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As Climate Disasters Soar, Environmentalists Take on Role of Relief Agencies

Greenpeace and others are adding 'climate disaster relief' to their missions both for humanitarian purposes and to raise awareness of global warming.

Dec 17, 2012
Greenpeace volunteers distributed food and supplies at a base in Queens.

Greenpeace usually makes its headlines for high-profile stunts—storming oil rigs, scaling coal plants or forming human shields.

But in recent months, the environmental group has been grabbing attention for something more typical of faith-based charities and government agencies: disaster relief.

A day after superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast, Greenpeace activists drove a solar truck into Queens, New York, emblazoned with the words "Coal Free Future." They parked it there for more than a month, charged cell phones and a pop-up medical clinic and warmed food for thousands of storm victims. The group arrived in the area, one of the hardest in New York City, days before the Red Cross or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to reports. It's now assisting in the reconstruction.

"When a disaster happens, it is a no-brainer to get involved if we can," Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace, said.

While big relief agencies and governments provide the heavy lifting for disaster relief—supported by corporatations, local businesses and volunteers—the new role being played by activists like Greenpeace is noteworthy for the ground it breaks.

In the past, Greenpeace would ferry supplies to tsunami-ravaged communities and send climbers on search-and-rescue missions in earthquake zones. But it didn't publicize the work. "We never wanted to grandstand our involvement," Davies said.

Now it's becoming more vocal.

"We saw a bizarre alignment of the election and the storm [Sandy], and the possibility that it could drive climate back onto the national agenda," Davies said. "We want people to clearly understand the connection between Sandy and climate change."

As the number of climate-related disasters increases, Greenpeace is planning to plow more resources into climate disaster relief and make it a more permanent part of its mission, both for humanitarian purposes and to raise awareness on global warming. 

It isn't alone. Although their reasons may vary, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council—which typically fight environmental threats through lawsuits and lobbying—became part-time relief agencies in the wake of Sandy and plan to continue this work.  

"This is going to become a key part of us now," said Jeff Tittel, chair of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, which organized shelter for displaced people and clean-up efforts in Sandy's aftermath.

"We are very tied to our members. The more they, their families and friends are impacted, the more obvious it is we have to help."

What these groups contribute is still a tiny fraction of what's needed, especially in a disaster the size of Sandy, which is expected to cost the region $50 billion.

Expected to Get Worse

The number of natural disasters has more than doubled in the past 30 years, leaving traditional humanitarian aid agencies financially and logistically overwhelmed.

According to Oxfam, a UK-based relief and development organization, humanitarian aid groups are already short of money—as much as $100 billion a year—to cope with the increased frequency and ferocity of events like floods, droughts and hurricanes.

The situation is expected to get worse in the coming years. Oxfam predicts that by 2015, the number of people affected by climate-related natural disasters could increase by more than 50 percent to 375 million people.

A draft of the 2013 report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was leaked online last week, said man-made climate change has caused "large-scale changes" to the oceans, such as warmer water temperatures and changes to ocean circulation. And it predicted that sea level rise will likely exceed the rate of the past four decades by 2100—all factors that will increase the number, strength and devastation of extreme weather events.

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