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September 26, 2019

Feeling the climate change?


September 26, 2019

Unusually, a comparatively large number of Pakistanis, many of them very young people, joint in at the Lahore Climate Strike and the march held for it on Friday, September 20.

The numbers in Karachi and Islamabad were also impressive – showing that the civil society can indeed be mobilised beyond the few hundred usually familiar faces that turn up at many events protesting social or political events. Of course this is excellent news for the future. The flame lit by Greta Thunberg has reached Pakistan.

That flame is an important. The 16 year old schoolgirl spoke with anger to world leaders at this week’s UN Climate Action Summit. But while the girl from Sweden, speaking of a dystopian world, is recognised everywhere we must look at the many indigenous people, some from the Amazon Rain Forest literally being burnt down by greed, who were ignored at the Summit by the cameras.

The media likes icons and a white girl in pigtails clearly makes a better one than desperate dark people whose lives are at daily risk and who had come wrapped in chains and ropes to try and draw attention to their plight.

But as for climate change itself, we need to consider exactly what is happening. Pressure has been placed on us as citizens to bring change, by for example not using plastic bags to carry our groceries or bring home our hot naans. Yes, if each and every citizen follows this principle, it will make a difference – but a minuscule one.

The fact is that 71 percent of the world’s pollution is being emitted by only 100 giant companies, most of them based in the West. China is amongst the nations which have polluted the world heavily in order to stoke its own industry, often using coal as its fuel. Its emissions cause the worst damage. Pakistan’s decision to sign a $10 billion deal with Saudi Aramco to build an oil refinery at Gwadar then does not show governmental commitment to bringing climate change.

This is a consistent problem. Baba Jan, one of our first climate activists from outside the circle of elite who push such causes, was convicted in 2011 by an anti-terrorism court for protesting climate change and the avalanche which displaced at least 1,000 people in the area and left them homeless, in some cases wiping out entire villages. Many of the persons were compensated.

Baba Jan continued to protest for the small number of families, which included the most powerless members of their communities, that were not. He has paid the price and continued to do so. Few in the country are familiar with his name.

Today, the Attabad Lake created by that avalanche resulting from glacial melt as temperatures rise, has become a tourist attraction, promoted by commercial companies and visited by the rich who of course see no reason to look beyond the undisputed beauty of the turquoise water, even though the episode which resulted in its creation had destroyed entire families and left hundreds in misery as links from the mainland were cut off for weeks.

Yes, the efforts made by people like Baba Jan and others who visit the Karachi beach or other spots almost daily to collect the plastic litter that washes into the ocean, threatening the marine environment, are doing an important job. But the companies that produce almost all the emissions, literally suffocating the world, are backed by giant corporate interests and by organisations such as the World Bank and IMF. They are a product of global capitalism.

Profits, for them, come before human lives or the planet that Greta Thunberg is attempting to save. These corporations have no models and very little regard for humanity. Pakistan is essentially a victim of pollutants released by global emissions, although it itself produces only limited pollutants.

Climate marchers need to make this clear. This is not a battle about using cloth bags or metal straws. It is about convincing the world that the human race can live on only if the culture of neo-capitalism changes and corporations are forced to clean up the emissions they release. To its credit, China has attempted this. Its attempts need to improve further.

We also have the example of corporations such as Google, Apple and Facebook that have promised to switch to 100 percent renewable power. Other corporations need to follow their example and at home, when our governments close down brick kilns or prevent people living in forest areas from cutting timber, they must remember this can be sustained only if they are provided with an alternative form of fuel.

The Climate March, with its lively slogans, some of them directly attacking capitalism and all its evils, does show we have a civil society that is active and willing to take a stand for causes they believe in. The young are especially important to this. It is they who will be leading the world by 2050. But such movements must not be restricted to the urban elite and pupils from posh private schools. This was largely the segment of society which made up the marchers in Lahore. Peasants, rural communities, women involved in farm labour and others need to be brought into the picture.

Climate change is already affecting farmers as patterns of weather are altered and crops adapt new patterns. Many are not aware of precisely what is happening or why. Some around the world are reporting massive losses. To unite the world, these groups need to be made aware about climate change and the very real impact it is having on their lives. In many ways, the impact is far more acute than it is for us, who live within air-conditioned rooms and have the luxury of moving around in closed vehicles.

Let us hope the September 20 movement is a start. It must not be the end. There are a very large number of sceptics in our society who ask whether ‘going green’ is really important. Their question is a valid one. It is important, but more so at the larger corporate level rather than for individuals putting away their plastic cutlery and turning plastic waste into dog leashes.

All these measures are admirable. All of them make a difference. But it is only when giant corporations like Exxon and others commit themselves to change that we can hope for a genuinely cleaner world. Through every means possible, pressure needs to be placed on them.

This of course can come most effectively when governments, such as that of the US, act. It does not help when President Trump or other global leaders deny that climate change is happening at all. They need to be persuaded that there is indeed a real threat, that the poorest people in the world are being affected by the activities of the richest nations and in the end there is a real danger we will self destruct unless change is made very, very quickly.

The writer is a freelance columnist and formernewspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]