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Nearly six months after the Rena ran aground off the coast of Tauranga spreading oil and debris along east coast beaches, the damage from the marine disaster continues to spread.

Bad weather today caused more containers to fall from the ship. Sentencing of the Rena captain and crew members, who pled guilty to mishandling the vessel and altering ship documents after the crash, is set down for May 25. The cost of the disaster clean-up has spiralled to $130 million.

Ghost Bird

Ghost Bird

Now Greenpeace has been censured by the Advertising Standards Authority (click for judgement) for running an advert that the authority considered exaggerated the loss of birdlife that resulted from the Rena oil spill. The ad doesn’t appear to be online, but this Ghost Birds Greenpeace video will give you an idea of the type of impact it was attempting to make.

An ASA complaint by vocal climate sceptic Bryan Leyland and others has been partially upheld under Basic Principle 4 and Rules 2 and 11 of the Code of Ethics in the advertising standards. A second aspect of the complaint was not upheld.

What did Greenpeace do wrong? It created an ad that “misled and or deceived” the audience and which wasn’t prepared with a “due sense of social responsibility”.

The hard-hitting advert prepared by the NGO featured the following titles:

’Over 20,000 birds were killed by the ‘Rena’ oil spill’

The next screen reads:

’Deep sea oil drilling could be 1000 times worse’

The closing screen then appears which reads:

’GREENPEACE Sign the petition.  Txt you name to 5806’

Leyland and others pointed out that publicly available sources suggested that only 1300 or so birds had died as a result of the Rena oil spill and complained that:

20,000 has to be a gross exaggeration which is putting to create [sic] an atmosphere of fear.

They also took issue with the “1000 times worse” claim Greenpeace made as a warning call against allowing deep sea oil drilling in New Zealand waters.

This amounts to 20,000,000 seabirds!  I doubt if there aren’t that many seabirds around the whole of the New Zealand coast,  let alone in the Bay of Plenty.

Leyland, understandably, asked Greenpeace to document the claims made in the advertisement produced by ad firm Publicis Mojo. Greenpeace responded, though not cinvincingly enough for the ASA. It pointed to  figures supplied by Dr Brett Gartell, manager of the National Oiled Wildlife Response Centre based at Massey University, who was on the frontline of treating animals affected by the oil spill and identified 2,000 birds as having died as a direct result of it. But then Greenpeace went on to state…

The estimated figure of 20,000 birds is based on UK and US research which has found that in instances of oil spills, bird carcasses recovered represent only approximately 10% of actual fatalities.

Unfortunately Greenpeace doesn’t cite the specific UK research, so doesn’t help its own case. In fact, it appears as though Greenpeace came across the claim in this TV3 story. Instead it points out:

It is never possible to calculate wildlife fatalities resulting from disasters of this type with any great precision.

Why feature the figure prominently in a hard-hitting advert then?

1000 times worse

Rena's oily mess

Rena's oily mess

Next the ASA considered the issue of the impact of a Deepwater Horizon-type spill in New Zealand waters being 1000 times worse than Rena. On the face of it, this sounds much more reasonable. We know Deepwater Horizon was a major disaster impacting the Gulf of Mexico and releasing vast amounts of oil. Greenpeace argued that it wasn’t talking here about bird casualties specifically, but the general environmental impact of a major oil spill.

If you look at the relative size of the spills – 350 tonnes from Rena versus four million barrels from Deepwater Horizon, they’d appear to make a valid case. But is that really an accurate way of explaining things? Who knows, Greenpeace didn’t do any solid research on that:

Whilst the sheer numbers of birds killed in a New Zealand oil blow out might not be 1000 x 20,000 it is the overall extent of the harm caused to a diversity of species, to ecosystems, over a much greater area of coast and ocean and the ability for ecosystems and species to recover and the time span over which harm would be caused which “could” reasonably be 1000 times worse with an oil blow out of a scale similar to the Deep-water Horizon disaster.

Greenpeace convinced the ASA that it was presenting the claim as opinion, so avoided censure on the “1000 times worse” claim, but was stung for overstating the bird casualties figure. It also took a potshot at Leyland personally:

Greenpeace is concerned as to the motivation behind B. Leyland’s complaint. B. Leyland is well known for his commentary as a climate change denier. He is a founding member of the Climate Science Coalition, New Zealand’s leading climate change denial organization. There is a very clear and direct connection between oil campaign work and climate change.

All of the above may well be true, but the facts should speak for themselves and in this case Greenpeace weren’t able to back up their claims with robust evidence.

It helps no one – Greenpeace, the scientists, the media, the public – to overstate environmental disasters and the potential risk and impact of future incidents.

It is disrespectful of the science, misinforms the public and erodes the trustworthiness of Greenpeace, which does a lot of genuinely good work, but doesn’t do itself any favours by stretching the truth to further its own ends.

Just stick to the science. Both Greenpeace – and the climate sceptics, would be more convincing if they did so – and the public better informed of the true seriousness of the issues.