Indian climate scientist Anjal Prakash recommends not using the word ‘unprecedented’ in relation to climate catastrophes in South Asia, “because every time a new precedent is being formed”. It’s probably worthy advice, albeit hard to follow in the context of what Pakistan has lately been undergoing. In the wake of torrential monsoon rains, preceded by a shocking heatwave and followed by biblical floods, it’s hard to avoid that word, however worthy the sentiment. It’s important to grasp, though, that as hard as it may be at the moment, there’s almost certainly worse to come.
“The impact of warming on Himalayan glaciers, which are retreating very fast, is much faster than we earlier thought,” says Prakash, one of the lead authors of the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That UN body’s predictions have frequently been dismissed as hyperbole by vested interests, but the greater likelihood is that they are understatements. Ministers Sherry Rehman and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari are undoubtedly correct in pointing out that Pakistan contributes about 1 per cent of the global carbon dioxide emissions that continue to exacerbate global heating decades after the earliest prognostications of catastrophe went largely unheeded.
It’s less certain, though, whether that ought to be lauded as an achievement or lamented as a symptom of underdevelopment. Pakistan’s distressing plight is hardly unique. It has been obvious for years that some of the smallest contributors to anthropogenic climate change will be its biggest victims. The Global South, environmentally and economically ravished both by local elites and predatory conglomerates from the Global North, is particularly vulnerable to the impact of nature’s wrath. Which is not to say that the North is invulnerable. Europe has recently witnessed floods and parts of it are currently in the grip of a drought. Likewise, North America, where just this week the mayor of Jackson in Mississippi called for evacuation as further flooding loomed. Both Europe and North America have also in recent years experienced destructive wildfires.
Yet they insist on pursuing the continued use of fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — on the basis that renewable resources won’t be capable of satisfying the world’s energy needs for decades to come. Rarely in history has there been a more potent recipe for disaster. But that won’t restrain the chefs, who have added untold billions to their coffers during the coronavirus pandemic and are expecting more from the Ukraine war. This is accompanied by ‘greenwashing’, whereby some of the worst culprits pretend to be doing their best to propel the climate transition towards the goal of net zero emissions. The latter itself is a farce, given it effectively means that the worst polluters can buy ‘carbon credits’ from smaller or more conscientious operators — and effectively continue polluting the world. That does not mean, of course, that the various authorities are not part of the problem.
As War on Want director Asad Rehman points out, Pakistan and other states in the developing world … “are stuck in a toxic interplay between a climate catastrophe that they’re not responsible for, increasing hunger, structural inequality and a rigged economic system that has literally left the poor hanging by a thread”. So, what’s the solution? This year’s still unfolding disaster is a warning about what lies ahead, as the Himalayan glaciers melt and extreme weather events become the norm.
Pakistan might have a lot to learn from Bangladesh about flood resilience, even though the former East Pakistan, long accustomed to the consequences of extreme weather events — not least the 1970 cyclone that changed its fate — features a notch higher than Pakistan on the scale of nations most vulnerable to climate change. The rigged economic system that Asad Rehman refers to, however, is within the scope of what could be ameliorated in Pakistan, alongside the deforestation and the decades-old neglect of Balochistan in particular.
The largest province by area has been ravaged for more than half a century — and hardly anyone remembers that Balochistan was a reluctant adherent to the Pakistan formula. It’s amusing, anyhow, to read Bilawal’s comments about how he has never witnessed any previous catastrophe of comparable proportions. He’s probably being honest and does not clearly recall the occasion a dozen years ago when his dad had to be recalled from a vacation at his properties in Britain and France because of what was happening in the nation of which he was purportedly the president.
At the moment, the best Pakistan can hope for is the massive assistance that has been sought from ‘friends’. The UAE and Turkey have chipped in, but the UK and US have offered only condolences and tiny amounts of money. Beyond the begging bowl, though, what will ultimately count is what we so far can’t count on: worldwide resistance to climate change.
A version of this story appears in the print edition of the September 1, 2022, issue.