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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
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Greenpeace volunteers distributed food and supplies at a base in Queens.

"There is no doubt that climate change is becoming a part of our operations," Louis Belanger, a spokesperson for Oxfam told InsideClimate News. The international aid group is struggling to shift more funds to natural disaster relief and climate-mitigation programs, while not taking money away from political and violent crisis zones like the Republic of Congo.

It's a balancing act, Belanger said. Oxfam currently spends about $280 million annually from governments and private donors to provide food, water, shelter and medical care to communities reeling from natural and other disasters.

Green Groups: Who's Doing What

Davies of Greenpeace said that ramping up disaster relief isn't "a big leap" for his organization.

"People have the idea that Greenpeace is almost like a green police force, so we get calls from across the country expecting us to be able to show up immediately and help out," Davies said. "This expectation has forced us to be nimble with both finances and people, two things that are necessary for disaster relief."

Greenpeace currently funds disaster relief through a flexible part of its general operating budget. But it's looking to set up a separate reserve and to approach donors to fund it. Greenpeace International and its national branches have a combined yearly budget of roughly $300 million.

Others are just beginning to formulate strategies.

Bruce Hamilton, the deputy executive director of the national Sierra Club, put his group's disaster work this way: "We're not the Red Cross. Our central mission isn't to provide relief. But we care about people, so we are going to help however we can."

Hamilton said Sierra Club wouldn't be able to set up a permanent fund for relief efforts since its donations are generally made for a particular project, such as stopping a new coal-fired power plant or protecting a specific tract of land from development. However, the group is discussing what the national branch can do and will continue to support local chapters' efforts to engage in disaster relief.

The Natural Resources Defense Council gave money to organizations directly involved in Sandy relief work, including the Mayor's Fund for Hurricane Relief, Community FoodBank of New Jersey and the Empire State Relief Fund—though it wouldn't reveal how much. The group is also hoping to get more involved on the ground in the future, with things like rebuilding neighborhoods and distributing emergency supplies.

350.org, the climate advocacy group founded by activist and author Bill McKibben, helped recruit volunteers.

Even the Nature Conservancy, which has yet to get involved in humanitarian relief and usually focuses on protecting land and waterways, is "exploring" entering the aid game, according to spokesman Adam Bloom.

Traditional disaster relief organizations seem torn in their response to these initiatives.

Anne Marie Borrego, a spokesperson for the Red Cross, said her group "welcomes" the help of green groups. "Disasters like superstorm Sandy are so large that they require assistance from many groups—government, nonprofit, businesses and the like."

Belanger at Oxfam, however, was skeptical about whether environmental groups could dive into the "massive humanitarian responses" needed to deal with the aftermath of these events.

Environmentalists understand their efforts will never be on the scale of international relief agencies.

"We're not trying to replace organizations like the Red Cross," Davies of Greenpeace said. But he added, "How can [environmental groups] warn about the dangers of climate change and not help those affected if we're able?"


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