This Friday, march with me for the planet's future

I believe what is broken can be put together again.
Published September 18, 2019
Schoolchildren participate in a demonstration at the Bagh-i-Jinnah to express solidarity with the global Youth Strike 4 Climate protests around the world. — White Star
Schoolchildren participate in a demonstration at the Bagh-i-Jinnah to express solidarity with the global Youth Strike 4 Climate protests around the world. — White Star

“What if no one shows up?” worried a Climate Action Pakistan organiser. “It’s 37 degrees Celsius in September — it’s just too hot to be outside.”

About 25 of us were huddled around a small conference table going over plans for the climate march in Lahore planned for 20 September. “Okay, but 37°C in September is kind of the whole point,’ responded another.

Around nightfall, I walked out of the meeting and checked the Climate Action Pakistan WhatsApp group to find yet another student asking if he can organise a march in his city, Sukkur.

Climate Action Pakistan started as a coalition just a few months ago by a group of environmentalists who wanted to hold a march in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, to join the youngsters-led global climate strikes on 20 September in the lead-up to a United Nations emergency climate summit.

Within days, the movement spilled over to other cities such as Turbat, Ghotki, Mardan and Multan. I won’t be exaggerating when I say I am struggling to keep track of the marches being planned across the country.

The latest count is 26 cities (map here) from the four provinces as well as Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. There is no central authority. City based chapters have organically emerged and will present their demands on the day to their governments.

The sense of urgency and fear of the impacts of climate change has never been stronger in Pakistan. As crop yields decline, the days get hotter and the anxiety over water shortages increases, how can we remain ignorant that something greater is at play here?

I march with young Pakistanis

I have been an activist (loosely) for the last few years in Pakistan, albeit one who frequently retreated into a cocoon of privilege and security of an NGO job more often than I wished.

And in all these years, I have not seen what I see now: young Pakistanis are ready to be uncomfortable. They believe they can change things and, unlike adults, are in it for the right reasons: to save their futures. They are not hoping to score consultancies or bolster their own profiles.

A vast of array of children attend the Climate Action Pakistan meetings, often coming straight from school, clad in crisp white school uniforms. You can see their heads almost literally brimming with ideas.

In one meeting, we were discussing ways to mobilise school kids when an A-Level student informed us, thank you very much but his peers had already made artwork, prepared speeches and informed their school administration.

The mini delegation of students had only come to inquire if there was any security at the march so that they could placate their worried parents. There was a pause, and then one organiser hastily assured the young man that all measures were being taken to ensure that the march would be safe for students.

One student worried that she had a quiz at the time of the march and would have to miss it. When I think of the fact that 10 years later I still have that same old nightmare that I overslept for an O-Level Islamiyat quiz, I can appreciate that these kids are truly making sacrifices to participate in this movement.

The Pakistani youth are part of an international movement. A 16-year-old Swedish girl with Asperger’s has managed to rock the world. Seasoned politicians have been caught with their tails between their legs thanks to Greta Thunberg’s pointed questions. She has galvanised millions of kids around the world to demand their governments to do better.

And so, on 20 September we follow Greta and the children of Pakistan as they take control of their own futures in a movement that, like global warming, has transcended man-made boundaries.

The climate marches have representation not just from young people, but one that cuts across gender and class lines. Yet, it is not lost on us that many participants are from comparatively privileged households, that the marches have an urban bias when it is rural Pakistan — where most of our population lives — that remains most vulnerable to climate change.

I march for equality

The media is flooded with harrowing statistics about the climate emergency. A temperature increase from 1.5°C to 2°C could mean the death of an additional 150 million people around the world. At the current rate of emissions, temperatures in Pakistan could rise between 3°C to 5°C by the year 2100. Parts of Karachi may be overrun by the sea. Some of us may be cooked to death by the turn of the century.

But these estimates often fail to capture the basic fact that not everyone will be impacted equally. Resilience to climate change depends on where you are in a society and how much privilege you possess. A wealthy man living in Defence Housing Authority Lahore will not experience the impacts of climate change as a poor farmer living in Badin.

Related: Climate change affects women more. What can the state do to intervene?

Research finds that in some societies where there is drought, food provisions tend to be diverted towards male members of a family, resulting in higher instances of malnutrition amongst women. Recognition of the complex patchwork of power and intersectionalities within a society will be crucial for an equitable adaptation to climate change. The Climate Action Pakistan manifesto demands the inclusion of women and marginalised communities in any action to tackle climate change.

I do not want a world where the right to breathe, to water and food, is a privilege that only the wealthy can afford. I march because I do not want a future where my survival depends on my ability to purchase an air purifier.

I march because it was never my fault

You should cut down your meat consumption and go to fewer sales, but the system was broken long before you knew how to say ‘vegan’. Well-intentioned afforestation drives are not a fix either.

For this reason, the Climate Action Pakistan manifesto isn’t 101 Things You Can Do To Stop Climate Change, but a set of demands that require systemic reforms of structures which, among other things, protect industries from accountability and fiercely guard the pockets of the world’s biggest emitters

100 companies have been responsible for 71 per cent of all global emissions since 1988. The climate crisis is rooted in industrial capitalism which, in pursuit of profit, treats greenhouse gases as externalities. Any climate policy that ignores this fact is simply not going to work.

A World Bank report highlights that climate change and population growth can combine to increase water demands by 60pc as of 2047. But a water-stressed Pakistan continues to heavily subsidise and grow sugarcane, a highly water-intensive crop, against the backdrop of a powerful sugar lobby backed by those in power.

Just 5pc of agricultural households in Pakistan own nearly two-thirds of the farmland. Influential landowners occupy assemblies and parliament. Daanish Mustafa conducted a study of the irrigation department in Punjab where the government officials stated that if they don’t bend the rules of water supply for politicians, they risk being transferred from their posts.

Why I march

When I march this Friday, I am not just asking my government to show muscle against the high emitting countries, but to look within as well. I march for the futures of our children. I march for justice and accountability. I march because I truly believe what is broken can be put together again. This is just the beginning.

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