Climate Justice for the Unjust
Updated: Oct 11, 2022
It may eventually be possible for Pakistan to achieve some climate justice through debt restructuring and foreign aid, but is it ready to do justice to its climate and at-risk population?
With the country, economy, and political stability in deep waters, Pakistan is currently navigating through unprecedented times.
Another catastrophic flooding in 12 years makes a compelling case for climate change. The government has aggressively used it to diffuse responsibility and seek debt relief and foreign aid as climate reparation. The timing could not be better since the 27th session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is around the corner. But there is also a need to put things into perspective, which requires considering all anecdotal and scientific evidence.
Natural Climate Variability
Flooding events in the Indus River system predate Pakistan and modern climate change .
Since its birth in 1947, Pakistan has experienced more than 20 monsoon-related floods , many during La-Nina or the negative phase of ENSO  – a natural phenomenon associated with anomalies in the tropical Pacific ocean surface temperatures. These La-Nina conditions were present during both the 2010 and 2022 flood events.
There was no forecast for the precise magnitude or place-time location of what unfolded during the 2022 monsoon. But the seasonal modeling systems predicted wetter-than-normal monsoons for western South Asia based on the prevailing ocean surface temperatures . Therefore, natural ocean and atmosphere conditions likely played a role in causing this year's record rainfall in Pakistan.
[The forecasted precipitation anomalies for 2022 June-July-August. See  for more details]
There are, however, striking similarities in land surface temperatures across Europe and Asia between July 2010 and August 2022.
As in both cases, parts of western Russia and East Asia were much warmer than average . Hot temperatures dislocated the subtropical jet stream from its usual location. This resulted in rain-generating low-pressure monsoon systems following an unusual path through southern to northern Pakistan.
[Similarities between July 2010 and August 2022: Anomalies in upper atmospheric circulations (200 MB; left column) and surface temperatures (right column) in July 2010 and August 2022 (top and bottom rows). In the left column, the colors represent geopotential height anomalies, and the vectors represent wind directions. The NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis provides wind speeds and geopotential heights, while the Climate Prediction Center provides surface temperatures.]
Spatially Compound Extremes on the Rise
The atmospheric circulation patterns that cause multiple regions to experience extremes contemporaneously have become more common . Frequent co-occurring hot extremes increase the likelihood of spatially compounding events where these conditions are juxtaposed on either side of an environment conducive to heavy monsoon rains over South Asia, such as the Pakistan flooding events in July 2010 and August 2022. Predictability of such compound events is highly desirable but currently impossible.
The increase in global extremes is driven by anthropogenic climate change . Despite this, the fact remains that not every environmental crisis is caused by anthropogenic activities or that climate change alone cannot transform a disaster into a catastrophe. Pakistan does not contribute significantly to the global emissions of greenhouse gases.
Nevertheless, flood-related natural disasters in this region are exacerbated and amplified due to the multitude of natural and human systems that are vulnerable.
Vulnerable Social-ecological Systems
There is a lack of pre-disaster planning, inadequate early warning systems, deforestation of riparian areas, informal settlements in floodplains, colonial-era barrages for water management, inefficient urban drainage systems, and an insufficient number of reservoirs on the Indus River system, among other factors, exposing millions of Pakistanis to extreme elements of climate change.
The evidence suggests that infrastructure deficiencies and inadequate flood prevention solutions were the primary cause of the catastrophic floods of July 2010 rather than the meteorological event . The Indus River system embodies several colonial-era engineering practices that have repeatedly proved unsuitable for flood management in the 21st century. However, learning from history is not a tradition in Pakistan to avoid further mistakes. Perhaps the only significant change between 2010 and 2022 was adding 40 million more people.
The lackluster and apathetic response to the disaster has aggravated the flooding aftermath. This is because political and economic uncertainty has worn thin the coalition government's resolve to cope with the cascading challenges. Amid the chaos, political survival has taken precedence. It is not only the monsoon rains that have set records in Pakistan this summer; the current federal cabinet is also the largest in the country's history.
In the hardest-hit areas of the lower Indus Basin floodplains, hope seems to be the only option available to those who are the least fortunate, extremely poor, largely illiterate, and socially disadvantaged. They are exploited to arouse sympathy and attract foreign aid, which is hoarded, misused, and siphoned off. The good fortune of these people is usually limited to a few free bags of grain, flour, and a tent if they are lucky enough to survive the floods, the diseases, and the corruption.
Their right to a sustainable future is the buzzword for raising voices for climate justice, even when they have no past, no present, and perhaps no future.
But the government cannot be blamed for everything that has gone wrong in preventing and managing another environmental crisis. For decades, resourceful civil society has benefited from deep-rooted corruption. The lack of social accountability has facilitated the degradation of both natural and human systems in the hands of democratic kakistocracies.
Pakistan, as a nation, needs self-reflection to deal with multifaceted challenges. Emissions-driven climate change may have been one of the triggers, but it is not the only cause of Pakistan’s placement on the list of most vulnerable nations facing the worst environmental crises.
The pursuit of climate justice is not a crime. However, the history of siphoning off foreign aid intended to empower vulnerable communities complicates that pursuit. It may eventually be possible for Pakistan to achieve some climate justice through debt relief and foreign aid, but is it ready to do justice to its climate and at-risk population?