John Passacantando steps down as Greenpeace USA executive director

July 6, 2010

Greenpeace USA Executive Director John Passacantando, who has led one of America’s best known environmental groups for eight years, said he will leave Greenpeace at the end of 2008, Greenpeace announced today.

Known for a style that is equally at ease in a boardroom negotiating with corporate executives or a courtroom after engaging in civil disobedience, Passacantando has strengthened Greenpeace USA in many ways.  During his tenure, Greenpeace exposed ExxonMobil for funding a series of front groups that misinformed the public on global warming and successfully sued the Bush Administration to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act as a result of climate change.  The organization beat an unprecedented federal felony indictment brought by the U.S. Department of Justice in an attempt to stop peaceful civil disobedience and was cleared of politically motivated tax violation allegations under a federal IRS audit that occurred at the behest of an industry front group, according to the lead auditor. 

Under Passacantando’s leadership, the organization grew from 60 to more than 500 staff and saw its annual budget rise to $32 million. He oversaw Greenpeace USA efforts to stop illegal logging in the Amazon, successfully convince dozens of U.S. Representatives to support the most ecologically sound climate protection legislation, train thousands of students and others in the art of environmental activism, and confront political leaders of both parties when measures were floated that would have addressed issues like climate change in name only.

Reflecting on the path he carved for Greenpeace, Passacantando told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2003, “There are many organizations out there that value credibility, but I want Greenpeace first and foremost to be a credible threat.”  

A one-time political conservative and supply-side economics disciple, Passacantando, 47, was converted to the environmental cause in 1987. He says he was motivated by both the destruction of his beloved woods and fishing holes in his native New Jersey and the creative tactics that Greenpeace used to change the debate == from the travels of its flagship Rainbow Warrior to the giant gas mask the organization attempted to hang on George Washington’s image at Mount Rushmore to dramatize acid rain.  He decided that the environment was his generation’s great fight and he wanted to be a part of it.  

After several years making environmental grants at the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, Passacantando in 1992 co-founded Ozone Action, which organized some of the first scientists, mayors, coastal residents, students, business leaders and presidential candidates to speak out against climate change. He began a major research effort to track corporate money spent on front groups created to confuse the public about climate change, work that continues today at Greenpeace’s  When Passacantando assumed the helm of Greenpeace in 2000, he merged Ozone Action with Greenpeace USA, one of the largest offices of a global organization active in more than 40 countries.  

“An Executive Director has many jobs but only one responsibility: leave the organization better off than he or she found it,” said Donald K. Ross, Chairman of the Greenpeace, Inc. Board of Directors. “In his eight years here, John has not only fulfilled his responsibility but exceeded all expectations. His stewardship and vision will be missed.”  

As likely to quote the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu as the film Caddyshack, Passacantando guided Greenpeace through two well-publicized confrontations with the federal government. Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Justice Department prosecuted the organization in 2002 in the aftermath of the group’s peaceful effort to hang a banner on a ship carrying illegal mahogany logs from the Amazon==its first direct action since Sept. 11, 2001. Federal prosecutors used an obscure 1872 “sailor mongering” law to go after Greenpeace, but the organization won in a dramatic trial, successfully protecting the concept of civil disobedience.

In 2005, Greenpeace was the target of a politically motivated audit by the IRS that threatened its tax-exempt status after a group called Public Interest Watch, a self-proclaimed "watchdog of non-profit groups," alleged financial abuse.  After a three-month-long investigation, Greenpeace passed the audit with flying colors. The Wall Street Journal and Business Week later reported that Public Interest Watch was entirely funded by ExxonMobil==a long-time target of Greenpeace. 

Passacantando also expanded the organization’s strategies to include field organizing, the latest in online activism and a Solutions Unit that works behind the scenes with corporations to implement environmentally friendly technology on a large scale. 

“I came to Greenpeace at roughly the same time that George Bush assumed the presidency,” Passacantando said. “It was a dark time in which one of the worst politicians our country has ever seen set out to decimate environmental protections on behalf of the worst polluters.  While Greenpeace was working to block the assaults on the environment, we also emphasized training and building the organization for the time, like now, when we would be able to finally tackle global warming and the destruction of our oceans and ancient forests.” 

Passacantando said that he decided to leave now because “leaders have to know in their hearts when their time is over.  They should leave at the top of their game and leave behind an organization where the next leader can flourish.”  He said he had no firm plans but expects “to be a part of building the green energy economy that will rise out of the ashes of this carbon-based one.”  

Greenpeace has retained the national executive search firm Isaacson, Miller to conduct its search for a new executive director. Inquiries may be directed to [email protected].

“Following John’s legacy will not be an easy task,” said David Chatfield, Chairman of the Greenpeace Fund, Inc. Board of Directors. “Greenpeace is searching for a leader who will expand our central role building the cutting edge of the environmental movement. We need to find another inspired truth-teller who can move our country to action to save the earth.” 

VVPR info: CONTACT: Daniel Kessler, Greenpeace, (970) 690-2728; Michael Crocker, Greenpeace, (202) 319-2471

Notes: For more information on Greenpeace’s accomplishments during Passacantando’s tenure, visit

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