Climate change 101

The real culprit behind the Karachi Heat Wave has repeatedly gone unnoticed. Luavut Zahid reports

Climate change 101
In the first five days, the heat wave that engulfed Karachi stole more than a thousand lives. Official mouthpieces took little time to get their fingers ready for pointing, with Federal Minister for Water and Power Khawaja Asif blaming the K-Electric for power outages, and Minister for Climate Change, Senator Mushahidullah Khan, outlining that India’s power plants in Rajasthan are to blame.

The real culprit has been around for a while and gone repeatedly managed to go unnoticed by the authorities – the real culprit most certainly is climate change.

Professor Anthony Costello, Director of the UCL Institute for Global Health, has previously worked on a report that outlined how climate change was affecting the world, Pakistan included. “Our Lancet Climate Health Commission reports that exposure of vulnerable populations to heat waves will increase twelvefold if the world warms by four degrees (the current trajectory) this century. (Made up of a threefold increase from climate warming and a fourfold increase from rising population and especially the elderly population),” he said.

“It’s not possible to blame this particular heat wave on climate change, but the world is warming and heat waves will become more common and more severe especially in south Asia,” he added.

Dan Smith, Secretary General for International Alert, agrees with Costello on that front.

“In recent years we have seen more and more extreme weather events, ranging from heat waves in Europe, a five-year drought in Syria, increasing numbers of severe cyclones and hurricanes, shifts in the main location of typhoons, flooding – and now the Karachi heat wave,” he explained.

Smith believes that the patterns that paint a clear picture for climate change are self-evident, but there is no way to highlight if a specific extreme event is the direct result of global warming and climate change. “However, it is the sort of event that we must expect now and henceforth,” he warned.

Where is the political will?

In the face of crises that can neither be stopped nor be charted, what any country needs to do is prepare for the worst. Extreme weather events are on the rise; that much is certain – the only question is: what is Pakistan willing to do about it?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has outlined in its reports that political will is key to tackling the problem. Dr. Adil Najam, Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and former Vice Chancellor Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), who was Lead Author on the third and fourth assessments of the IPCC, told me:

“The situation in Karachi demonstrates the types of challenges that a planet with a changing climate may pose; especially in mega-cities. While on the one hand the world has to continue and accelerate its efforts to reduce carbon emissions (mitigation) as a way of managing climate change, it is equally important – and even more important for developing countries like Pakistan – to prepare for the impacts of climate change (adaptation).”

Karachi’s plight has a lesson to teach to Pakistan, one that the country repeatedly refuses to learn. “Pakistan’s ultimate climate change challenge is about governance and about development. What this means is that in a state of maldevelopment, unequal access to basic human services, and especially bad governance the impacts of weather calamities will always multiply, as they did in Karachi,” Dr. Najam explained.

“Better governance in Karachi would not have changed the heat or the temperature, but better governance would have certainly made sure that so many people did not die,” he said

“This would have given them electricity and water when they needed it, would have given them heath facilities, would have given them better working conditions, would have given them a place to sit in a shade rather than literally die on the streets,” he added as a matter of fact.

If Pakistan does not get serious about its governance issues then anarchy may well be on its way. Smith, who has previously worked on a report, i.e. ‘A new climate for peace: Taking action on climate and fragility risks’ doesn’t see the situation unfolding in a favourable manner in the long run. “This year it is a heat wave, a few years ago it was the Indus flooding,” he said and added, “Any state finds it hard to deal with the consequences of these sorts of extreme events and prevent the suffering of large numbers of citizens.

“If and when people start to feel that their government is incapable of protecting them, the government’s legitimacy erodes and, in their anger, people often turn to radical alternatives in the search for solutions. So the state of Pakistan needs to take great care of the people and thus take great care that it avoids anger and sustains its legitimacy,” he said partially warning the government, and partially advising them.

The complicated relationship between policy and policy makers

Unfortunately for Pakistan, her leaders are yet to wake up and smell the toxic air around them. Officials are still looking at possible candidates to point their fingers at next. Mushahidullah’s statement about India’s coal plants stand out as the most ridiculous. Smith, however, felt that they were irrelevant. “The issue is not about who caused the problem but what is to be done about it. This heat wave is an example of the worse that is to come. The most important thing is to prepare so that 1,000 people do not die during the next one,” he told me.

Costello agreed that blaming India makes little sense. “You cannot isolate carbon emissions as a cause of climate change. China, the US and Europe account for the lion’s share of global emissions. Certainly we recommend a rapid move away from coal-fired power stations because coal is one of the most polluting fossil fuels. But it would be wrong to blame India,” he maintained.

The real question then steers us away from policymakers and pushes us more towards policy. Dr. Najam said that Pakistan has little to worry about in that department. “This is not a question of forming a ministry or creating another document. Real policy will come when policymakers put climate change at the centre of their work – and not as another ‘khuda line’ ministry,” he asserted.

“That means putting climate decisions at the heart of development decisions, of economic decisions,” he informed.

Dr. Najam expects little change until policy makers that have nothing to do with the climate policy own it as their own. “I really do not expect to see change until our key finance, economic and development decision makers see themselves as the custodians of climate policy,” he said. However, of course, there is a clash.

“The best example is energy policy. Not only have our energy planners been oblivious of the climate implications of their decisions, they have often been outright hostile to them. That is the type of attitude that led to the building up of the crisis we now see unfolding in Karachi,” he added.

However, implementation of existing policy is not the only problem. Pakistan should be making serious efforts to learn from the Karachi epidemic. “It’s important that Pakistan documents mortality rate trends over the past month and the coming months and includes deaths that occur at home and in rural areas. At present the figures probably only reflect deaths ascribed to heat stress in hospitals,” Costello said.

“Also the rising elderly population in Pakistan means it will be important to look at the age profile of the victims,” he added.

Where do we go from here?

Apart from a general overhaul in attitudes in terms of climate change, Pakistan has its work cut out for it. Already, several alarming indicators have repeatedly been thrown at the country, and chaos seems like it is usually right around the corner.

While the Climate and Development Knowledge Network said that Pakistan is highly unlikely to end poverty by 2030 or meet development goals due to climate change, other exports warn that the economy is going to sizzle before it dries up - just like the country.

Nevertheless, what should Pakistan do? Costello has a list:

“1. Take a strong line at the Paris Climate conference about reducing carbon pollution. We have only 15-20 years left at current rates of emissions before we shall pass the supposed ‘safe level’ of two degrees of warming. Pakistan has the right to be protected from global emissions. Yesterday a court in the Hague challenged the Netherlands government to achieve faster emissions reductions in order to protect the Dutch population.

“2. Design a national energy programme that promotes scale up of renewables and rapidly cuts the use of coal.

“3. Look at ways to build the resilience of populations to climate events through early warning systems and ecosystem adaptation methods to storms and floods.

“4. Plant trees

“5. Insist upon an international carbon price at the Paris conference in December 2015. A well-organised, regulated and consistent international carbon price and market will shift economic incentives towards scaling up renewable energy,” he said while outlining the many areas for improvement.

However, most of all the country leaders need to start by learning how to take responsibility for themselves and their people.

Karachi cannot be left to welfare organisations and civil society movements, and neither can Pakistan.