There is a need to rethink how we view our relationship with the natural environment
t was always on the cards, preordained if you will, not by divinity but by our own shenanigans. I, of course, speak of the recent flooding in Pakistan. Geographer Gilbert White once remarked that “floods may be acts of God but flood losses are acts of man”. He may not have had climate change on his mind then but given that the climate crisis has its genesis in human agency, his remarks remain on-point. Climate is part of a synchronous and harmonised, yet delicate, system; play nice and it is your best friend, mess with it and the results are devastating, especially for those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable. We are witnessing this in Pakistan with disastrous consequences.
On December 11, 1990, the United Nations General Assembly had adopted a resolution that established the intergovernmental negotiating committee for the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which would eventually be adopted at the Rio Conference in 1992. Even back then we had enough scientific evidence with regard to human induced climate change. That was the clarion call to curb emissions and take the necessary steps to halt global warming. Yet, instead of clamping down and rethinking the global development trajectory, industrial nations in the Global North threw caution to the wind and ratcheted up their emissions. Since 1990, the greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 85 percent. In fact, more than half of all carbon dioxide emissions since the dawn of the industrial age have occurred over the past 30 years.
Pakistan has faced two significant climate induced extreme weather events this year alone in the shape of the prolonged heatwave and the torrential rains that flooded much of Balochistan and Sindh. Yet, there is no reason to believe that those most responsible for the climate crisis are doing enough to address this challenge. The world, on average, has warmed by 1.2 degree centigrade since the industrial age began. That’s when we began our reliance on fossil fuels. The latest Emissions Gap Report by the United Nations states that even if we were to account for current pledges by the global community, the temperatures will rise to between 2.4 and 2.6 degree centigrade by the end of the century. This is more than twice the amount of warming we have experienced until now.
A recent study published in the Science journal highlights the impacts of unmitigated global warming. According to the authors, we are already at risk of passing five out of sixteen known tipping points with the current levels of global warming. As we inch closer to 1.5 degree centigrade, an additional five tipping points could be reached. Tipping points are essentially critical thresholds, crossing which will have irreversible consequences for the global ecosystem. Melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is one such tipping point. In the case of Pakistan, the melting of glaciers in our northern mountain ranges is a similar tipping point.
There are limits to our potential to adapt to the climate crisis. Once those limits are breached, all we are left with is loss and human suffering. While climate mitigation and climate adaptation have found plenty of traction, even if it is in the form of unfulfilled promises, progress in addressing loss and damage continues to be hampered by countries in the Global North.
At the Glasgow Conference of Parties, the 26th such meeting, the developed countries blocked efforts that would have established a Loss and Damage Facility. At COP 27, this will be on the agenda once again. Yet, even if such a facility is developed, there is little hope that climate financing will be made available. Consider the fact that $100 billion per year by 2020 promised as part of the Paris Agreement by the developed world has not materialised. Loss and damage are a reality for the most vulnerable communities in the world. However, the developing world will do well not to pin their hopes on a financing that may never materialise.
In the aftermath of this year’s floods, WWF-Pakistan brought together an array of stakeholders from the government, not-for-profit sector, civil society, private sector and academia to discuss the way forward in light of the catastrophic flooding. The result is a document that we are calling the Climate Crises Charter. It begins by calling upon the government to do its utmost to highlight the loss and damage and align itself with international forums that are united in their call for loss and damage redress. Yet, the document emphasises internal governance issues, which if addressed could significantly alleviate the risk posed by the changing climate and enhance community resilience. As such, it calls for improved communication and coordination among relevant entities at the federal, provincial and district levels whereby information flows freely. Moreover, it calls for an acknowledgement and redress of existing capacity gaps, especially in the context of recommendations to come out of previous disasters. Having an effective local government system is at the heart of an effective development paradigm that caters to the needs of communities at the local level.
The charter calls for a nation-wide risk management and vulnerability assessment that could then strengthen the local land use plans and zoning regulations. We saw time and again during the floods this year, how encroachments on the river bed and the flood plains resulted in damage to infrastructure. This happened despite the fact that we already have regulations that prohibit this. The charter also calls for an early warning system that accounts for and addresses risks, vulnerabilities and needs for communities at the local level.
Pakistan is in the process of developing its National Adaptation Plan. The charter espouses a comprehensive stakeholder engagement process that eventually results in the formation of subnational, district and tehsil level adaptation plans. Communities with special focus on women and the elderly should specifically be a part of any engagement in this regard. In fact, their knowledge and lived experience should guide local level planning.
Our penchant for engineering-based approaches has resulted in increasing the risks and hazards across the country. The damming of rivers and the development of barrages and canals has restricted the natural flow of water bodies. In order to address the risk of floods from such developments, we built embankments which in turn transferred the risk to vulnerable communities in surrounding areas. The process of breaking an embankment in order to allow waters to recede has in itself become politicised despite having so called standard operating procedures in place.
The climate crisis calls for a rethink in terms of how we view our relationship with the natural environment. As such we need to turn our attention to nature-based solutions in our development paradigm. The charter stipulates the need to develop and maintain riparian corridors along our rivers and to rehabilitate our degraded natural wetlands. Having effective watershed management frameworks that account for soil conservation and land use in catchment areas, for example, could go a long way in addressing flood risks.
The 27th Conference of Parties at Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt will make headlines over the next two weeks. World leaders will gather, and promises will be made. But we have been here before – twenty-six times, in fact. What makes us think the 27th time will be any different? A paradigm shift is needed vis-à-vis global climate action. Thus far, there is little evidence that it will materialise. Yet, even as we call on the Global North to account for its role in the climate crisis, we should make every effort to ensure that our own house is in order.
The writer is the governance and policy director at WWF-Pakistan. The views presented here are those of the author and may not reflect the views of his organisation