It’s time we start talking about climate change as a matter of life and death. Because it is.
The heatwave sweeping Pakistan flows from a truth as uncomfortable as the weather: climate change is here, and it is taking no prisoners.
It’s simple. Greenhouse gases trap heat and make the planet warmer. The more greenhouse gases are emitted, the hotter the planet gets. The hotter the planet gets, the closer we come to our doom.
According to researchers at Carbon Brief, 68 per cent of all extreme weather events studied from 2011 to date were made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change. Heatwaves account for 43pc of those events, droughts about 17pc and heavy rainfall and floods for 16pc.
That extreme heatwaves are now seasonal in Pakistan, categorisable by year, should terrify us all. The country’s cities are now setting records. In 2018, Nawabshah saw temperatures hit 50.2 degrees Celsius — the hottest day of April ever recorded anywhere in history. Last week, Jacobabad hit 51°C.
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Naked as the evidence has been for Pakistan, authorities are yet to act adequately on the connection between climate change, extreme weather and human survival. And make no mistake, the failure to act on the climate crisis is a violation of our human rights and the protections we are entitled to.
65 people died in the 2018 heatwave and approximately 1,200 in 2015. Around 1,600 people were killed by the 2010 summer floods. The well-heeled will be able to stave off the immediate danger, but will eventually succumb like the most marginalised amongst us.
When governments fail to reduce emissions to the scale and rapidity indicated by scientists, when they neglect the needs of the people most affected by extreme weather events or when they do not regulate labour conditions in heatwaves, they are failing to protect our rights.
Countries like Pakistan with limited means to adapt to the worst impacts of climate change are likely to be ground zero for the havoc that the climate crisis is going to wreak on the planet. Pakistan is slated to be the seventh most-affected country in the world, and yet it has contributed less than 1pc to global greenhouse gas emissions.
Farmers are now struggling to adjust to a reality where the same crops are no longer growing in the same months as they always have, where there is rain when there shouldn’t be and drought when they need water the most. They know something has changed.
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The choices of wealthier countries like the United States, Russia, China and most European states in crucial sectors such as energy, industry, agriculture and transport have endangered the very survival of millions in the Global South.
The wealth of industrialised countries, built on fossil fuels and unsustainable practices, has come at the cost of making the world we all occupy more unstable, and climate change does not need visas to cross borders.
To redress this injustice, Pakistan must speak up. It must call the failure to reduce emissions as the human rights violation that it is. At international forums, Pakistan can lead the calls from the Global South for climate justice. It has all the motivation to mount pressure on the Global North, with a climate-denier at the helm, to support the transfer of climate finance and green technologies to the countries that need it the most.
But credibility is necessary for such a movement and it cannot hope to inspire confidence if Pakistan does not fulfil its immediate obligation to reduce emissions to the full extent of its capacity — a task that has become especially feasible as the cost of renewable energy has reduced steadily each year and is now competitive with fossil fuels.
A shift in company portfolios towards human rights-consistent renewable energy is necessary, and failure to do so must result in heavy penalties. It’s only fair. Their actions punish all of us. There must be consequences for their enrichment at the cost of the planet’s decimation.
Equally important is that Pakistan must take all necessary steps to help everyone in the country to adapt to the foreseeable and unavoidable effects of climate change so that our rights, including to life, housing, health and sanitation, are upheld.
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The Ministry of Climate Change — as one of the very few in the world that explicitly focuses on it — must be sufficiently empowered to follow through on Pakistan’s commendable international voting record on environmental conservation. Climate action must be institutionalised through meaningful political support and ownership.
Prime Minister Imran Khan is leaps and bounds ahead of many leaders’ conception of what climate change is and has made this known. During the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing in April, the first of five initiatives he proposed was to expressly mitigate the effects of climate change.
He must now set a good example by implementing ambitious and human rights-centred domestic policies to reduce emissions and protect the people of Pakistan from the effects of climate change, as well as becoming a real champion for climate justice in the international arena.
Everyday Pakistani conversations have often been about existential threats: terrorism, war with India, the economy — but never about the climate crisis, which is shaping up to be the biggest threat of all. It’s time we started talking about climate change as if it were a matter of life and death. Because, without any exaggeration, it is.