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Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps/AP

Disaster 24/7?

Environment | Some relief groups are diverting resources from helping the needy to climate change

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

For almost three decades Mercy Corps has mastered the business of relieving the needs of disaster victims and suffering societies worldwide. Floods, earthquakes, poverty, famine-the organization responds to crises on the ground with swift and efficient work that produces immediate, tangible, and donor-satisfying results. When displaced people groups are without homes, Mercy Corps builds shelters. When disease ravages the world's poorest regions, Mercy Corps provides health care.

But in recent years the organization has diverted some of its time and financial resources toward tackling an issue that has yet to produce comparable consequences. Mercy Corps has joined the business of fighting climate change. Jim Jarvie, the agency's director of this new enterprise, calls rising global temperatures "the most serious threat to communities where we work" and says Mercy Corps must adapt its programs to account for this "24/7 natural disaster."

To that end, the organization recently hired an independent firm to assess its carbon footprint and provide recommendations for the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions. Mercy Corps has since committed to power its headquarters in Portland, Ore., with renewable energy and is developing strategies to offset its work-related emissions on the carbon-trading market. Field staffers in remote areas are considering the feasibility of a switch to biodiesel in their relief vehicles. And leaders of programs for economic development in underdeveloped countries are encouraging local populations to use greener fuels and methods for cooking.

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Such practices cost money, money that donors intended to alleviate suffering around the world. Mercy Corps spokesperson Susan Laarman says the fight against climate change meets that criterion because it "helps the people in the communities where we work who are experiencing or, we think, will be experiencing the effects. It's generally agreed that it's the very poor who are the most vulnerable and who have contributed to the problem the least that will be the most affected."

Mercy Corps is hardly alone in that assessment. Many other nongovernment relief organizations, such as Christian Aid, World Vision, and Oxfam International, are taking steps toward reducing their emissions and helping impoverished people prepare for potential changes in sea level, weather patterns, and agriculture.

World Vision spokesman Dean Owen told WORLD that climate change could undermine his agency's 50 years of work to relieve poverty.

Christian Aid and Oxfam International have launched advocacy campaigns calling on developed countries to drastically reduce carbon emissions immediately.

At issue is whether the resources and expertise of such organizations are better suited to relieve immediate needs than to speculate about the future impacts of climate change. That the earth is getting warmer is a fact, but just what that rise in temperature holds for various people groups is less certain: Some scientists project lengthened farming seasons and a decrease in world hunger; others believe the warmer climate could bolster mosquito populations and spread malaria.

As long as such disagreements remain, the use of relief resources to pay for biodiesel or campaigns for government emissions caps could prove a hard sell to donors. Laarman says that Mercy Corps has yet to gauge the sentiment of its donor base on whether its climate-change endeavors are worthwhile. "We could talk about the problems and solutions we want to bring to these people without even using the words climate change," she admitted. "That could avoid a real divisive point and let people see the real needs, as long as we can document them."

But documenting the effects of climate change is no small task. Many purveyors of global-warming hysteria, including former vice president Al Gore, point to Hurricane Katrina as evidence of the devastation that rising temperatures can bring. But most climate-change models suggest that worldwide warming will reduce hurricane frequency. For all the talk of a planetary emergency, few communities have suffered any significant crises as a result of the world's rise of 1 degree Celsius over the past century.

In those regions that have suffered recent climate-based challenges, those affected need food, water, and long-term development assistance more than biodiesel. And Mercy Corps is good at that.

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