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Missing out on climate diplomacy

If govt fails to push Pakist­an’s case for what it deserv­es as one of the victim­s of climat­e change, no one else will

The writer is a senator, Vice-President of the PPP and Chair of the Jinnah Institute. She has served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, and as Federal Minister of Information. She tweets @sherryrehman

The writer is a senator, Vice-President of the PPP and Chair of the Jinnah Institute. She has served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, and as Federal Minister of Information. She tweets @sherryrehman

As another earthquake takes its October toll on Pakistan, few will remember the floods from only weeks ago that devastated large swathes of the country. While the shifting of Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates has nothing to do with climate change, or responses to meet such threats, it is a disturbing fact that the extreme weather freezing the north has everything to do with it.

Citizen groups, including a few parliamentarians, keep trying to spur a public conversation about the changing climate trends in the region, but little interest seems to cohere on recurring trends and looming challenges. No estimates of losses incurred or potential security crises emerge from the government, which treats each episode as a stand-alone disaster, mostly through the lens of disaster management. In this backdrop, any serious talk about causes for unpredictable weather, extreme impacts, mitigation plans or adaptation research, let alone policy choices, fade into background brown, the colour of scorched crops and dry earth.

Internationally, climate change has always been cloaked in layers of lobby-driven controversy. On the attention-grabbing scale it is not exactly a low-hanging ruby either. Urgent challenges often fall prey to the politics of resistance and misinformation by powerful stakeholders that are extractive at worst, or negligent at best. It is also essentially a trend that can’t be totally quantified or controlled at any border, and blame-letting as well as issue-fatigue bog its headwinds. The biggest global polluters often remain the biggest blockers of agreements that potentially tax their carbon footprint in favour of countries that pollute less.

Where does that leave countries like ours, which remain clouded in climate change policy anaemia? What is the level of danger we should be aware of, and how can clarity and policy come out of elite circles that may be invested in opacity? What level of knowledge deficit do we need to plug, to think, plan and act? How can we better equip ourselves for adapting to a heated up planet, let alone navigate the rights-framework at recurring regional and global forums to optimise gains? And most importantly, how many recognise the challenges and are prepared to put climate change under the umbrella of our national security? None of these questions, it seems, interest Islamabad just yet.

Already grappling with political turmoil and transnational terrorism, we as a society don’t really get that Pakistan will be threatened by even deeper social instability than it faces today without a public plan that seeks change. Most of our Saarc neighbours have announced robust policies in public forums. We are not even at an honest assessment stage of the potential scale of the challenge.

So what is the potential cost of climate inaction? Estimates vary, but there is consensus that it can cost as much as a shocking $6-14 billion to Pakistan annually by 2050 in adaption. This classifies climate change as a serious national security cost, surely, up there with terrorism and energy, dragging down our national ability to survive in a calamitous era of new predators which know no borders.

With a huge multilateral climate change conference coming up in December in Paris, Pakistan is perilously asleep at the climate diplomacy wheel, with no push evident to bargain with others on carbon costs. This is a case of our own egregious negligence. For a country that now ranks third among the 10 most vulnerable countries to climate change, Pakistan is globally ranked as a ‘victim of climate injustice’. So basically, while we should husband our own environmental resources better of course, Pakistan has a huge case to make for its rightful higher share in global resources and funds pledged towards mitigating the impact of climate change.

The problem is not new, but the scale of the challenge is picking up momentum. At the institutional level, climate change in Pakistan continues to be treated as a technocrat’s niche, basically confined to task forces and policy papers. One of the most comprehensive documents drawn upon the subject, for instance, is the National Climate Change Policy — put together by the PPP government in 2012 — which now remains buried in a deep file somewhere.

While global forums provide the best opportunities to stress Pakistan’s vulnerabilities, the government repeatedly fails to optimise on them. Worse still, what we see now is a headless climate change ministry that fails to blip on the federal government’s own policy radar, let alone attract world attention for the damages Pakistan has incurred — and continues to do so — at the hands of global polluters.

In June this year, the EU Heads of Mission called upon the government to join a collective effort on adaptation to climate change and submit Pakistan’s contributions before the October deadline. Pakistan missed that crucial deadline, while other developing countries, including neighbours India and China, argued hard to get their views incorporated into the Paris agreement that is to be signed at the COP 21 climate moot this year. To compound the crisis, international experts say that the government’s abilities to even manage available funds does not inspire confidence. Reports also suggest that Pakistan was unable to score a membership of the Green Climate Fund “mainly because of its inefficiency in dealing with the environmental challenge”. These are worrying signs for a country that is acknowledged to be at the receiving end of global climatic deterioration.

Diplomacy, it must be understood, is a function of articulated national interest. There is enough evidence to establish that climate change impacts have grown to become one of our biggest national security fault lines. There is little time left for Pakistan before the world’s nations gather to sign the climate change agreement in Paris this year. The draft of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions should already be on parliamentary podiums, as should be the government’s plan of action for the Paris moot. If Islamabad fails to push Pakistan’s case for what it deserves as one of the worst-hit victims of climate change, no one else will.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2015.

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