Tuesday March 28, 2023

The way to climate justice

October 24, 2022

The United Nations twice launched a flash appeal to help flood victims and survivors in Pakistan. The bad news is not that the revised appeal of $860 million is nowhere near the initial flood damage estimates of $35 billion to $40 billion. The bad news is that the pledges made by the international community so far are nowhere near the amount requested by the UN.

Till recently, members’ pledges were a little over $180 million. An amount slightly more than the UN’s first flash appeal but less than one-fifth of the revised appeal. The real bad news is that the pledges converted into commitment so far are less than $100 million.

The weather extremes in Pakistan this year are a trailer of what would unfold in an increasingly warming world. There was no spring, and winter was followed by unprecedented heatwaves in most parts of Pakistan (damaging wheat and mango crops). The sizzling summer witnessed terrible forest fires and glacier melting, while monsoons brought apocalyptic rains. Earlier in April and May, Jacobabad in the southeastern province of Sindh was the hottest place on earth (temperature exceeding 53 Celsius/ 127.4 Fahrenheit), while in August, it was submerged in flood water.

One wonders why the floods in Pakistan, which affected 33 million people – equal to the combined population of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark – have not moved the hearts of the international community. Let me explain why:

Amidst the ‘Triple C’ crisis (conflict, climate change, and Covid-19), the whole world, except energy-exporting countries, is going through stagflation (low economic growth, high inflation). British PM Liz Truss announced to step down due to her inability to manage stagflation. Germany has formally declared recession, cutting its growth forecast to negative 0.5 per cent for 2022. In France, inflation led to refinery workers’ strikes and subsequent chaos at the fuel stations. The US Fed has increased the interest rate to a multiyear high, and yet the inflation there is not sobering down. Western governments struggling to avoid an energy crisis in the winter and burdened under their military and non-military commitments for Ukraine are finding it difficult to show their generosity to flood survivors in Pakistan.

The question arises: when the amount the UN is asking for Pakistan is peanuts for most of the developed world, why the reluctance?

A possible answer to this is the external world’s perception of Pakistan as a country that did not learn much from its previous disasters, especially the floods of 2010. One can’t deny that the devastating impacts of recent floods got exacerbated by many of our own wrongdoings: faulty land use planning and proximity of human settlements and buildings to flood plains, inadequate and poorly maintained infrastructure, chronic governance issues, underlying vulnerabilities driven by high poverty rates and socioeconomic factors, and ongoing political and economic instability. The international community is reluctant to commit to a country that does not bring its house in order.

Another contributing factor to the West’s lukewarm response is Pakistan’s shortsighted decision to create a hostile policy environment for international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) back in 2014-15. The unstated policy was not to renew the registration and provide NOCs for operations to the ‘black sheep’ among INGOs. However, the indiscriminate use of that policy also forced many credible international humanitarian organizations to wind up their offices in Pakistan. The forced exit of most INGOs from Pakistan makes it difficult for many European governments and citizens, who otherwise wanted to provide aid through them, to support flood survivors.

All these (and perhaps many other factors) make sense. However, these factors are not and should not be used by the industrialized countries in the Global North as an excuse to avoid doing damage control for their historical mistakes.

Climate scientists have solid data-based evidence now that the excessive production of carbon emissions by the Global North (US, EU, and Japan are responsible for 46 per cent of global fossil fuel burning from 1992 to 2022) caused severe climate impacts in the Global South. Carbon emission by rich countries is warming the planet.

This global warming results in extreme climate events like the one Pakistan experienced this year. Exploring the scientific reasons for the super floods in Pakistan, the World Weather Attribution Organization (WWAO), a collaboration between climate scientists from the UK, the Netherlands, France, the US, Switzerland, India, South Africa, and many others around the world, found that the ‘5-day maximum rainfall’ over Sindh and Balochistan is now about 75 per cent more intense than it would have been had the climate not warmed by 1.2 Celsius. Likewise, the ‘60-day rain’ across the Indus Basin is now about 50 per cent more intense. The WWAO warns that such heavy rainfall is now more likely to happen in the region.

In his opinion piece on Pakistan’s floods and climate justice, Nobel Laureate Jeffry Sachs argues that even if climate scientists attribute half of Pakistan’s losses to long-term climate change and the other half to random year-to-year variation and local land-use practices [Pakistan’s own fault], the rich countries should bear their fair share – cost of half of the losses due to floods for climate adaptation, emergency response, and recovery. According to Sachs, this would not be a charity or favour but a dispensation of climate justice, as Pakistan has played little to no role (0.4 per cent) in global carbon emissions.

Unfortunately, there is no mechanism (yet) either in the international dispute settlement arena or in the multilateral negotiations processes of climate change where an aggrieved victim of global warming like Pakistan can present its case against the world’s largest polluters and sue for damages. However, the lack of such a mechanism does not and should not absolve rich countries of their historical responsibilities, who have made certain commitments (mainly unmet) of mobilizing funds for financing climate change mitigation and adaptation (called green climate funds).

To live on a warming planet would require long-term and costly investment to protect societies and countries from the consequences of global warming, such as floods, glacier melting, heatwaves, forest fires, drought, typhoons, etc. Developing countries like Pakistan, one of the least polluters, cannot make this investment due to financial constraints. Still, it is against the principle of justice that Pakistan should be left to suffer from something that is not its wrongdoing.

So, what is the way forward for Pakistan?

In the existing geopolitical and geoeconomic situation, Pakistan may not get much support from the international community for flood rehabilitation. On the domestic front, the government should formulate district-level rehabilitation plans, engage the corporate sector to mobilize funds, and operationalize those plans through local communities. The resilient people of Pakistan braved the 2010 floods mainly on a self-help basis, and they can do so again.

Besides building back flood-affected districts better, the government would have to build Pakistan’s image too. It needs to bring its house in order, learn lessons from the recent floods, and should be known as a country that prepares itself to reduce the damages from any future climate disaster.

On the external front, Pakistan needs to push for climate justice. As a chair of G-77 in the forthcoming COP27, it needs to raise its voice not to ask for charity or donations for climate change victims but to demand what was promised to the developing countries by the developed world – financing for mitigation and adaptation. A push to clear the obstacles in operationalizing both the loss and damage mechanism (L&DM) outlined in Article 8 of the Paris Agreement and the green climate fund is required by the developing world in COP27. Otherwise, in the climate change minister’s words, “what started in Pakistan [climatic catastrophes] will not end here”.

The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He tweets @abidsuleri