The climate action conversation

Published January 25, 2023
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Last week, Pakistan’s Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman had a very tough job ahead of her. In a milieu of the wealthy and the extremely wealthy, she had to make a case for Pakistan — a poor country caught in the throes of a climate catastrophe that, in its most recent iteration, swept away the homes of millions last summer when disastrous floods struck the country.

Just as it happens every year, the private jets began to land in airports serving the Swiss resort of Davos, showing no concern at all for the bloated carbon footprints of their owners and their friends. If asked, they would all nod gravely and make solemn faces at the immediacy and necessity of climate action to rescue the planet. They would then turn to join the wining and dining, forgetting all about the ongoing emergency. Minister Rehman’s task in this charade of the wealthy was to get the latter to pay attention for more than a minute — to be eloquent but also blunt, polite but never beseeching. She did all of this and more.

To get an idea of just how unhurried the world and especially the world’s wealthy are when it comes to climate change, consider this question that she was asked regarding climate action: “…if you had a magic wand what one thing would you have happened…?” “I really don’t like silver bullet conversations, because there is no silver bullet,” Ms Rehman responded, “that’s why we need to address this as it is. It’s a complex, interlinked challenge … At least, get to a framework, a framework that urges compliance … if you’ve made a pledge … fulfil that pledge.”

There is an unfairness about questions that demand that the world’s suffering encapsulate their concerns in a soundbite.

There is an unfairness about questions that demand that the world’s suffering encapsulate their concerns in a soundbite.

For one, they illustrate the barely muted condescension of even those moderating the sessions at international events, and who consider the concerns regarding Pakistan’s climate crisis simple enough to be captured in a catchy sentence or two that they can label the ‘takeaway’ from the conversation as they busily move on to the next. It is just this sort of thinking that has doomed the world when it comes to saving the planet and the people on it. Pakistan is an early casualty but, eventually, it will be everyone’s turn.

In other sessions, she has sharply defined the need for urgency. The navel gazers at Davos and at other international events devote hours and hours and hundreds upon hundreds of pages of policy briefs to the pros and cons, the necessity or impossibility of structural change so that climate change can be properly addressed. But this, as Pakistan has indicated, is a luxury available only to the world’s wealthy and insulated.

Pakistan and other countries already facing climate catastrophe cannot wait for consensus around structural changes and their eventual implementation. The apocalypse is already here as far as countries like Pakistan are concerned. Home to the most glaciers in the world outside of the Antarctic and with its terrain experiencing temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius, Pakistan needed help yesterday and needs help now. Instead, the pace of even paying up on the billions in pledges that the world has made is so slow that as soon as the money begins to show up in the country’s coffers, another cycle of insanely high temperatures, increasing ground temperature, rising seas and consequent high levels of precipitation mean that another cycle of climate persecution would have begun.

Unless Pakistan receives monetary assistance that outpaces the climate catastrophe, instead of following the bureaucratic schedules of donor institutions and individuals, it will never be able to extricate itself from the challenge.

The country itself can also do some things. First, while the leadership of eloquent and capable leaders like Minister Rehman is a lucky break for Pakistan, the climate change ministry needs many more resources to continue to be able to make a strong case for rehabilitation and minimising the effects of climate change. This must be seen as a multi-platform rebranding project. Such a project would recast the country — which, sadly, many in the West still see as a terrorist haven — as a climate victim.

This requires liberalising the country’s visa regime such that climate activists, documentary makers, journalists and photographers are all welcomed into the country and get a visa on arrival. Similarly, Pakistanis who want to travel domestically to climate change-ravaged areas should be able to take advantage of organised volunteer opportunities to help the people in distress.

No programmes should be permitted in flood and other climate catastrophe areas unless well-researched climate-impact facts are provided. The story of urban NGOs, who collected sanitary products for women for distribution in Sindh after the floods, is a case in point. For many of these women, the sanitary products were unlike the washable cloths that they used and reused. Besides, the communities possessed no means of disposing these products, causing a garbage disposal problem that had not existed prior to the floods. Good intentions can sometimes be as dangerous as bad ones.

Pakistan’s arsenal in ensuring its own survival in what increasingly is looking like a climate apocalypse is going to require data, moral arguments, rebranding, research and advocates. If these are not urgently gathered and provided, then the leadership of women like Minister Rehman will not be utilised to the fullest. We are only a couple of months away from the inexorable heat of summer, the inhuman temperatures on the plains, the forest fires further north and the glacial melt north of that. It is all about to begin again; once it does, it will be too late for millions more people. The world has been told as much — now Pakistan waits to see what it will do.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2023

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