January 31, 2024
ISLAMABAD – In the heart of Athens, Socrates grappled with the electorate’s limited understanding of voting. Despite his respect for democracy, he lamented its shortcomings, particularly the lack of education and rationality among voters. Believing voting to be an art requiring enlightenment, he tirelessly advocated for education as the cornerstone of democratic participation.
Today, Socrates’ view remains as relevant in the upcoming elections in Pakistan. Voting is an art, and citizens should prioritise political parties that in turn prioritise climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Democratic setups move on public sentiment, and the best time to galvanise public support is around the time of the elections. Unfortunately, climate change remains a relatively low priority for the average voter in most places across the globe — seemingly less pressing than immediate economic concerns.
Pakistan’s many crises
There are several reasons — not least the floods and recurring environmental disasters that have struck the country in recent years — why climate action should be central to the election mandates of Pakistan’s political parties. In recent weeks, various mainstream parties have unveiled their manifestos, stressing upon economic revitalisation, human development, and structural reforms. Where these manifestos lack is a robust focus on climate action, despite pledges for a greener Pakistan.
For example, the PML-N, in its manifesto, lists various measures under the section, ‘Building a Climate Resilient Pakistan’, while the PPP has committed to a ‘Green New Deal: Climate Resilient Futures’. But where these proposals prioritise areas such as loss and damage funds, post-disaster planning, and establishing effective early warning systems, there is a significant lack of attention given to climate-displaced individuals, particularly indigenous communities, who often find themselves marginalised and unsupported in these circumstances.
Moreover, even as these political parties have promised to align with UN protocols on climate change policies, there has been insufficient attention given to the challenges faced by communities living in climate hotspots.
Climate change isn’t just about policy-making — it interacts with problems like hunger, poverty, and disease. These broader implications should be at the forefront of political promises, reflecting a comprehensive understanding of the climate crisis and its profound impact on communities.
In the northern mountainous regions, glacial floods pose a significant threat, while in the south, rising sea levels are compelling people to flee, inevitably becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs). Conservative estimates suggest that over 1.2 million individuals have already been displaced from their homes, and approximately 4.2 million acres of land has been submerged due to the rise in sea levels. Pakistan’s climate hotspots, where many poor and vulnerable communities reside, are witnessing a burgeoning climate refugee crisis as climate-induced disasters render life uninhabitable in these areas.
For example, the looming threat of rising sea levels along the coastal belt, notably in Keti Bunder, poses a significant risk of displacement and agricultural disruption. Small towns and villages have disappeared while many, such as Keti Bundar, are on the retreat.
In Bangladesh, an estimated 1,000-2,000 climate-displaced individuals are migrating to urban slums in Dhaka, the country’s most densely populated city, every day. While accurate data is lacking, similar patterns are likely occurring in Pakistan, where climate-displaced people from vulnerable regions are seeking refuge in urban slums, particularly in cities like Karachi.
The looming threat of glacial outbursts in the Himalayas poses another significant risk of displacement and exacerbates the economic strain in Pakistan. With more than 36 per cent of glaciers expected to shrink, the potential for mass displacement looms large.
In other parts of the country, chronic heatwaves and extreme droughts frequently disrupt agricultural activities, resulting in substantial financial losses. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is currently the fifth most climate-vulnerable country in the world, having lost nearly 10,000 lives and suffering economic losses worth $3.8 billion due to climate change between 1999 and 2018.
What is most concerning is that communities in Pakistan most impacted by climate shocks often reside in areas with limited investment and resources, leading to their disenfranchisement from the electoral process. Without prioritising the inclusion of these communities and ensuring their active participation in the democratic system, the prospect of free and fair elections remains elusive.
To combat these challenges, Pakistan is poised to establish a robust conditional target aimed at reducing its projected emissions by 50pc by 2030. This ambitious goal entails a 15pc reduction funded by domestic resources and a 35pc reduction contingent upon international grants. To achieve this target, Pakistan intends to transition to 60pc renewable energy and implement 30pc electric vehicle usage by 2030. Additionally, the country plans to prohibit coal imports and expand nature-based solutions.
But merely drafting policies is insufficient; it is imperative to empower local authorities, especially where indigenous communities have the autonomy to shape and contribute their insights to policies that prioritise their needs. Elevating indigenous voices to positions of power within their regions ensures not only a smoother democratic process and inclusivity but also fosters more effective public policies tailored to their communities. For decades, marginalised areas in Pakistan have been overlooked, leaving indigenous peoples to fend for themselves.
While no single solution exists, almost all experts agree that there is a pressing need for systemic change to align the policy timeline in democracies with the urgency of the climate crisis. By integrating indigenous voices into climate-focused policy-making, we can realise climate justice and affirm the resilience of democracy.
This inclusive approach ensures that diverse perspectives are considered, leading to more equitable and effective climate action initiatives. In doing so, we uphold the principles of democracy by ensuring that all communities, including indigenous peoples, have a meaningful role in shaping policies that address the pressing challenges of ecological disruption.
Ultimately, we have a shared responsibility to protect the most vulnerable for a compassionate and robust response. Let empathy guide our actions as we navigate this critical juncture, recognising that the well-being of communities is intertwined across borders. Together, we can build a more resilient and compassionate future in the face of climate-induced challenges.