How Pakistan emerged as a climate champion
Pakistan is not often praised for his leadership. But his climate change minister, Sherry Rehman, was one of the main efforts at the event one Climate talks held in Sharm el-Sheikh last week. at the helm”g77+China” negotiating group of developing countries, Ms. Rehman won acclaim for shepherding a new deal to send money from rich countries to poor countries that have suffered climate-related disasters. It was the annual climate jamboree’s crowning achievement.
Ms Rehman, a former journalist, information minister and ambassador to America, mixes glamor and well-heeled toughness. A rare champion of Pakistan’s liberalism, the 61-year-old Karachiite is known for her fight against honor killings and the country’s harsh blasphemy laws. They have earned her several death threats. She also bears scars from a suicide bombing targeting her friend Benazir Bhutto (the former prime minister survived that jihadist attack, but not a week later). In contrast, the discussions in Sharm el-Sheikh must have seemed like the holiday camp that the Egyptian city usually is.
But Ms Rehman was also supported by the fact that the massive floods that Pakistan suffered this year, which cost around $30bn in damages, are one of the major climate-related disasters. They gave moral authority to her argument that poor countries should receive “loss and damage” funds from rich countries whose emissions have contributed to such crises. A study attributes the engorged monsoon floods in part to global warming. But Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of global emissions stock.
Pakistani environmental activists, a subset of the country’s liberal activists, hope Ms Rehman’s victory will lead to more climate action back home. It had been increasing slightly before the floods – with, for example, a few cases in which activists sued the government for neglecting its environmental commitments. But Pakistan’s climate change ministry is severely underfunded. Only $43m was allocated to it this year from a federal budget of $47bn. A national climate change authority has yet to be established, five years after a law was passed to make it possible. Pakistan, which is experiencing some of the hottest temperatures on Earth, has just begun major work on a national adaptation plan.
The floods helped to expose such deficiencies. Pakistan’s few climate experts were suddenly hot on the country’s news channels. But will that focus be maintained? As the government struggles to provide flood relief, it gives little thought to climate protection against future disasters. Before the floods, Ms Rehman was pushing a $11bn-17bn initiative to restore the Indus river which will support the livelihoods, directly or indirectly, of more than 200m people. But money that could have been earmarked for the program is now receiving flood relief.
The global attention she gave to Pakistan’s flood losses could attract much more money and relevant knowledge. That could make the country a poster child not only for loss and damage operations but, more importantly, for long-term planning and climate resilience. There is precedent for this. After a devastating cyclone in 1970 Bangladesh built one of the best disaster preparedness schemes in the world. In a difficult situation, more than likely, we will see the momentum generated by the Pakistan crisis and Ms Rehman´s shrewd diplomacy would be seen lost in a long relief effort and the usual Pakistani attitudes of politics and scandal. At least, until the floods rise again.■