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The reality of climate change


May 25, 2016

As usual, environmental law and regulation remains the last item on the global agenda, despite the fact that it is the most pressing issue in need of the international community’s attention.

There has been yet another massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – this time as a result of a crude oil leak from a Shell facility off the coast of Louisiana. Even more alarming is the fact that Shell was unaware of the leak until the same had been identified by a helicopter.

Shell’s response? Five boats were sent to remove as much oil from the surface as possible. On May 16, Shell and the US Coast Guard agreed to bring to an end ‘skimming operations’ after the 88,200 gallon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Their apology? Well, they didn’t present one.

From a statement on their website, they stated instead: “No release is acceptable, and we remain focused on safe operations”.

This is not the first incident of this kind though. Since 2012, around 500,000 gallons of oil have polluted the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, there is a spill in the Gulf every single year – lest we had forgotten the 87-day oil leak caused by BP in 2010. There is often some apparently massive amount being paid by the corporation for its negligence but this amount cannot, in reality, measure up to the loss of human life and the disastrous environmental impacts resulting from these leaks.

Despite this, the international community, barring a handful of environmental organisations, seems to accept these oil spills as they occur – assuming that some financial compensation will actually reverse the damage caused by gross corporate negligence. What is a few billion dollars to a huge corporation? Is it really a deterrent? Obviously not, because had it been so, we would have seen a fall in the number of oil spills the Gulf of Mexico is subjected to each year.

Apart from oil spills, though, we seem to have all our ‘priorities’ in order. Examining Pakistan’s policies on environmental law and regulation, it seems that we can’t think beyond trees when we talk about environmental protection. Despite massive flooding, intense and prolonged heatwaves and average temperatures rising across the country, Pakistan’s efforts in countering or at least reducing the effects of climate change are negligible.

The only province that has, to some degree, taken climate change seriously is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the government had launched its ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ programme (excuse the title). One would have imagined that it wasn’t possible to further weaken environmental safeguards in Pakistan but in a desperate bid to bring in investment, we have lost sight of the fact that this investment will have a higher cost than benefit in the absence of environmental protections in place.

There is absolutely no point in bringing in investment if no one, or hardly anyone, will live to reap the benefits of it. Alas, we repeatedly fail to understand that development can and should be sustainable.

After declaring the Paris Agreement a “landmark in the history of our planet”, the government has suddenly forgotten its existence. Under the Paris Agreement, Pakistan is required to submit periodic reports on the targets set out by the agreement. Pakistan has a terrible track-record with submitting compliance reports to human rights treaty bodies. One would assume the same non-serious attitude is being adopted with regard to the environment.

What exactly is our climate change policy? From the grassroots level, we see the state’s inability to convey to its population the gravity of climate change. Our climate change policy seems to consist of burning garbage out in the open, widespread and constant use of plastic bags, chopping down trees to build roads rather than investing in public transport.

The fact is that even if we institutionalised a climate change policy, the real struggle relates to monitoring and enforcement. We have several laws in this country on a range of subjects but they remain effective only on paper.

Climate change cannot just be addressed by instituting a policy or by merely drafting legislation; there are concrete measures that must be taken to ensure that we address this existential threat.

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