“The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” — William Gibson
For Pakistan and other nations in the Global South, a climate-destabilized future is not some faraway science fiction fantasy. Climate change impacts are here, with many people already living in a modern dystopia. The impacts of climate change are not evenly distributed, and neither is the blame. Just three nations — the United States, China, and India — account for over half of carbon emissions. Who should pay for Pakistan’s loss and damage? And what should be done to prevent and compensate for climatic harm disproportionately borne by developing nations?
As the scale of flood devastation becomes apparent, the sense of climate injustice is rightfully mounting. There is so much loss and damage with so little reparations to countries that contributed so little to the world’s carbon footprint that obviously the bargain made between the Global North and Global South is not working. Global warming is the existential crisis facing the world and Pakistan is ground zero but, unfortunately, is also the victim of apathy and indifference of the Western nations as the catastrophic floods have caused $30 billion of damage but there is little aid to help Pakistan fight this mighty challenge. There can be little doubt that destructive climate change is the result of 150 years of rapid industrialisation, most of which was driven by the rich countries of the West. Pakistan, by contrast, has contributed less than one percent to global greenhouse gas emissions.
Recently, United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, visited Pakistan where he witnessed the ‘unimaginable’ destruction caused by the heavy flood that all experts believe is one of the climate change-related disasters to which Pakistanis the eighth most vulnerable country despite the fact that it emits less than one percent of global greenhouse gases. During his press talks, the honourable guest urged the rich countries to step up their climate-adaptation financing and sought urgent discussions on loss and damage due to the climate crisis. He placed the blame on developed countries, particularly the G20 countries, which are historically responsible for 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. He also requested the G20 nations to boost national emissions- reduction targets yearly till the world achieves the warming limit of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Pakistani cities, villages, and massive swaths of farmland are underwater due to the heaviest rainfalls ever recorded in Pakistan’s history. Scientists link this torrential downpour to human-caused climate change. Crucially, the flood is expected to add $30 billion worth of damage to an already teetering economy. More than 793,900 livestock have died, and families across Pakistan have been deprived of a critical source of sustenance and livelihood. Around two million acres of crops and orchards have been impacted. These impacts are undeniably a symptom of an accelerating climate crisis. Julien Harneis, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Pakistan, has rightly said: ‘This super flood is driven by climate change — the causes are international’.
Keeping in view the damage the developed world has done to the climate across the world, and especially in Pakistan, it is in all fitness of things that the country demands reparations as compensation for the devastation the country has been experiencing as a result of climate change. Pakistan is justified in putting forward its expectations for compensation from the rich countries that are mostly responsible for causing climate change. However, while the United States and other nations have pledged humanitarian assistance to Pakistan, these pledges are far short of what is needed. Given the sheer scale of destruction, Pakistan needs a bail-out in the form of rapid financial and logistical assistance from the global community.
“There is so much loss and damage with so little reparations to countries that contributed so little to the world’s carbon footprint that obviously the bargain made between the global north and global south is not working. We need to be pressing very hard for a reset of the targets because climate change is accelerating much faster than predicted, on the ground, that is very clear,” says Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s federal minister for climate change.
The current crisis in Pakistan highlights a broader gap in international climate governance. Efforts to formalize funding from wealthier, developed nations to poorer, developing nations to address climate harm — what is known as “loss and damage” which is one of the three legs of the climate stool, other being mitigation and adaptation — have failed. But calls for loss and damage are growing louder.
But in many developed countries, this cataclysmic event has hardly seemed to be much of a priority, or even a concern. Fatima Bhutto, the activist-writer niece of the assassinated Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, wrote bitterly that: “While it has been touching to see how ordinary people from far-away countries have shown solidarity with Pakistan, donating what they can to flood relief efforts, the silence from major international figures and Western media at large has been dispiriting, if not unsurprising. The week the flood hit, there were more newspaper column inches devoted to a Finnish prime minister who likes to party than to the fact that a third of Pakistan was submerged.”
Fatima Bhutto’s point stands the ground. Imagine the shock if one third of France was under water, for instance. Pakistan may be further away from London or New York than Paris, but with British Pakistanis numbering about 1.2 million and about half a million Pakistani Americans, the flooding could not be more concerning for significant communities in the US and UK. Yet, the attention paid to the situation in Pakistan has been meagre.
Pakistanis are simmering with rage now. What else can you feel when a whopping $894 million were raised in a day and a half after the cathedral of Notre Dame suffered a fire but an entire country of drowning poor must beg for climate aid and assistance? An unpalatable reality appears to emerge.
But, wealthy world cannot escape the time bomb its own development set off.
There remains no doubt that the people of Pakistan are the victims of a global crisis to which they have contributed almost nothing — and which has instead been driven by the excess emissions of rich countries and corporate polluters. This fundamental injustice is at the root of increasing demands for climate reparations from Pakistan and the wider Global South. They owe reparations to countries such as Pakistan for the consequences of climate change. On the face of it, Pakistan’s demand for reparations appears to be a long shot, but the principles being invoked are fairly well-established in environmental jurisprudence.
At its heart, the demand for compensation for loss and damage from climate disasters is an extension of the universally acknowledged “Polluter Pays” principle that makes the polluter liable for paying not just for the cost of remedial action, but also for compensating the victims of environmental damage caused by their actions. GHG emissions have not taken place without any cause; the Industrial Revolution and the resultant age of rapid industrialization in the past two centuries have transformed the climate of the globe. Industrialized countries have contributed nearly two-thirds of all emissions since the turn of the 20th century. From Australia, Canada and China to Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States, all have inflicted irreparable damage to climate patterns. The developing countries all combined have contributed only a fraction of the total carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but have been paying the cost of a crime they never committed. Now they have no capacity to cope with the severity of the catastrophes they face. That’s why a demand for loss and damage compensation is entirely justified and must yield some results. On his visit to Pakistan, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, too, has urged global financial institutions to create a new mechanism for countries like Pakistan to enable investment in climate resilience and sustainable infrastructure, instead of getting mired in debt repayment. These are the steps needed to save countries like Pakistan from drowning due to the apathy and negligence of others.
Pakistan will have to overlay climate diplomacy on its foreign policy agenda. The fact that we lack an independent, coherent foreign policy will perversely affect our ability to forge a coherent ask of developed nations in the climate context.
Pakistan will also have to recognise that it cannot have it both ways. We subscribe to the ‘catch up’ argument — the notion that developing countries should be allowed their share of pollutants and GHG emissions to build infrastructure and spur economic growth, an argument strongly pushed by emerging economies such as India and China. This reasoning envisions the West curtailing emissions and bearing the financial costs of an economic slowdown while developing countries continue to emit, build and grow.