Our last chance

July 18, 2019


The writer is a tech entrepreneur.
The writer is a tech entrepreneur.

THIS May, I had the opportunity to visit a glacier in the Arctic Circle as part of a World Economic Forum expedition to witness the impact of the climate crisis first-hand. One moment from the trip stayed with me; I held my breath when a cracking sound erupted like a symphony of gunfire as a gigantic piece of ice, the size of several football fields, crashed off the Ilulissat glacier and turned over, forming an iceberg. The ice calving was stunning — and terrifying.

The melting glacier illustrated the rapid rise in world temperatures, which will have a cataclysmic effect on the world.

When I returned to Pakistan, I struggled to relate the threat that the climate crisis posed. Prof Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a leading climate scientist, warns that “there is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation. The human species will survive somehow but we will destroy almost everything we have built up over the last 2,000 years”.

The potential refugee crisis is perhaps one of the most illustrative examples of the catastrophic consequences of climate change.

During Partition, between 10 million and 12m people migrated between India and Pakistan. The resulting violence led to a death toll of between 200,000 and 2m people; it left an indelible psychological scar on the people of the subcontinent. By 1990, over 6.3m Afghan refugees had fled to Pakistan and Iran, and Afghanistan remained the largest source of refugees for three decades.

Most people choose to ignore the climate threat.

In the context of climate, if governments and citizens of the world don’t act now to address the crisis, we will have to deal with almost a billion climate refugees by the end of the century. This crisis would be 100 times worse than the worst refugee crisis the world has ever faced.

These aren’t extreme or uncommon opinions. Almost all climate scientists recognise the threat of climate change that has been exacerbated by human activity.

Despite the evidence, when confronted with the information of global warming, most people choose to ignore it. I was among them. It comes from a place of helplessness. What can one individual, especially based in the developing world, do about a problem so big? More so when the biggest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, such as the US and China, are continuing to invest in large carbon-emitting projects? Meanwhile, in Pakistan we are facing an economic and political crisis. Don’t we have enough to worry about?

The truth is, we simply cannot afford to ignore the situation. Pakistan is among the top 10 countries already experiencing the impact of climate change and extreme weather events, according to the 2019 Global Climate Risk Index released by the public policy group Germanwatch. Major heatwaves have already killed thousands of people. The problems of food and water scarcity will escalate as the Hindu Kush-Karakoram-Himalayan glaciers, which feed the major rivers in the country, melt. This will increase the potential for a Pakistan-India water war, which no one can afford. And these are only the early challenges.

The climate crisis could be the end of human civilisation as we know it and we are the last generation that can do anything about it. But what can we do?

Individuals can commit to making a change in lifestyle to support the planet and lobby their government to focus more on conservation.

Locals businesses and community organisations should lead the way in switching to and implementing renewable and clean energy in businesses and communities. Instead in Pakistan, entities such as the steel mills have skirted environmental regulations and benefited from hitherto weak government oversight and monitoring. This has contributed to a host of environmental challenges, such as air pollution in Punjab. For Pakist­an’s environmental policies to be successful, the government must enable more effective monitoring and build capacity to implement environmental regulations.

The government and political influencers must commit to rapidly transitioning our fuel sources to renewables, and protecting 30 per cent of the planet by 2030. The current government has already expanded its reforestation efforts to launch a commendable ‘10 Billion-Tree Tsunami’ reforestation programme. This needs to be strengthened through greater preservation of existing ecosystems and focusing reforestation on indigenous plants and trees.

If the task seems daunting in a climate of poor economic performance, perhaps we can find inspiration in the success of the small nation of Costa Rica, which developed from a poor rural economy to a modernised economy, while increasing reforestation and reducing its carbon emissions through investments in clean energy. Ultimately, our success in tackling the climate crisis depends on the ability of all stakeholders to put aside their differences, and work towards solving the existential threat facing us today.

The writer is a tech entrepreneur.

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2019