It's easy to forget just how profoundly Greenpeace reshaped the environmental debate. Twenty years on from the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, the world's richest corporates are at pains to be seen as environmentally friendly.

Some of Greenpeace's favourite targets routinely adopt the language of their harshest critic.

When accused of over-fishing or destroying the seabed through bottom trawling, the fishing industry describes its activities as "sustainable", a word also enlisted by Japan at this year's International Whaling Commission meeting to justify its intention to double the number of whales killed under its so-called "scientific research" programme.

Five years ago, BP spent millions on a "green" re-branding exercise trumpeting its efforts to run petrol stations on solar power.

It is more than three decades since Greenpeace founders sailed an old fishing boat into a United States nuclear testing site at Amchitka, a tiny island off the west coast of Alaska. As the protesters set sail, someone flashed a farewell peace sign. Someone else replied yes, but it has to be green peace.

A year later, the man who went on to lead Greenpeace through the 80s and 90s, Dave McTaggart, was arrested by the French Navy during protests over nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll, a battle that would culminate in the bombing of the Greenpeace flagship in 1985.

McTaggart laid down Greenpeace's founding principle of accepting no funding from industry or governments, imposed a corporate-like management structure and decreed the group would campaign on a handful of key issues using direct, non-violent protest.

Today, Greenpeace is established in 40 countries and has 2.8 million supporters worldwide. In 2003, its income was $275,071 million.

In New Zealand, it has 37,222 members, close to the 1 per cent of population target set for each country. Its income in New Zealand last year was $3.4 million.

Although current membership is more than double the 18,000 it fell to in the mid-1990s, it is well short of the 150,000 it reached after the bombing.

"We were the darling of the public in the late 80s," says long-time Greenpeace staffer and dioxin campaigner Gordon Jackman. "People would ring us up if there was a fire, for god's sake. We were so big, they thought we were the government."

But times change. The organisation is no longer "leading-edge", Jackman says, because it can't be. To be effective on issues such as climate change, it has become a suit-and-tie lobbyist at international forums such as the United Nations.

Jackman, who runs an environmental organisation in Gisborne, still works for Greenpeace but is not as close to the organisation as he once was.

He says the organisation is in pretty good heart but the direct action campaigns of the future are likely to be in countries such as China and other parts of Asia where environmentalists are grappling with problems that dwarf those in the developed world.

"Greenpeace has probably got an incredible future but it ain't going to be controlled by the Europeans. It will be transformed into a Chinese version of Greenpeace or a Thai version of Greenpeace."

Greenpeace International climate campaigner Steve Sawyer, a Rainbow Warrior crew member who was playing pool at the Piha Surf Club on the night of the bombing, largely agrees. "To me the most exciting parts of Greenpeace have always been the frontiers. At one point that was Mururoa and Antarctica, now it's China, India, the Amazon and the Middle East."

The dangers of that strategy are that Greenpeace will become bogged down in the political battles it has traditionally avoided, issues of poverty and human rights abuses.

Jackman believes Greenpeace should align itself with groups battling those problems in order to solve environmental ones.

A teaming of Greenpeace with Buddhist monks in Thailand to fight Australian plans for a coal-fired power station was a case in point.

"The old style of Greenpeace is probably there, in Asia. The new style is at a much more political level, lobbying on things like climate change."

That new style doesn't impress some critics, including Waiheke Island resident and former member Susi Newborn, whose 2003 autobiography charged Greenpeace with abandoning its founding ideals to become part of the "elitist capitalist structure".

Another critic is ex-member Paul Watson, one of those first sailors at Amchitka, who also accuses Greenpeace of going soft.

In a 2001 interview, he said Greenpeace was busy sending men in suits to conferences when the real battle was on the high seas confronting pirates and bandits who were over-fishing and illegally killing whales.

Watson left the organisation in 1977 to found conservation group Sea Shepherd after falling out with McTaggart, who he described as a "con man".

But Cindy Baxter, a former journalist who was alone on the late desk at The Press in Christchurch the night the Warrior was bombed, says climate change is a top priority for Greenpeace and in order to be taken seriously, it has had to produce scientific evidence to back its case.

"Greenpeace has always been media-led," she says. "It's just a way of telling a story so the public understands what that story is."

Baxter has worked for Greenpeace for 20 years and is New Zealand campaign manager. For her, campaigning has always been the "fun bit".

She says Greenpeace New Zealand is in better shape than at any time since the 1980s.

In the 1990s, in New Zealand at least, membership and income fell, staff were laid off and morale was at an all-time low.

Departing executive director Margaret Crozier, with fundraising manager Phil Woollam, is widely credited with turning that around.

The organisation's income has doubled in the past five years in New Zealand and staff numbers have risen from 17 to 25. The New Zealand office is a happy place, Baxter says.

She won't be drawn on possible successors to Crozier, but Bunny McDiarmid, the only New Zealand crew member at the time of the bombing, who was safely at her parents' house that July night, is thought to be one contender.

Jackman, 50, says the environmental battle hasn't changed.

"How do you get people to tighten their belts for the good of all? That's the biggest question we all face."