Lessons on Climate Change from the Pakistan Floods

Martin Khor

There are many lessons from the recent floods in Pakistan.  Here are just a few.

First, when natural calamity strikes, it can be– and nowadays more often than not it is– devastating.  The tsunami that hit Indonesia and many other countries, the Haiti earthquake, and now the Pakistan floods illustrate that. In Pakistan, up to 20 million people have been affected, almost a million homes destroyed or damaged, 10 million were made homeless, and there is widespread damage to agriculture and related livelihoods.

It is the worst natural disaster the UN has dealt with, according to the UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-Moon.

Second, the climate crisis is for real, and its severe manifestations are more evident.  It is often not easy to ascertain if an extreme weather event is due to climate change. However Dr. Ghassem Asrar, Director of the World Meteorological Organisation’s World Climate Research Programme, is convinced of the linkage in this case.

In a New York Times article by Nathanial Gronewold, Dr Asrar explained how the higher Atlantic Ocean temperatures were a major factor contributing to the Pakistan floods.  Moreover, the same weather phenomena caused the record heat wave in Russia and flooding and mudslides in western China.

In this explanation, the record high surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean resulted in a huge volume of evaporated moisture entering the atmosphere and drifting over the affected area. At the same time, an abnormal airflow pattern prevented the saturated clouds from spreading over a larger area, concentrating the rains in Pakistan’s watershed. The disaster was made worse by deforestation and land-use changes in the affected areas, but the sheer volume of precipitation absorbed by clouds and then dumped on Pakistan is chiefly to blame for the floods, according to Dr Asrar.  And he also warned that this is just a sign of more to come.

Third, the floods show again why climate change is an economic and social issue, though the cause may be environmental.  The floods have set back Pakistan’s development prospects by many years.  Its leaders have estimated that the floods caused $43 billion in damage.

This immense scale was implicitly recognised by Richard Holbrooke (the US special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan) who said “the international community is not going to be able to pick up the bill for $20 billion or $30 billion or more” and Pakistan has to raise its own revenue base.

Fourth, the Pakistan case illustrates an acute deficit in the international approach to climate change.  Despite the legal commitment of developed countries, and years of talks in UN Climate Change Convention since 1992, there is still no international system for adequately or predictably financially assisting developing countries that have been affected by climate-change related catastrophes.

Help to countries affected by natural disasters (whether linked to climate change or not) is based on humanitarian concern and charity.  In Pakistan’s case, the UN is targeting to raise some $2 billion, and there is also bilateral aid and private charities, but the resources are simply too small to meet the enormous needs of reconstruction, let alone of catching up to lost economic development.

This is where the UNFCCC’s on-going climate negotiations are relevant.   The developing countries are pressing for a new Multilateral Climate Fund to be set up, under the authority of the Convention’s Conference of Parties. They have asked developed countries to meet up to their financing commitments, and to provide an annual flow to the fund of at least 1.5% of their GNP, which amounts to around $600 billion. The losses suffered by Pakistan and recent estimates of the needs for financing climate action, show that this is not an exaggerated amount.

In the climate negotiations, the US and Europe are now showing signs that they can agree to the setting up of a new fund.  But there is a lack of agreement on a wide range of issues, including whether the World Bank should have a role and if so what role, how the fund should be governed; what would be the sources of funding; and of course, the targeted amount.

Optimistically, perhaps one or two of these points may be resolved by the time the next Climate Conference ends in Cancun in December. It is unlikely, however, that the whole “finance package” will be resolved this year, let alone the “entire package” of a global deal that will have to encompass mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and a “shared vision.”

Meanwhile there will likely be more climate-related catastrophes like the one in Pakistan to remind us that solutions to the climate crisis are urgently required.

6 Responses to “Lessons on Climate Change from the Pakistan Floods”

  1. Ernest Lowe says:

    Pakistan’s “complex crisis” is more than a triple one. The physical crisis from the flooding is multiplied by a crisis in governance, a crisis in funding, a crisis in global awareness, a security crisis, and the continuing, thought selective, global economic and financial crisis.

    My colleagues and I have opened a web site devoted to sustainable reconstruction and economic recovery in Pakistan. http://www.pakrenewal.com. The site includes the most comprehensive set of links to resources to support this end, within Pakistan and overseas.

    I agree that the world community must learn how to respond with financial assistance at the level of the loss — especially the developing countries whose emissions have driven climate change.

  2. Regardless of the cause the one point that most people miss when talking about climate is that we have to be prepared for change. It is pure human fantasy to assume that the Earth today is some sort of steady state system that is supposed to remain exactly as it is. Ocean levels will change and coastlines along with it. Rain belts will shift (North Africa used to be the bread basket of the Roman Empire before the Sahara ate it) and glaciers will flow and retreat. Nearly all the ideas in the climate debate are built on the false supposition that the climate that supports the current geopolitical state is the norm. Let’s quit trying to find someone to blame and figure out how to deal with change that will come regardless of whose fault it is.

  3. It’s more worser than that. They want to roll back the “geopolitical state” to the birthdate of meteorology (or prior), which happens to be the tail end of the LIA, the coldest decades in the current interglacial.

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    A social issue (also called a social ill or a social problem) is an issue that relates to society’s perception of people’s personal lives. Different societies have different perceptions and what may be normal behaviour in one society may be a significant social issue in another society. Social issues are distinguished from economic issues. ;

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