

The idea that the dams are not a major threat to ecosystems and species is absurd. Kárahnjúkar, even by the standards of dams, is a gargantuan project. The flooding of land destroys calving grounds for reindeer, mating grounds for rare birds, and prevents the river silt from flowing out to sea, altering the chemical balance of the waters encouraging greater CO2 emissions.

Kárahnjúkar, huge as it is, is not even the half of it. There are plans to dam all the major glacial rivers of Iceland to generate power for highly polluting heavy industry. It is not a piffling local issue. It is by far the largest industrial assault on wild nature in Western Europe.

If this were in some more well-known area of European protected land, if this were Snowdonia or the Black Forest, then millions of people – and certainly all the mainstream environmental organisations – would be up in arms about it. But as Iceland is far-flung it’s not in the public eye and so is convenient for Greenpeace, keen not to upset the Icelandic government, to ignore.

In October 2005 New Internationalist published an article about Greenpeace’s compromise and corporatisation. The following month Gerd Leipold, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, responded that Greenpeace’s unwavering mission was ‘to expose environmental criminals, and to challenge government and corporations when they fail to live up to their mandate to safeguard our environment and our future’.

Yet the September 2003 Rainbow Warrior visit to Iceland met with the US ambassador and seemingly just congratulated him on his opposition to whaling instead of challenging American industry's foisting of serious pollution on to Iceland and the largest unspoilt wilderness in Europe.

When specifically asked, Greenpeace’s Frode Pleym explained that ‘the reason for not getting involved in the dam issue was that we felt that the decision making process had gone too far.’

This flimsy decoy doesn't stand up in the least. The first obvious question is to why they didn't oppose it earlier, when there was a chance of stopping it. A dam on this scale is hardly sprung on you, the planning process takes a long time, yet Greenpeace didn't speak up at all. For many years after it was proposed the project hung in the balance. As late as August 2001 the Iceland Planning Agency rejected the plan, citing ‘substantial, irreversible negative environmental impact’. This could have been capitalised upon.

But, more to the point, even now the process is not too far gone when you see the slightly bigger picture. There are at least ten more dams currently in the planning stages on which final decisions have yet to be made. A clear and stated aim of the anti-Kárahnjúkar campaign is to raise awareness of what this really is, of the campaign's real chance of success in winning the environmental arguments to prevent the further dams.


The dam plans are hugely contentious in Iceland, to the extent that summer 2005 saw the first ever direct action campaign in Icelandic history. People have put themselves on the line with an inventive assortment of non-violent confrontational tactics, precisely the sort of thing Greenpeace is famed for doing. The fight is by no means over. Another international action camp is already being planned for next summer, and promises to be far larger than 2005’s.

The campaign against the dams, already large, is growing and intensifying. On 7th January there was a massive benefit concert in Reykjavik featuring Björk, Sigur Rós, Múm and every other notable contemporary Icelandic band, billed as being 'for the fight against the dams’ - note the plural, it’s not just about Kárahnjúkar – ‘and heavy industrialisation of the largest remaining pristine European wilderness'.

A concert with an audience 6,000 strong in a country with a population the size of Bradford is significant, and more so when you take into account the seriousness with which Icelanders regard the opinions of artists. The following week, Reykjavík council withdrew their support for the Thjórsárver dam, and it looks as if the project may well be dropped.

There is everything to play for in Iceland. Most of the proposed industrialisation has yet to be approved. The planning process is certainly not too far gone.

Greenpeace, assuming they do have half an ear to the environmental ground, know all this. Yet they're not talking about it at all. So they are deliberately keeping quiet, then. Choosing to abandon their founding principles and betray their members’ wishes.


Whilst they undoubtedly do a massive amount of great work elsewhere, on the Icelandic dam issue they not only shame themselves with deliberate silence and pathetic excuses, but utterly betray themselves with lies defending the dam builders.

When Frode Pleym was one of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior crew on the ship’s 2003 visit to Iceland he said, ‘Iceland is actually a model nation environmentally in many respects, and a strong ally to Greenpeace internationally on several issues - from ocean pollution to fisheries management to climate change - that whaling needs to be seen as the anomaly it is’.

This is an outright lie.

