In a year of the extraordinary droughts, floods, fires and other disasters that climate change has visited on different parts of the world, Pakistan has suffered the most from torrential floods caused by unusually heavy monsoons and melting glaciers.
So far, the floods have caused more than 1,480 deaths, destroyed 1.7 million homes, displaced 33 million people, and wreaked untold damage on essential infrastructure and production, generating unprecedented food and health crises.
We cannot blame nature alone for these calamities. Humankind bears a significant amount of the responsibility because of the damage it has inflicted on the climate through harmful emissions that have raised our planet’s temperatures to increasingly dangerous levels. Sadly, the trend has not begun to reverse due to a failure to commit to pledges to stop the harm, as though the cumulative damage already caused since the first Industrial Revolution has not already been enough.
Moreover, when the industrialised nations are asked to come through on their mostly unfulfilled promises of assistance to the developing nations, their answer is to deliver lectures and sermonise about the need to save the planet. This is already groaning from the damage they have caused, threatening more and worse crises ahead because of the ongoing abuses against the climate, nature, and the environment.
The loss of life and damage that Pakistan has sustained, as have other developing nations have, is one of the most contentious issues in climate action. The destructive impacts of climate deterioration on nature and the environment and on human habitation and people’s lives is a subject that is radically different from the question of climate adaptation. The affected societies are unable to cope with the impacts on their own due to a lack of sufficient financial and material resources and/or their inability to cope with them. As this blight appears to be targeting the poorest and most vulnerable societies, dealing with it has become one of the most crucial areas of climate justice.
This subject has been raised regularly since negotiations on climate action began in the early 1990s. Appeals were made to the industrialised nations to furnish financial support and technical assistance as compensation owed to the developing nations for the damage they have sustained as a result of the industrialised nations’ production and consumption practices that have wrought damage to the environment and violated climate safety.
Unfortunately, the appeals were rejected or fell on deaf ears. In the field of climate action, climate-related losses and damage include weather events that exceed documented ranges, frequent hurricanes and cyclones, increasing droughts, extreme heat waves, rising sea levels and consequent coastal erosion, desertification, loss of soil fertility, and the increased salinity of seas and oceans.
The continuous and uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources can turn inhabited and arable land into uninhabitable wasteland. All of the foregoing result in the loss of life and livelihoods, leading to population displacements and mass migration.
Although broadening the application of climate-mitigation and adaptation measures may reduce the risk of exposure to climate-related losses and damage, these may be of a severity and magnitude that far exceeds the scope and capacities of normal climate-mitigation and adaptation efforts which, at all events, have suffered declines and slowdowns despite all the pledges.
Recent scientific studies have shown that even if climate action improves enough to keep the earth’s temperature from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above its average temperature before the first industrial revolution, such efforts will not be able to repair much of the damage that has already been inflicted on some natural resources.
For example, more than 70 per cent of the coral reefs in the tropics will disappear, to the detriment of the biodiversity and marine life in these reefs. This in turn will harm the sources of livelihood of the societies inhabiting neighbouring coastal areas.
In 1991, the Small Island States Alliance submitted a proposal on precautionary measures to safeguard their coastal environments against the threat of rising sea levels. It was rejected. The question of climate-related losses and damage appeared for the first time in the framework of a proposal submitted in 2007. But it took another seven years before the Warsaw Mechanism was created to study the subject, and even then the mechanics offered no funding of any sort to those who had suffered the damage.
Subsequently, the negotiators managed to get an article on losses and damage incorporated into the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 (Article 8), but again this does not provide for a binding funding mechanism to deal with the damage that has been inflicted. The industrialised nations also insisted on including a provision to the effect that the inclusion of this article in the agreement was not an acknowledgement of responsibility or an obligation to offer compensation.
More recently, thanks to more urgent and evidence-based demands from the affected developing nations, the Glasgow Summit in November 2021 showed indications of a readiness to arrange funding for climate-related losses and damage. Then, during the preparatory meetings for the forthcoming UN COP27 Climate Change Conference to be held in Sharm El-Sheikh in November, clearer signs of support for the idea came from industrialised nations like Canada, Denmark, Germany, and New Zealand, as well as from Scotland and Wallonia in Belgium.
Nevertheless, the discussions have yet to yield anything binding or anything that offers a prospect for sufficient funds, which is to say that there has been no progress in favour of the funding proposal of the Santiago Network for averting, minimising, and addressing loss and damage apart from some modest donations.
Returning to poor Pakistan, a third of which is still under water. The country has suffered an estimated $30 billion in immediate damages, with the American economist Jeffrey Sachs maintaining that at least half of this is the result of climate change while the other half may be chalked up to annual weather shifts and local land use practices.
As of this writing, international aid and donations have not yet reached one per cent of the estimated losses. The US has contributed $50 million and Canada $5 million. Other donations may be forthcoming, but they remain paltry compared to the needs and to the extent of the damage the industrialised nations have inflicted on the climate.
The industrialised nations are responsible for around 60 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions from 1850 to 2020, yet, combined, they only represent 15 per cent of the world’s population. According to Sachs, Pakistan was responsible for around 0.3 per cent of harmful emissions during the same period, while it is home to three per cent of the world’s population. Such figures epitomise the disparity and inequity that characterises today’s world, as well as the evasion of responsibility on the part of those who should assume it and the consequent perpetuation of climate deterioration. It is the factually demonstrable destruction arising from this that hits the poor and vulnerable the hardest.
Many hopes are being pinned on the forthcoming COP27, which has taken upon itself the task of spurring the fulfilment and implementation of pledges and commitments in climate mitigation, adaptation, and funding. It is expected to urge the negotiators to work out rules for climate action that make it obligatory to advance the cause of damage and loss funding and assistance and to agree on specific funding resources and emergency response agencies for this purpose.
At the Glasgow Climate Summit last year, 134 developing nations submitted a request for a funding mechanism to deal with losses and damage that they estimated would come to around $300 billion by 2030. Naturally, this does not include loss of life, for which there can be no compensation.
If a breakthrough can be achieved in this major area of climate action, it will give a considerable boost to the credibility of international cooperation in a world that is suffering from a deficiency of trust and a surplus of crises.
An Arabic version of this article appeared on Wednesday in Asharq Al-Awsat.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.