Floods, Climate Justice and Reparations | Political economics
Akistan was plagued by one of the worst natural disasters in its history which flooded a third of its land under water. Thirty-three million people were left homeless. Nearly a million homes were swept away; 900,000 head of cattle perished. The floods destroyed more than 1,800 miles of roads. Over 200 bridges and 3,000 miles of telecommunications lines have collapsed or been damaged.
In the province of Sindh, 90% of the crops have been destroyed. The floods damaged 19,000 schools and 900 health facilities. The prison authorities keep prisoners away from prisons threatened by flooding.
Around 16 million children were affected by this disaster; 3.4 million children need urgent humanitarian assistance to protect them from drowning and the threat of waterborne diseases. At least 18,590 schools were damaged across Pakistan; it is estimated that at least 670,000 children were affected in this way. There are 650,000 pregnant women among those affected, with 73,000 expected to give birth next month. The economy suffered losses estimated at $30 billion.
Millions of flood-affected people are living in the open, without tents or other shelter. They don’t even have cemeteries to bury their deceased family members. Many died from snake bites. Displaced people are now at risk of disease from flooding, food shortages, lack of access to clean water, sanitation, shelter, medicine and soaring commodity prices. need. There are growing fears of massive food insecurity, conflict and homelessness. The disaster threatens to exacerbate unemployment and hunger.
The scale of the disaster rendered the government powerless. It relies on international support to cope with the damage. The visit of the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, could not have been better timed.
As world leaders call for more aid for Pakistan, calls for reparations are also gaining strength. Before analyzing the nature and merits of the arguments advanced for reparation, it would be useful to understand the basic science behind the floods in Pakistan.
Global warming, considered a major cause of abrupt changes in weather conditions, including the unprecedented floods in Pakistan, is mainly caused by emissions of greenhouse gases, the most important of which is carbon dioxide. Not all countries contribute the same way to carbon emissions. It is generally accepted that if the ratio of carbon dioxide molecules to all other molecules in the atmosphere is 350 to a million, our planet is safe.
However, when carbon dioxide exceeds 350 ppm, the global temperature begins to rise with adverse consequences. Currently we are well over 400ppm and adding over two ppm each year to the atmosphere. A study found that in 2015 the US was responsible for 40% of excess emissions and the EU for 29% of excess emissions. Industrialized countries were collectively responsible for 90% of excess emissions. The equation from the North-South perspective paints a bleak picture: the global North contributes 92% of global excess emissions and the South only 8%.
Pakistan contributes less than 1% to greenhouse gas emissions, but is one of the countries most vulnerable to global warming. What makes Pakistan and other developing countries particularly vulnerable to a global challenge is their geographic location and lack of coping and mitigating capacity. Pakistan has more than 7,200 glaciers – more than anywhere else outside the polar region – melting much faster and earlier due to rising temperatures, adding water to rivers already swollen by rainfall. The current catastrophic floods come after four consecutive heat waves in 2022 in several regions with temperatures exceeding 53 degrees Celsius.
Several arguments are put forward to claim reparations. Global warming is cumulative and the developed world is the main beneficiary. The Earth’s temperature is about 1.5 degrees warmer today than in pre-industrial times. Most of the wealth generated by high-carbon activities belongs to industrialized countries, but countries in the South suffer.
Pakistan contributes less than 1% to greenhouse gas emissions, but is one of the countries most vulnerable to global warming. What makes Pakistan and other developing countries particularly vulnerable to a global challenge is their geographic location and lack of capacity to cope with and mitigate.
According to recognized international law, whoever causes damage pays the cost. In the realm of climate discourse, this idea is presented as the “polluter pays”. The principle holds a polluter responsible for the cost of remedial action and for compensating the victims of its activities. Industrialized countries have contributed nearly two-thirds of emissions since the beginning of the 20th century. Developing countries contributed only a fraction of the carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but paid the price. Now they cannot cope with the gravity of the disasters they face.
Paying reparation is one of many concrete steps to reverse a historic injustice against communities that face higher risks of climate change due to their geographic location. Countries close to the equator are particularly vulnerable due to the challenges of creating resilient infrastructure.
The demand for reparations is not new and Pakistan is not the only country to demand reparations. The principle of requiring reparation is well established in environmental jurisprudence. Almost all developing countries, including small island states, have called for an international mechanism to compensate for damage caused by climate disasters by nations contributing to GHG emissions. These calls are increasingly heard, especially since COP26 in 2021.
Is problematizing the question of climate justice in terms of payment of reparations useful? Conceptual difficulties and diplomatic relations require a more sophisticated approach. The idea of reparation recalls a context of war where one party is victorious and the other is defeated. Therefore, some arguments for reparation are more nuanced and view reparation as a non-zero-sum idea.
Climate repair can take the form of developed countries sharing green technologies and skill sets with developing countries that save the developing world from having to pollute the atmosphere in their effort to catch up with the developed world. Other measures could include taxation of wealth in northern countries, debt cancellation, tax transparency reforms and reform of international institutions. This will allow developing countries to grow and this growth will be sustainable.
Despite the legal, political, and moral merits of seeking reparations, the journey toward climate justice is a daunting task for several reasons. First and foremost, the developed world’s commitments to climate justice fall short of the scale of the problem. Second, the developed world’s record of meeting its commitments is not reassuring. Without a vibrant international mechanism, moral platitudes will not work.
At COP 21, developed countries committed to set a new collective goal starting from a floor of 100 billion dollars per year, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries. On closer inspection, the amount is peanuts compared to the cost of damage inflicted by developed countries. According to one estimate, the United States has “inflicted more than $1.9 trillion in damage on other countries” through its emissions. Unavoidable annual economic losses from climate change are expected to reach between $290 billion and $580 billion by 2030. Yet the developed world struggles to muster $100 billion a year. Pakistan received $38 million of the $150 million pledged for relief after the flash appeal.
Estimating the quantum of loss is no less difficult. Accurately estimating the damage caused by global warming poses many practical problems. It is difficult, for example, to identify the magnitude of the loss of life and property in Karachi caused by unprecedented rains and the role of poor management of urban planning in the amplification of the losses.
The most pressing issue is balancing foreign policy with climate diplomacy. Pakistan’s economy has always been in dire straits. Our continued reliance on foreign aid leaves us with little freedom to push vigorously for climate justice. Repairs require widespread treatment, with countries paying according to their share of GHG emissions. Incidentally, the big emitters including the US, UK and China are the ones Pakistan unfortunately depends on for its economic viability.
While it can be argued that pushing for reparations can have diplomatic fallout, a comprehensive international mechanism ensuring climate justice cannot harm bilateral relations following the payment of reparations. Therefore, climate disasters can be problematized as a matter of social responsibility and as a non-zero-sum game. Our future is linked and the climate is our shared responsibility.
The author is Associate Professor in Department of Economics, COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus