EXISTENTIAL challenges define the state of the world today. They shall determine the global, regional and national contexts in which all countries, including Pakistan, will need to find appropriate and sufficient responses to survive. They will provide the indispensable context for all specific policies, whether domestic or external. The 21st century has already delivered this message.
Climate catastrophe is the greatest global challenge today. The prospect of ultimate doom and death has been part of mankind’s experience and philosophical outlook (weltanschauung.) We are born, we live, we die and our children and descendants preserve the species into a distant and unimaginable future, until a time comes when mundane life comes to a natural end, whether with a bang or a whimper.
Accordingly, the prospect of an eventual end to our species is internalised without much anxiety. Death is part of life and possibly a transition to something eternal. But within the last decade attitudes have begun to dramatically change. There is not just an emerging anxiety. There is a developing panic over the prospect of climate calamity.
Until recently, scientists thought climate disaster was still too distant a prospect for ordinary people to personally or politically get concerned about. Today, a near 100 per cent scientific consensus regards climate change as an emerging global catastrophe hurtling towards us at ever-increasing speed. Once in a thousand or hundred thousand-year climate events are now expected to occur within decades, repeatedly, and sometimes simultaneously. Climate change will no longer be cyclical. It will be exponential. Nature will not just become a stranger to mankind. It will be an implacable and pitiless enemy.
There is not just an emerging anxiety. There is a developing panic over the prospect of climate calamity.
Never in human history has such a prospect threatened, except possibly for a while during the Black Death of the 14th century. Moreover, climate change is on the cusp of becoming irreversible — unless mankind can come together in intelligent, innovative and institutionalised cooperation which has also never happened before except — to an important but limited extent — through the UN system.
According to the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences, there are three major existential challenges confronting mankind today: climate change, nuclear conflict and democratic governance (ie the exact opposite of what passes for it today). Success with regard to any of these challenges will make success on the others more likely. But failure on one front will ensure failure on the other two. This triple failure will render organised human existence on the planet increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible. Moreover, climatologists now say this can happen much sooner than what was assumed as recently as a decade ago. These forecasts could change yet again.
They could change for the better if at international, regional and national levels a climate emergency is declared and leaders and societies begin to do a range of things recommended by the experts but which have never been done before. Unfortunately, it is far more likely that, with the available leaderships, climate change will become progressively worse — forever. If by the end of the century the global temperature rises by more than two degrees Celsius above what it was before the Industrial Revolution, climatologists believe irreversible damage to the global environment will begin to increasingly exceed the capacity of human society to either mitigate or adapt to. We are already halfway there with the global temperature today estimated at roughly 1°C above what it was 200 years ago, and rising faster and faster.
The window of opportunity to take the thousands of measures needed to control and maybe reverse this immensely complex process is fast closing. Most scientists are convinced that if carbon emissions are not effectively reduced to zero by 2030 — a mere decade away — irreversible processes will ensure global temperatures of 3°C or 4°C above the pre-industrial baseline well before the end of the century. This alone would have innumerable calamitous consequences for human and other plant and animal life-supporting ecologies on earth.
Irreversible climate change will inevitably limit mitigation capacities and progressively render adaptation strategies dysfunctional. Unimaginable nightmare scenarios for our children and grandchildren will unfold. In order not to unforgivably betray them we must begin to do the impossible, starting NOW. No other issue, however critically important in itself, can be appropriately addressed in any forum or even properly analysed outside this overwhelming context.
Nuclear disaster, if it happens, will be sudden and terminal. It will telescope extreme climate catastrophe into a relative instant. Democratic governance — not the phony stuff — provides the essential context for a foreign policy that can minimise the prospect for nuclear holocaust. As suggested, it is also the political condition for urgent, sustained and effective resistance to climate death.
Democratic governance does not necessarily equate to Western models of governance. They are by and large no longer democratic in the West largely due to the rise of populism and racism on the one hand and the excesses of corporate capitalism, militarism and extreme inequalities on the other. The Chinese model, despite its many obvious flaws, is more inclusive and participatory and offers a better guide to transformational governance and a better ordered world.
While it does not accept the norms of Western governance it also rejects the wretched norms of soft-state, corrupt, short-term and class warfare governance that blight the prospects of so many developing countries, including our own. Nor can the world afford a psychologically challenged liar at the global helm who knows, but publicly denies and criminally ignores, the facts of climate catastrophe.
Unlike nuclear disaster, which can be avoided any time before it actually occurs, climate change beyond a rapidly approaching point insidiously becomes an irreversibly fatal catastrophe. Similarly, genuine democratic governance is always possible. However, irreversible climate change, if not averted, will make it impossible. This is why climate catastrophe is the single most comprehensive, and now immediate, existential threat.
The question beckons: are we human beings or lemmings rushing to jump off the cliff? Only a global climate jihad or climate crusade will provide an answer.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.
Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2019