Greenpeace Rainbow sails again

Richard Black
Former environment correspondent

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Rainbow Warrior 3Image source, Other
Image caption,
The new Rainbow Warrior is bigger, faster, greener and better connected than its predecessors

If only ships could tell stories...

Whose would you like to listen to first? HMS Victory? Titanic? The Beagle? A chorus from the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria?

If you wanted something a little more contemporary, you could do worse than listen to the Rainbow Warrior, the flagship of the Greenpeace fleet since 1978.

Its story would be a tour d'horizon around some of the toughest battles since environmentalism was invented: against whaling and nuclear testing, in support of the conservation of Antarctica, against coal burning, in relief of tsunami and nuclear test victims, in support of marine reserves, and - most recently - against deforestation and the rampant exploitation of bluefin tuna.

The Rainbow Warrior could be your guide for the environmental age.

In cocking an ear, though, you'd have to deal with three voices of varying vintages.

The original ship, a converted British trawler, came to the most violent of ends in 1985 when it was blown up by French special forces in New Zealand, in an attempt to scuttle the Greenpeace campaign against French H-bomb tests in its Pacific colonies.

As Greenpeace put it at the time, the ship was sunk but not the rainbow... and so the second Rainbow Warrior came into service.

Green rainbow

Rainbow Warrior 3 is bigger, faster, greener and in better communication with the outside world than either of its predecessors.

It should be able to go most places under sail, for example. It's equipped with "black" and "grey" water systems to minimise fresh water requirements, and features a helicopter landing deck for the first time.

The question facing Greenpeace, though, as it celebrates the launch, is how the vessel should best be deployed in support of various environmental goals.

The biggest issue of all for the organisation is climate change.

But how do you use a ship to unblock a political process that appears to be winding itself into a tighter and more convoluted ball every time it convenes?

Image source, Other
Image caption,
The original Rainbow Warrior lies on the seabed near New Zealand as an artificial reef

Combating whaling was a cinch by comparison.

Only a few countries did it by the time Greenpeace entered the battle, and each had only a few vessels.

So frustrating them at sea was a relatively simple thing to do; and in the earliest days, the footage filmed during the fray was spectacular and novel enough to make a huge contribution to the organisation's cause.

Atomic bomb testing, as well, was the domain of just a few nations.

And sailing close to the mushroom clouds, evacuating islanders who'd felt the ash rain down from a colonial power half a world away, was again a sure-fire way to win in the court of public opinion - even if the French government had not guaranteed itself a defeat by its cack-handed resort to force in Auckland.

The modern tuna campaign carries echoes of the old whaling years, though the emotions it raises in public hearts may not be as fierce.

But climate change? It's a truly tough one.

River of fire

Some while back, I was talking about priorities for environmental groups with someone who was in virtually at the beginning of it all.

The thing is, she said, that the easy victories have all been won.

When you had chemical pesticides turning spring silent, when you had rivers catching fire because of all the pollutants in them, when you had pictures of whales covered in blood dripping from their half-exploded heads - how could you not, eventually, win?

But persuading people to increase energy efficiency, drive a bit less, curb flying, swap their economies to alternative fuels - in a context that involves every single country in some way or other - well, that's tough.

One place the Rainbow Warrior 3 might be going soon, I guess, is Indonesia.

If it were feasible, Greenpeace might want to sail it up to the door of President Yudhoyono and ask why the organisation's UK director, John Sauven, was refused entry to Indonesia and deported earlier this week - despite having a valid visa.

Mr Sauven's trip was connected to highlighting deforestation in Sumatra. Mr Yudhoyono said last month he would dedicate the final three years of his presidency to fighting deforestation.

You might have thought their stars were aligned.

The on-going loss of tropical forests, and the implications that has for climate change, biodiversity, rural livelihoods and water supplies illustrates the reason why environmental groups are still very much needed, despite the successes of the past.

One wonders, though, what tales Rainbow Warrior 3 will have to tell at the end of its working life - and how much of a dent it'll manage to make on the less tractable issues that head today's agenda.

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