THERE is a longing to return to ‘normal.’ We wistfully think back to the beginning of the year, marvel at how none of us could have predicted this and count down the days to when things can go back to the way they were.
Except that ‘normal’ was directly leading us to our utter destruction.
The climate crisis now runs a calendar in Pakistan. From December to February, the country will face extreme cold. From May to August, searing heatwaves, droughts and floods. After October, we find ourselves choking on toxic smog. Each year, the damage grows exponentially. Each time, there is an opportunity to do something about it.
The Covid-19 crisis has upended even the best-laid plans. There are worsening socioeconomic ramifications every day, bringing to the fore pre-existing structural inequalities and injustices that violate human rights. It has dominated global public discourse, making it very easy to deprioritise other problems because no one is talking about them.
The lockdowns gave rise to a neat illusion. Reports of improved air quality could only catch up with what we could see outside our windows. Animals began returning to urban centres. Countless online posts stated that “nature was healing”. Then the headlines of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions came. It created this idea that perhaps we were in the process of mitigating the climate crisis.
Environmental protections are being rolled back.
Sadly, that mirage is nothing more than a trick of the light and global temperatures continue to be on the rise. Distraction from the issue does not make it go away.
What is even more concerning is that the most carbon-polluting countries are using pandemic-induced distraction to roll back environmental protections, unduly delay climate action, or entrench fossil fuel dependency. President Trump, who governs one of the highest emitting countries in the world has already eased fuel-efficiency standards for new cars, frozen rules for soot air pollution and is leasing public property to oil and gas companies. In Brazil, the administration of President Bolsonaro has accelerated deforestation of the Amazon forest. China has also dropped a key measurement on energy conservation that is used to qualify progress towards tackling the climate crisis.
At a time when countries are guided increasingly by self-centric policies, and individuals must be confined to our homes to the extent possible, the need to come together is critical. Global problems need global solutions. It does not get more global than a pandemic. It does not get more global than the climate crisis.
As recently stated by Amnesty International, countries must step up, not scale down international cooperation. Poorer countries like Pakistan are reeling from Covid-19 as it is. At more than 1,000 deaths and cases surging well past 60,000, the last thing, Pakistan needs right now is another emergency. Karachi is undergoing a sweltering heatwave, in what has now become an annual occurrence. Locusts threaten to ravage $2.2 billion worth of food crops across Pakistan, with some experts warning of a famine. Hospitals are already overwhelmed, with reports of all ventilators in Pakistan being occupied at the moment.
Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, wealthier states and all those who have the resources to do so have an obligation to provide international assistance and cooperation. They also have a duty to provide remedy for human rights violations caused by climate change for which they bear primary responsibility.
The wealth of industrialised countries has been built on fossil fuels and unsustainable practices, and until now they have failed to reduce their emissions at a pace commensurate with the challenge. This puts the burden of responsibility on them for having exacerbated the climate crisis. But it also obligates them to do more. Richer countries must provide adequate funding and support for mitigation and adaptation initiatives being undertaken in poorer countries, like Pakistan. They also need to provide financial support to countries like Pakistan to effectively respond to the Covid-19 outbreak and its economic fallout.
Countries cannot afford to turn inwards. As long as the virus afflicts one country, it remains a risk to all countries. None of us is safe until all of us are safe, as the pandemic has demonstrated. We have seen powerful displays of solidarity in poorer countries like Pakistan, with ordinary people pooling their resources to help those who have seen their livelihoods destroyed.
But it won’t be enough. It’s in everyone’s interest to act together, across borders, helping those who have been hit the hardest — from prisoners still squeezed into their cells, to refugees in overcrowded camps, to daily wage earners who haven’t been paid in months. The virus shouldn’t be the only thing crossing borders. Our kindness should, too.
The writer is the South Asia campaigner for Amnesty International.
Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2020