Peers accuse organisations such as Greenpeace of being multinational corporations that peddle fear

© The GuardianGreenpeace protesters at London's Heathrow airport
Parts of the green movement have become hijacked by a political agenda and now operate like multinational corporations, according to two senior scientists and members of the House of Lords.

The peers, who were speaking at an event in parliament on science policy, said they felt that in some areas green campaign groups were a hindrance to environmental causes.

"Much of the green movement isn't a green movement at all, it's a political movement," said Lord May, who is a former government chief scientific adviser and president of the Royal Society. He singled out Greenpeace as an environmental campaign group that had "transmogrified" into one with primarily an anti-globalisation stance.

"Maybe they are right, but I wish they would wear the uniform of the army they are fighting [under]," said May, adding that he used to be involved with Greenpeace in the 1970s.

Greenpeace's chairman John Sauven said he did not recognise the characterisation. "I don't know who he is talking about," he said, "As far as I know, no mainstream environmental organisation has been anti-globalisation per se...Frankly that does not represent what we are about."

He said that Greenpeace did, however, campaign against examples of unsustainable trade, such as transporting bottled water between continents. "There are a million and one examples of the madness of globalisation that are having a detrimental effect on the environment," he added.

May also criticised green groups who campaign against initiatives such as wind farms and the Severn tidal barrage scheme, while also proclaiming the need to tackle climate change. He said such groups were "failing to recognise the landscape is human-created".

As an example of how attitudes can change, he cited the poet John Ruskin's angry condemnation of the Monsal Dale railway. The line, built in the 1860s, runs through beautiful countryside between Matlock and Buxton. At the time, Ruskin raged: "The valley is gone and the Gods with it, and now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour." The railway is now regarded fondly by many people as an integral part of the landscape, May said.

Lord Krebs, the former chairman of the Food Standards Agency and current principal of Jesus College Oxford also criticised Greenpeace, saying that it had been set up to peddle fear on environmental issues. "Greenpeace is a multinational corporation just like Monsanto or Tesco. They have very effective marketing departments... Their product is worry because worry is what recruits members," he said.

He added that in some areas, such as warning about the effects of climate change, such an approach was justified, but that Greenpeace sometimes chose the wrong issues - for example, nuclear power and GM crops.

Sauven said Greenpeace's resources are a "tiny fraction" of those of Monsanto or Tesco's. "With very few resources, we are a very effective campaigning organisation," he said, adding that he would prefer to take the comments as a compliment. "I can live with that one."

May and Krebs were speaking at a meeting - Science, Policy and Ethics: Potential future flashpoints, for peers and journalists in parliament - which was chaired by the leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Hayman. It was attended by several peers including Lord Cunningham, former agriculture minister and minister for the Cabinet Office in Tony Blair's cabinet, and the broadcaster Lord Bragg.

May said parliamentarians had not done enough to prepare the public for the effect climate change would have on their lives in terms of efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate changes.

"I think there has been a problem of communication," he said. "For some, I think it's the desire not to confront the issue." But, he said, the smoking ban had showed, for example, that public attitudes could change rapidly.