Opinion: When it Comes to Climate Change, Pakistan is on its Own

The international community will not give Pakistan the money it needs. Borrowing more money is not an option either. All of this means Pakistan must shoulder this burden alone.

The international community will not give Pakistan the money it needs. Borrowing more money is not an option either. All of this means Pakistan must shoulder this burden alone.

The enormity of the damage wrought by Pakistan’s recent floods is staggering. One-third of the country submerged, 3 million acres of agricultural land were ruined, almost a million livestock drowned, 1.8 million homes were destroyed, and 33 million were affected. Early figures estimate the cost to rebuild at $30 billion.

Pakistan’s leaders responded by traveling the world to elicit sympathy and donations as they lamented how little their nation has contributed to climate change and pushed for a new “green Marshal Plan.” America has promised $30 million, while the UN has pledged another $160 million. China will donate $57 million, and the UK has agreed to provide $17 million. The Asian Development Bank has agreed to provide 2.5 billion in loans. Though helpful, these amounts are a tiny fraction of what is needed, laying bare a painful truth. The international community will not give Pakistan the money it needs. Borrowing more money is not an option either. Pakistan is already “drowning in debt” and unlikely to find creditors willing to lend the necessary amounts.

All of this means Pakistan must shoulder this burden alone. Arguing for climate justice, though worthwhile in theory, is ultimately a waste of time. The world has never been a kind or just place and rising temperatures and sea levels will not change this fundamental truth. If anything, they will reinforce it. Those nations capable of adapting will survive, while those that are not will perish.

That might not be fair and has already led to op-eds highlighting both the dangers and hypocrisy of leaving Pakistan to deal with climate change on its own. But that is exactly what will happen because, for better or worse, that is how the world works. Rather than complain about the injustice of it all, Pakistan’s elite would do well to focus on the harsh realities they now face and act accordingly.

The sad fact is these floods are but a preview of what is to come. Pakistan is home to thousands more glaciers that will continue to melt as the world warms. Sea levels are also expected to rise 1 meter by 2050, placing its commercial capital of Karachi and its flood-prone infrastructure in grave danger. It was already experiencing brutal heat waves and diminished crop yields before these floods. These trends will only worsen over the next few years.

As a result, Pakistan must develop a practical and comprehensive plan to deal with the short-term need to rebuild and provide disaster relief to roughly 1/7 of its population while simultaneously developing a long-term plan to protect itself from more destruction. And it must do so under the assumption that the international community will not provide substantial aid or assistance. Instead, it must save itself.

The urgent need for action cannot be overstated, as time to deal with these potentially catastrophic threats is running out. Pakistan’s last great flood was ten years ago. It will be lucky if the next one waits as long. The consequences of inaction, though impossible to forecast with precision, will be grim.

The cumulative dangers posed by climate change represent an existential threat that could lead to serious political and social upheaval. Calamities of the sort now confronting Pakistan often lead to violent change. For example, some have argued West Pakistan’s poor response to a typhoon that struck its Eastern half in 1970 was an important catalyst for the civil war that followed. It is entirely plausible that a string of climate-induced disasters could lead to similar social and political unrest, sweeping Pakistan’s elite away in the turmoil of revolution or civil war.

Unfortunately, their early responses have not been encouraging, indicating they do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. Instead of coming together, they have continued with business as usual as they bicker over politics and leaked recordings. Though not entirely surprising, their inability to adapt could easily doom the entire nation.

To avoid this fate, they will need to embrace reform. They must come together to create their own version of Japan’s Meiji Restoration. Only meaningful political and social reforms that lead to developing the economic, industrial, and technical capabilities needed to deal with these dangers will save them.

The first step is straightforward, long overdue, and yet deceptively difficult. Pakistan must improve its tax collection methods and widen its tax collectors’ nets. In 2021, Pakistan’s government collected only 10.4% of GDP in tax receipts. The average for Asian nations is 19.1%. Pakistan must bridge this gap while bringing more of its estimated $180 billion informal economy into the taxpaying realm. Taxing just a third of its informal economy while getting its tax collection rates to 15% would boost revenues by over $20 billion.

As simple as this seems, achieving these goals has proven out of reach because they require gutting Pakistan’s tax collection agencies from top to bottom, modernizing them, and then subjecting them to vigilant oversight to make sure tax revenue is spent where it is needed rather than stolen by corrupt bureaucrats and politicians. In other words, Pakistan’s elites must do what they have adamantly refused to do for decades: build a modern administrative state and the competent tax, law enforcement, regulatory, and judicial agencies that come with it.

Once Pakistan gets its finances and governance in order, it can focus on climate change. It will need to make massive investments to climate-proof its infrastructure while re-locating entire towns from flood-prone areas. It will need to wean itself off imported fossil fuels by building an indigenous renewable energy sector focused on green hydrogen and solar power. And it must modernize and climate-proof its agricultural sector, in part, by building thousands of acres of indoor, climate-controlled facilities. It will also need to build a modern public education system to provide the skilled labor required to make all of this happen.

Pakistan is entering a pivotal period in its history. One that will decide its trajectory for many years. The days ahead will be hard. They will require sacrifice and drastic social, political, and economic changes. If Pakistan’s elite can successfully guide their nation through these troubled times, they will reap the rewards. If they do not, they will suffer the consequences.