During a recent visit to flood-affected areas in South Punjab as part of the Haqooq-e-Khalq (People’s Rights) party’s relief efforts, at least a dozen bikes followed our caravan along a dusty path for an hour as we moved towards the relief distribution centre. As we unloaded food, clothes and sanitary pads, chaos appeared imminent when it became clear that the 200 bags were inadequate for the hundreds of victims who had gathered in the hope of receiving desperately needed aid. Attempts to identify those most in need felt hopelessly inadequate; we could not help but feel the arbitrariness of aid distribution in the midst of pervasive and unimaginable suffering caused by the floods.
Since July 2022, 35 million people have been affected by the worst floods in the region’s history, with government officials estimating economic damages to be around $10 billion. It is not only the immediate destruction of homes that has displaced millions, but also the long-term tragedy haunting the country. Given the immense damage to livestock and crops, it is widely feared that Pakistan may experience food shortages in the near future – a harrowing possibility considering that 40% of the country’s children are already malnourished.
Those we met expressed grief at their experience of total abandonment in the depths of extreme misery. Mainstream political discourse in the country is dominated by the increasingly bitter political battle between the ousted leader Imran Khan and the succeeding Shabaz Sharif-led government. As a result, floods became the main headline in Pakistan only on 23 August, when over 20 million people were already affected. Meanwhile, those affected were livid at the feudal elites – who control labour, wealth and local politics but have been conspicuously absent from their constituencies during these difficult times. Most have luxurious homes in cities away from their constituencies, demonstrating how the destruction caused by climate change is unevenly distributed along the region’s class faultlines.
Naming the polluters.
Climate injustice is even starker when we examine the role of rich countries and mega-corporations in creating climate catastrophe around the world. Less than one hundred fuel and cement companies were responsible for nearly two-thirds of global emissions from the 1850s to 2010. In the 1970s, Exxon’s own top scientists confirmed that the global temperature was rising due to the release of CO2 from burning fossil fuels – yet instead of taking action to prevent the crisis from worsening, the company buried the research. Despite knowing about the greenhouse effect resulting from their activities, 20 fossil fuel companies are responsible for over a third of all global greenhouse gas emissions in the last half-century.
The corporate capture of the wealthy governments most complicit in the climate crisis is reflected in national policies and the practices of international bodies. The fossil fuel industry exerts disproportionate influence over the political process through lobbying, campaign finance and public relations stunts to protect their assets, ensure continued growth of profits and avoid bankruptcy, thwarting efforts to phase out the destructive fossil fuel economy. Their logos plaster the walls at the UN Conference of the Parties climate summits, and their contractors write and lobby for legislation to maintain and consolidate their economic and political dominance without any regard for the human tragedy their policies entail.
The effects of such corporate greed and reckless government policies are being borne out by poor countries such as Pakistan that have not even used their fair share of safe emissions. A recent study has shown that the Global North is responsible for 92% of cumulative CO2 emissions in excess of the planetary boundary of 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 concentration. Pakistan, on the other hand, has a ‘climate credit’ of 4.3%, meaning it has emitted less CO2 than its fair share.
In fact, western governments began exceeding their quota of safe emissions in 1939 due to rapid industrial development, militarisation and colonial plunder. According to the economist Utsa Patnaik, the cost of colonial plunder of India alone by the British was equal to $45 trillion, signalling the intimate relationship between environmental destruction and economic exploitation.
Demand the impossible.
Before the floods hit, Pakistan was already in the grip of a punishing International Monetary Fund programme in which the financial institution demanded exorbitant taxes from the public – a demand that led to a spike in energy bills in August 2022. With an external debt burden of $28 billion, flood damages worth $10 billion, and inflation at 27%, Pakistan can only repay its debt at the expense of making the lives of millions of its own citizens disposable. Powerful creditors in the Global North invoke the theological language of ‘sacrifice’ for the world’s ‘economic health’ – a sacrifice that is almost exclusively reserved for the global poor.
Today, activists from a number of progressive organisations in Pakistan, including the Haqooq-e-Khalq party, are calling for climate reparations to pay for the destruction caused by the floods; to build climate resilient infrastructure; and to hold polluting companies accountable. This is a call to begin a shared project between progressive activists in the Global North and the Global South against neoliberal capitalism that has proven itself incompatible with life on Earth. On 9 September, people around the world will be amplifying the demand for reparations to Pakistan by holding public demonstrations and using the hashtag #PakistanIsOurStory, opening a new chapter of international solidarity that affirms the dignity of life over corporate greed.
The case for reparations is strong not only because of the colonial roots of the region’s under-development but also because much of Pakistan’s debt has been given to military dictators and unaccountable elites as part of the Global North’s strategic calculus during the Cold War and the War on Terror. The Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt has already stressed that it is illegal and unjust to make the public pay back debts incurred by tyrannical regimes and ruling elites. The debate on climate debt has made this argument more potent, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also recognising colonialism as a major contributor towards global warming.
Today’s true utopians are those who believe that despite the unprecedented destruction caused by changing weather patterns, it is possible to keep doing business as usual. The truth is that the status quo has already collapsed due to the convergence of multiple crises – pandemics, economic stagnation and climate change – creating a world of perpetual emergencies in which walls, surveillance and policing desperate populations will supersede any commitment to equality or human development. Pakistan demonstrates that this dystopian future is already here.
We must find the courage to make seemingly impossible demands, such as climate reparations and debt cancellation, as the only practical steps towards rehabilitating flood victims, undoing historical wrongs and healing our planet. Politics must become the art of the impossible if we are to change the course of history.
Tabitha Spence is a climate activist, member of Haqooq-e-Khalq Party/Democratic Socialists of America and a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the American University.
Ammar Ali Jan is a historian, member of Haqooq-e-Khalq Party and Council member of the Progressive International.