Weeks after the August storm that left a third of Pakistan underwater, Sherry Rehman, the country’s climate minister, says she is still struggling to define “the mind-bending event.” More than 1,200 people died and more than 1 million homes were destroyed. Officially, 33 million people were affected, though Rehman says that’s a “conservative” estimate. The rainfall was so unprecedented that the country was overwhelmed, its emergency plans totally inadequate.
The impact of the floods on Pakistan will take years to fathom but Rehman says they have already begun to influence the global push to address climate change ahead of the United Nations climate conference known as COP27 to be held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt this November. Climate linked disasters have shocked government officials around the world and are “spreading so fast, that everyone’s sobered up,” she says. Rehman is calling on countries in the Global North to recommit to their promises to reduce emissions and pay for the damaging effects of climate change in the developing world. “It is time for all of us to do a really sober stock-take,” she says.
The countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change had already planned to push the controversial issue of “loss and damage” payments at COP27. Developing countries have for decades argued that the countries who have historically emitted the most should commit to paying for the damage caused. Multiple studies have estimated that the cost of climate-linked loss and damage in developing countries will total in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually by the end of this decade. Wealthy, high-emitting countries, most notably the United States, have resisted any formal recognition of liability of those costs.
The notion of responsibility is at the core of Rehman’s message. Pakistan has emitted 0.3% of historic emissions, according to data from the Global Change Data Lab, and yet is regularly ranked as one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Rehman describes the deadly heat, melting glaciers and devastating wildfires all happening within the country’s borders. “We are bearing a full-on humanitarian payload for other people’s carbon consumption,” she says.
Political leaders, academics and policy wonks have suggested a wide range of mechanisms to address loss and damage, but Rehman says it is too early to say what compromise might emerge at COP27. She insists, though, that the outcome this year needs to be more concrete than past negotiations. At last year’s climate conference, held in Glasgow, Scotland, countries agreed to a formal “dialogue” on the issue, but nothing concrete resulted from it. “A dialogue can just be a dialogue, lots of people drinking tea,” says Rehman. “It’s got to go beyond that.”
Rehman says a separate secretariat is needed to coordinate financial flows to pay for climate damages. Rehman won’t name a dollar amount or percentage of damages that countries should be responsible for providing, but she insists that the overall flow of climate finance from the Global North to the Global South needs to increase dramatically. “More money has to be ponied up,” she says.
The worst effects of climate change are often framed as an issue primarily facing the developing world, but Rehman offers a stark message to countries in the Global North: you will be next. “This dystopia is on our doorstep; it’s going to be next in their country,” she said, referring to countries in the Global North. “If you’re not understanding that it’s right here, right now, or that actions need to be taken post-haste, then you’re really sleepwalking into annihilation.”
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