Iceland has been planning the smelters since the mid 1990s, and has been consistently and vocally clear that this means a big increase in its greenhouse gases. Whilst other countries signed up to the Kyoto Protocol’s modest emission reduction targets, Iceland negotiated itself a 10% increase – the largest of the two increases granted.

Yet this was still not enough. In the negotiations for the Protocol, Iceland made clear that in addition to their increase they wanted exemptions for emission-heavy projects, specifically citing aluminium smelters. In 1997 the Icelandic government explicitly said, ‘obligations to limit emissions of greenhouse gases should not prevent new energy-intensive industrial development in the country’.

They went further, submitting a proposal at the November 1998 COP-4 intergovernmental climate talks in Buenos Aires to amend the Kyoto Protocol to discount emissions from ‘single projects’ of this kind, again specifically citing smelters. The Climate Action Network, of which Greenpeace is a member, emphatically called for Iceland’s single projects proposal to be rejected. Agreement of the controversial proposal wasn’t reached at the talks, but Iceland kept pushing at subsequent talks until the exemption was finally agreed at COP-7 in 2001.


The exemption applies to projects using 'renewable' energy. However, hydroelectric dams are not clean, green friends of the climate. The plantlife they submerge decays without oxygen, so it gives off methane. Even after the initial flooding of the land, methane production continues as seasonal drops in reservoir levels allow plants to grow which are later submerged. This is serious stuff - methane's impact on the greenhouse effect is more than 20 times that of CO2.

So, for example, a study of the greenhouse effect emissions from the Curuá-Una dam in Brazil showed that, even more than a decade after filling, it was nearly four times worse than if the same amount of electricity had been generated from burning oil.

The World Commission on Dams – despite being paid by the largest funder of dams the World Bank – said, 'there is no justification for claiming that hydro-electricity does not contribute significantly to global warming'.

For a supposed solution to climate change to encourage hydroelectric dams is absurd. Moreover, calling Kárahnjúkar renewable stretches the definition of the word somewhat. The dam will entirely silt up somewhere between 50 and 400 years after opening, never to be usable again.

Furthermore, that silt should have gone out to sea where it would have bonded atmospheric CO2 with calcium to form calcite and other minerals. This effect is greatest in heavily silted rivers of recently formed volcanic territory such as Iceland. Instead, the silt will clog up the ‘renewable’ dam and the CO2 will remain in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

All this is a considerable attack on Kyoto’s attempt to curb emissions. Even excluding the silt and methane issues, the single project exemption could lead to an increase in emissions from Iceland by as much as 67.4% from 1990 levels by 2010, based only on present project proposals.


So, for over a decade Iceland has been pushing to dramatically increase its contribution to climate change. This is quite plainly not a country that is a strong ally to Greenpeace on the issue. That claim was make by someone from Greenpeace who surely knows about the smelters, yet was choosing to ignore them because it might interfere with the ill-judged attempt to get Iceland to stop whaling.

Greenpeace’s strategy depends on having eco-tourism as the carrot rather than criticism, direct action and the imperative need for sustainability as the stick, and they’re holding themselves to that plan no matter how much it contradicts their core values. It puts Greenpeace in a position that directly helps Alcoa’s environmental devastation and accelerates climate change.

The strategy is not only about the destruction caused by the dams and smelters. How do we think all those eco-tourist pledgers would travel? From Britain, the boat - hardly a model of environmental sustainability anyway - takes three days and costs about £400, whereas the far more polluting flights take a couple of hours and cost about 70 quid.

Kárahnjúkar and the other planned projects are a drastic change in Icelandic life. They constitute an ecological assault on several fronts; the loss of habitat and the life it supports due to the dams, the loss of habitat from the mining of the ores elsewhere in the world, the vast energy expended to ship it all to and from Iceland, and the pollution – including serious climate change contribution – from the smelter’s emissions.

Iceland is threatening to become a vast industrial estate for some of the most polluting activities of heavy industry. If Greenpeace cannot speak out against this - and in fact cover it up - if they are directing energy into offering environmentally destructive profits rather than calling for a reduction in overconsumption of resources, then they are losing sight of their purpose for existing.

They do indeed find themselves to be strong allies on climate change with the Icelandic government, but both of them are on the wrong side of the fence.