Steve Sawyer, 1956-2019

by Mark Floegel

August 1, 2019

Former Greenpeace US and Greenpeace International Executive Director Steve Sawyer died 31 July 2019, shortly after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was the senior policy advisor at the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC).

From 2007-17 as the GWEC’s general secretary, Steve represented the wind industry and worked to convince governments to adopt wind as the solution to growing energy demand and carbon emissions. During Steve’s tenure at the head of the Council, global wind installations grew from 74 gigawatts to 539 gigawatts and became one of the world’s most important energy sources. He contributed significantly to the development of the wind industry in places such as India, China, Brazil and South Africa. He was a prominent speaker in public and private forums, and wrote many articles, blogs and position papers.

He previously served as executive director of Greenpeace US from 1986-88 and Greenpeace International from 1988- 1993. At both the Global Wind Energy Council and Greenpeace, Sawyer was driven by a fierce love of nature and the sea.

Stephen Gregory Sawyer was born 10 July 1956 in Antrim, New Hampshire.  His parents were Winslow and Frances Sawyer. He studied philosophy at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1978. His reading of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, and Saul Alinsky pulled him toward the rising environmental movement. From Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings he drew lifelong inspiration for seemingly hopeless causes.

Sawyer joined Greenpeace as a door-to-door canvasser after his own door was knocked by a representative of the organization in 1978.  He quickly rose through the organization and by 1980 had joined the crew of the group’s flagship vessel, Rainbow Warrior.

Sawyer’s story and that of the Rainbow Warrior would be entwined throughout Greenpeace’s early days. He lent his maritime knowledge to a refit in Stonington, Maine to prepare for a crossing of the Pacific Ocean. It was there that the ship took on a mercy mission in 1985, relocating the inhabitants of the Rongelap atoll, poisoned by fallout from US atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. Steve and the crew relocated the entire community and all their worldly belongings, whose requests for relocation had been denied by the US Government, despite rising incidence of cancer and birth defects.

It was aboard that vessel he and the crew were celebrating his 29th birthday on 10 July 1985 in Auckland, New Zealand when two limpet mines – later revealed to have been planted by the French Secret Service – sent the ship to the bottom of the harbour, taking the life of photographer Fernando Pereira. It was an act of state terrorism in reaction to Greenpeace protests against nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific, a cause Sawyer spearheaded. The attack backfired, propelling the cause of the Pacific Islanders victimized by testing into the limelight and driving massive growth at Greenpeace as donations and expressions of support poured in.

Sawyer’s handling of the aftermath, and the successful lawsuit against the French Government for damages, saw him named as executive director of Greenpeace US in 1986 and in 1988 he was named Executive Director of Greenpeace International.

Greenpeace had some of its greatest triumphs in the years Sawyer was at the helm – from the declaration of Antarctica as off-limits to gas and oil exploration, to the Montreal Protocol limiting ozone-depleting gases; to an end to radioactive waste dumping at sea worldwide. He also led Greenpeace to begin campaigning in earnest against climate change long before most of the environmental movement understood the threat. According to insiders, his tenure marked the coming of age of an organization.

“Greenpeace is a terribly difficult organization to lead,” former colleague Peter Dykstra, now of the Environmental Health Network, said, “You have to be an authority figure to people who reject authority.  Steve had the perfect intellect and temperament for the job.”

In 2001 Sawyer shifted his focus exclusively to the existential threat of climate change. Through his work at Greenpeace and the Wind Energy Council he became a familiar figure at the annual UN climate talks and fought fiercely to awaken governments and corporations to the dangers of rising temperatures. He had a scholarly understanding of the science, an activist’s anger at inaction, and a strategist’s eye for where to apply pressure or introduce solutions.

He is survived by his wife Kelly Rigg, his daughter Layla and his son Sam.


Mark Floegel

By Mark Floegel

Mark Floegel is the Research Director with Greenpeace USA. A former journalist, he's been working in public interest advocacy for 30 years, with Greenpeace since 1989. In his current role, Mark helps determine long-range strategic direction for Greenpeace and the execution of Greenpeace campaigns.

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