The human race is reactionary, that is to say, it waits for a crisis to happen and only then, does it hastily attempt to resolve it. This haste rarely ever resolves the issue and at best, might alleviate it for a brief period, only to exacerbate it in the long run. The latest crisis is not even on our collective radar, and it is frightening to imagine what will happen in the foreseeable future.
We are living in what scientists call the ‘anthropocene’ epoch, which simply means that human activity is having a profound impact on Earth’s environmental and ecological structure; rendering us an actual geological force. Scientists have agreed that the cut-off point for irreversible global climate change is 2 degrees Celsius. This means that if the temperature of the climate increases by another 2 Celsius, there is no turning back. Realistically, this will probably take place within the next 20 years, as fossil fuel combustion and deforestation has led to a 30% increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the last 3 centuries – with more than half of this incurring in only the last 40 years. This human impact is evident in melting Arctic ice, rising sea levels, extinction of important species, floods, droughts, powerful hurricanes, rising temperatures and so on, as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions. Most of these occurrences have already been witnessed in Pakistan; heatwaves, floods, droughts, longer summers, shorter winters and severe weather – all of which have combined to claim thousands of lives.
Without a doubt, and there is consensus on this over the globe, the next major war will stem from the ecological crisis. This includes widespread hunger, a lack of drinking water, new patterns of diseases, waves of desperate people migrating in search of better conditions and, as a consequence, protests, violence, conflict and global scale war. This creeping crisis has already rooted itself and begun in small spurts in most parts of the world. When conflict breaks out, it will result in, ‘fragmentary reactionary moves’ leading to lack of clarity and control over the crisis. Our next great war is definitely going to be on the battle for limited resources. The war in Iraq, the new scramble for oil search in the Arctic and heightened US-Russian tensions, Pakistan and India’s squirmishes over the Indus are all testament to this reality. What does this mean for the future? An anarchic system where many powerful syndicates exist; such as ISIS? This has already begun, evidenced by ISIS’s rigorous attempts to secure fossil fuel deposits in its quest for expansionism, and uses this oil to fund its war against the world at large. ISIS has managed to keep its stronghold successfully as they rake in $50 million a month from the Crude oil reserves in Syria and Iraq.
Environmental justice, a term that is not well-known even in legal circles, is the fair treatment of all races, creeds, nationalities when developing and implementing laws pertaining to the environment. When floods hit, hurricanes strike or pollution causes illness, one must ask, who are the people most affected? Poorer and marginalized communities; areas far from media coverage, health facilities and government eyes will bear the brunt of nature’s fury. Areas already rife with conflict, sectarian divisions and antipathy towards the State will suffer even more when the environment becomes another enemy to contend with. Many areas in Pakistan are good examples of environmental injustice; Polio actually stems from bacteria in dirty water; Cancer is caused by the toxins in our atmosphere created from gas emissions and industrial dumping, floods wreak havoc in underdeveloped areas where small villages with mud houses provide no defense against the storm.
Africa is one such illustration of what the future might hold. Studies have indicated that the country is plagued with war not because of ethnic and linguistic divisions but because of poor political institutions, high poverty and economic dependence on natural resources. Powerful non-state actors and ethnic divisions root themselves in these issues.
The urgency of this issue is being addressed at the UN Paris Conference (Nov 30th to Dec 11th’2015) where 140 national climate action plans have been submitted to the UN for synthesis. World leaders have jointly agreed to reduce GHG emissions, with a target of keeping temperatures from exceeding 2.7 degrees Celsius, with Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Though there is a stronger sense of commitment than before, whether these agreements will be a failure such as at Copenhagen or Kyoto, remains to be seen. Either way, a 2.7 degrees target is disappointing to say the least.
Environmentalism has raised questions about the sustainability of our capitalist consumer lifestyles. Limiting growth in the modern urban-industrial world and reverting to more frugal lifestyles is an uncomfortable thought. However, as we move toward a serious confrontation with the implications of climate change, the concerns for survival and rethinking our living conditions are ever more crucial.
We can do this by releasing itself from dependence on low energy resources and investing in renewable ones such as wind and solar power. Short term costs are redeemable in the long run (load shedding for one), which will create more room for economic growth and at the same time remain environmentally friendly. Reduction of pollution should be our first priority; placing embargos, taxes and strong regulations on industrial pollution and wastes for covering environmental costs are one way to go – waste must not taint our already limited clean air and drinking water. Though Pakistan has more recently made a move to create carbon markets with the help of China, the establishment and ultimate effectiveness of this system remains to be seen. Such an endeavor, however, will without a doubt push investment in the country. Our fragile communities must be made hardier to deal with crises. Radical movements such as eco-villages are perhaps the next and ground breaking changes to our existence. Why not create roots for this in the rural segments of Pakistan, so that they may eventually be self-sustaining, democratic communities on their own? Lastly, the environment must be introduced in our curriculums (both public and private) so to make our future generations more aware that they may make sound judgment calls.
Pakistan desperately needs to invest in research and development. Innovation can stem from two major places; universities and the commercial sector. We have the advantage of acting sooner rather than later. Why can we not be the pioneers for renewable technology? If Brazil can reduce deforestation by 75%, if a band of children in the Philippines can win a Supreme Court case to reduce timber licenses and if Ecuador can establish ground-breaking realities where nature can have ‘rights’, then Pakistan too can set precedents.
Azal Zahir has a Master’s degree in Environmental Education from New York University. She is Founder of AbadTak, an environmental education organization in Pakistan. She has considerable experience in education, research, writing and management.