Pakistan and the global movement for climate justice

Tabitha Spence explains the material processes that created and are worsening the climate crisis

Pakistan and the global movement for climate justice
At last Friday’s Global Climate Strike, an estimated 4 million people took action in nearly 6,000 cities across over 150 countries. These included thousands of people organising 30 actions across Pakistan alone. Responding to the call by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish school student, young people and adults, workers, farmers, parents, and people from all walks of life organised to ensure this week is nothing short of historic.

Beyond the sheer numbers leaving workplaces and schools to take to the streets, what is particularly striking is the deeper socio-economic and material understanding a growing mass of the public holds about the climate crisis. This is evident in the insistence of people around the world that “climate justice” be the central tenet determining how the climate crisis be addressed.

Climate justice entails that those countries, companies and financiers historically and currently responsible for creating the crisis be held accountable for growing wealthy by destroying conditions of existence for much life on earth. In other words, they must accept responsibility for the reality of the climate crisis and pay for loss and damages of climate affectees, adaptation efforts, and mitigation of the crisis in order to sustain liveable conditions for our species and others.

This is why so many people today are pointing fingers at the complicity of specific countries like the United States and China, companies like Exxon and Shell, and financiers like JPMorgan Chase and Barclays that continue perpetrating climate crimes. And this is why it is essential to look carefully at the actors behind the material processes that created and are worsening the crisis.

Actually managing to centre justice in a deeply unequal world obviously requires engaging with the question of power (in both senses of the word), which is deeply tied to the reproduction of the global economy. It is also the reason striking is being considered seriously at a time when nearly all other approaches to challenging business-as-usual in the interest of staying within planetary boundaries have rung hollow.

For nearly a decade, trade unionists have been demanding a fair transition that would secure decent livelihoods to workers. This demand is backed with the extensive body of research on limiting the warming to a liveable temperature and points to a fundamental need for a rapid and comprehensive overhaul of the entire fossil-fuelled global economy.

While trade unionists argue that there will be “no jobs on a dead planet,” it is as though our governments were completely unaware of the climate imperative or the actual potentialities of putting people to work under much safer conditions and more secure terms through a massive democratic overhaul of the economy.

This is why millions of workers threw their weight behind the young climate strikers this week. Where strikes were not feasible due to legal or other hindrances, trade unionists around the world took symbolic actions or unofficially took time off work, while workers from many major conglomerates formally walked off the job on Friday to support the climate strike and demand “system change, not climate change.”

While in Pakistan there were no formal work stoppages, farmers, trade unionists, precarious young people, and climate affectees weighed in on the creation of a national Charter of Demands that was presented to the government at Islamabad’s climate march on Friday.

Ironically, Minister of Climate Change Zartaj Gul falsely claimed credit for the unprecedented climate mobilisations across Pakistan, rather than engaging seriously with the demands, which called for the country to declare a climate emergency, to ally with other developing nations to demand debt write-offs to fund Pakistan’s economic transition, to provide support for climate affectees already being hit by the climate crisis, and to immediately release climate prisoners being held on terror charges for requesting support for the Attabad disaster affectees.

While our governments and companies often pay lip service to a need for ‘greening’ energy, food, and transport sectors, there is rarely any mention of the scientifically-determined requirement to completely transition away from using fossil fuels almost entirely over a very short timeframe. This problem has everything to do with the power wielded by the fossil fuel and related industries, as well as complicit countries who use various public relations strategies to garner support from the public, which is often desperate for jobs, more affordable fuels and reliable electricity, or a quick pay out for access to their private or communal land. Many of these companies even try to claim that their fuels or technology are ‘eco-friendly’ because, even though they are highly polluting and are contributing to the problem, they are supposedly a bit cleaner than they could be.

In Pakistan, for instance, we are told that ‘supercritical’ coal fired power plants like the one operating in Sahiwal make coal ‘clean,’ even though they do not curb carbon emissions in the way that a carbon-free alternative technology could. Instead, they rely on the import of higher grade coal than is available in local reserves in Balochistan and Sindh. Mining and shipping coal from distant places like Indonesia and South Africa itself requires a lot of energy and produces substantial greenhouse gas emissions. These supercritical coal-fired power plants use massive amounts of energy, raising temperatures in operations to over 500C in order to squeeze more energy out of the same amount of coal. Somehow making coal use more efficient is supposed to convince us that this is a sustainable technology, despite the evident impacts on the workers’ health, local air quality as well as global emissions.

Another idea that has been propagated is that natural gas is a clean ‘bridge fuel,’ despite the higher global warming potential of the methane gas often emitted in extraction, or the other enormous greenhouse gas emissions resulting from extracting, liquefying, refrigerating and shipping, regassifying, and burning LNG. The truth is installing LNG terminals, as Pakistan announced right after the climate march that it was planning to have Exxon and Shell do, will without a doubt scale up and lock in dangerous GHG emissions at a time when dirty practices need to be leapfrogged entirely and replaced with renewable, locally managed and controlled technologies at a scale that will meet the country’s energy needs.

While the US and other major gas exporters are looking to Pakistan as a market for their fracked gas, rather than as the sacrifice zone their short-sighted desires for private profits is turning the country into, Pakistanis turned out by the thousands in dozens of cities across the country demanding justice.

Unfortunately, the US under the leadership of “Despicable Donald” does not take the climate crisis seriously and vowed to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the United Nations Climate Summit is currently being held in New York City. It led to not only hundreds of thousands students in New York City participating in the global climate strike, but also led to protests at the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan where CEOs from oil and gas companies were discussing false climate solutions of the industry.

At the UN Climate Summit, PM Imran Khan stated that Pakistan’s glaciers are melting faster than expected and went on to hail the government’s tree plantation program as a major contribution to addressing the climate crisis. He appealed to the world community to take the crisis seriously, saying that climate refugees will come to richer countries as well and that all will be affected. He argued that the problem is that people don’t really understand the gravity of the situation, but that hopefully they will by the time this week’s conference ends.

As ‘business-as-usual’ is painted green, however, governments continuing locking themselves into long term contracts for new ecologically and socially harmful projects, instead of heeding the scientists’ warnings and beginning to rapidly phase out all such projects and replacing them with publicly owned and managed emissions-free infrastructure. Governments all over the world are facilitating the dirty projects through blatant human rights violations, claiming legitimacy using laws like eminent domain to lock the public out of participating in these decisions that result in local pollution and public health costs.

Furthermore, rather than focusing on how to bring about the rapid and just transition of our economy, even the United Nations has peddled false solutions like carbon capture and storage, seeding the clouds, inducing algae blooms in the oceans, and putting mirrors into space. Frederick Jameson once incisively said, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” The UN seems to be implying that it is easier to imagine successfully using risky and untested technologies on our already unstable climate than to imagine the end of fossil fuels.

Yet, a reawakening of the democratic ethic is emerging. Calls echo outward demanding justice, and what was once impossible to see is taking shape on the horizon. A global movement is amassing for all life on earth. It is time to build a world of social relations fit for an evolved society, one in which we do no harm to one another or to the life systems that sustain us.

The writer is an activist