Floods, climate justice and reparations

The most pressing problem is to balance foreign policy with climate diplomacy

Floods, climate justice and reparations


akistan has been in the throes of one of the worst natural disasters in its history that inundated a third of is land under water. Thirty-three million people have been rendered homeless. Almost a million houses have been washed away; 900,000 livestock have perished. The floods have destroyed more than 1,800 miles of roads. More than 200 bridges and 3,000 miles of telecom lines have collapsed or been damaged.

In the Sindh province, 90 percent of the crops have been destroyed. The waters have damaged 19,000 schools and 900 health facilities. Jail authorities are moving inmates away from prisons facing the threat of inundation.

Around 16 million children have been affected by this catastrophe; 3.4 million children need urgent humanitarian assistance to protect them from drowning and the threat of waterborne diseases. At least 18,590 schools have been damaged across Pakistan; it is estimated that at least 670,000 children have been affected this way. There are 650,000 pregnant women among the affected people, 73,000 of whom are expected to deliver next month. The economy has suffered losses estimated at $30 billion.

Millions of the flood-affected people are living under open skies, without tents or other shelters. They don‘t even have graveyards to bury family members who died. Many have died from snake bites. The displaced people are now at the risk of diseases that follow the floods, food scarcity, lack of access to drinking water, sanitation, shelter, medication, and inflated prices of essential commodities. There are growing fears of massive food insecurity, conflict and homelessness. The disaster is likely to exacerbate unemployment and hunger.

The sheer scale of the catastrophe has rendered the government helpless. It is banking on international support to cope with the damage. The visit of UN Secretary-General António Guterres could not have been better timed.

As world leaders call for more help for Pakistan, calls for reparations are also gaining gaining strength. Before we analyse the nature and merits of the arguments put forward for reparation, it would be helpful to understand the basic science behind the floods in Pakistan.

Global warming, considered a significant cause behind the abrupt shifts in the weather patterns, including the unprecedented flooding in Pakistan, is primarily driven by greenhouse gas emissions, the most important of which is carbon dioxide. Not all countries contribute to carbon emissions equally. There is a general understanding that if the ratio between carbon dioxide molecules and all other molecules in the atmosphere is 350 to one million, our planet is safe.

However, when the carbon dioxide exceeds 350 ppm, the global temperature begins to increase with adverse consequences. Currently, we are well above 400 ppm and adding over two ppm every year to the atmosphere. A study found that in 2015 the US was responsible for 40 percent of excess emissions, and the EU for 29 percent of excess emissions. Industrialised nations collectively were responsible for 90 percent of excess emissions. The equation from the North-South perspective paints a grim picture: Global North contributes 92 percent of the global excess emissions, and the Global South only 8 percent.

Pakistan contributes less than 1 percent to greenhouse gas emissions but is one of the countries most vulnerable to global heating. What makes Pakistan and other developing countries particularly vulnerable to a global challenge are their geographical location and lack of capacity to cope and mitigate. Pakistan has more than 7,200 glaciers – more than anywhere outside the polar region – melting much faster and earlier due to rising temperatures, adding water to rivers already swollen by rainfall. The current catastrophic floods come after four consecutive heatwaves in 2022 in several regions with temperatures exceeding 53 Celsius.

Several arguments are put forward for claiming reparations. Global warming is cumulative, and the developed world is its main beneficiary. Earth is around 1.5-degree warmer today than in the pre-industrialisation period. Most of the wealth generated from high carbon-emitting activities lies with the industrialised nations, but the Global South suffers from the effects.

Pakistan contributes less than 1 percent to greenhouse gas emissions but is one of the countries most vulnerable to global heating. What makes Pakistan and other developing countries particularly vulnerable to a global challenge are their geographical location and lack of capacity to cope and mitigate.

There is accepted international law that anyone doing damage pays the cost. In the realm of climate discourse, this idea is framed as the “polluter pays.” The principle holds a polluter liable for the cost of remedial action and compensation to the victims of their activities. Industrialised countries have contributed nearly two-thirds of the emissions since the turn of the 20th Century. The developing countries have contributed only a fraction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but have been paying the cost. Now they cannot cope with the severity of the catastrophes they face.

Payment of reparation is one of many concrete steps to reverse a historical injustice against the communities that face higher odds of climate change because of their geographic location. The nations near the equator are particularly vulnerable because of the challenges in creating resilient infrastructure.

The demand for reparations is not recent and Pakistan is not the only country to demand reparations. The principle of demanding reparation is well-established in environmental jurisprudence. Almost all developing countries, including the small island states, have been calling for an international mechanism compensating for the damage caused by climate disasters by the nations contributing to GHG emissions. These calls are becoming increasingly louder, especially since COP26 in 2021.

Is problematising the issue of climate justice in terms of payment of reparation helpful? Conceptual difficulties and diplomatic relations require a more sophisticated approach. The idea of reparation smacks of a war context where one party is the victor, and the other is vanquished. Consequently, some arguments favouring reparation are more nuanced and view reparation as a non-zero-sum idea.

Climate reparation may take the form of developed countries sharing green technologies and skill sets with developing countries that obviate the need for the developing world to pollute the atmosphere in their effort to catch up with the developed world. Other measures could include wealth taxation in the Global North, debt cancellation, tax-transparency reforms and reform of international institutions. This will allow the developing countries to grow and that growth will be sustainable.

Despite the legal, political and moral merits of the demand for reparations, the journey toward climate justice is an uphill task for several reasons. First and foremost, commitments made by the developed world towards climate justice are no match for the scale of the problem. Secondly, the track record of the developed world honouring its commitments is not reassuring. In the absence of a vibrant international mechanism, moral platitudes are not going to work.

At COP 21, developed countries committed to setting a new collective goal from a floor of $100 billion per year, considering the needs and priorities of developing countries. On close inspection, the amount is peanuts compared to the cost of damages inflicted by the developed nations. According to an estimate, the United States has “inflicted more than $1.9 trillion in damage to other countries“ through its emissions. The unavoidable annual economic losses from climate change are projected to reach between $290 billion and $580 billion by 2030. Still, the developed world has struggled to put together $100 billion annually. Pakistan has received $38 million out of the $150 million pledged for flood relief after the flash appeal.

Estimating the quantum of loss is no less challenging. There are many practical issues in precisely estimating the damage caused by global warming. It is challenging for example to identify the extent of loss of life and property in Karachi caused by unprecedented rains and the share of mismanagement in urban planning in amplifying the loss.

The most pressing problem is to balance foreign policy with climate diplomacy. Pakistan’s economy has always been in dire straits. Our perennial dependence on foreign assistance leaves us with little freedom to vigorously push for climate justice. Reparations require an across-the-board treatment with nations paying according to their share of GHG emissions. Incidentally, large emitters, including the US, the UK and China are the ones Pakistan sadly depends on for its economic viability.

Though it can be argued that pushing for reparations may have diplomatic fallout, a comprehensive international mechanism ensuring climate justice may not harm bilateral relationships in the wake of payment of reparations. Consequently, climate disasters may be problematised as an issue of social responsibility and as a non-zero-sum game. Our future is tied together and climate is our shared responsibility.

The writer is an associate professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus

Floods, climate justice and reparations