It has become obvious that Pakistan faces a massively turbulent future as a result of climate change. Most Pakistanis, especially in rural areas, are unfamiliar with the International Panel on Climate Change and its findings for South Asia, but they can tell what is going on. 

Recently, pollster organization Climate Asia conducted a continent-wide survey on public feelings about climate change. It found that 72 percent of Pakistanis have noticed that the temperature has increased (leading to extremes like a major drought from 1998 to 2002, and massive floods in recent years) and that just over 50 percent have noted that there are more pests, less trees, and less rainfall on average. There is every reason to believe that those numbers will increase over the next few decades.

Experts usually discuss other scary numbers when it comes to Pakistan’s climate vulnerabilities. Those familiar with the topic almost know them by heart. By 2100, wheat production will likely fall by six to eight percent, and rice by fifteen to twenty percent. Melting glaciers threaten the water supply for most of the country, as well as ninety percent of its crops. Rising sea levels will have severe effects on much of its population, along with fifty percent of its electricity generation. And these are conservative estimates.

These are clearly massive crises that will devastate Pakistani society. However, less research has been done on how exactly those effects will change the social and economic framework. Experts freely tell us that climate change will disproportionately affect the poor and dispossessed, however, there is comparatively little discussion on what exactly that means politically. This isn’t surprising, since climate scientists aren’t sociologists. These are crucial questions though, and thankfully, a number of prescient studies are being released on this topic.

One of them is entitled “A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction,”  and was partially-funded by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. You might remember it as the study that Gizmodo described as “NASA-Backed Study Says Humanity Is Pretty Much Screwed.” The paper itself is far more subtle, arguing that civilizations in general tend to collapse when there is “resource capture” by an elite class. This is because its various privileges mean that it can survive devastating crises in the medium-term, which in the mean time decimate the lowest rungs of society. Ultimately, this leads to massive unrest, and the civilizations are wiped out.

Pakistan Urdu ad. October 2010.

Urdu climate flyer.

The paper argues that climate change is the crisis event that will likely bring an end to Western civilization, and probably in the next few decades. This isn’t because of a Day After Tomorrow-type apocalypse. Rather, our current era will come to an end because the most vulnerable populations that are going to suffer the most from climate change are also our labour base. After all, global warming is going to be felt unevenly: richer countries like the United States will last for a while, and poorer ones are going to splinter apart sooner rather than later. As globalization intensifies inequality, this divide is likely to be felt within poorer states as well. The model is highly theoretical, but other studies such as one by the Swiss KPMG back it up more empirically. There is a “perfect storm” coming, and countries like Pakistan will not survive it in their current form.

“Current form” is the crucial question. Phrases like “collapse of Western civilization” are a bit too bleak, if only because the collapse of one social order heralds the rise of another. What comes next then? Pakistan is in a unique position there. It was the only country surveyed by Climate Asia where the majority, 53 percent of its population, was found to believe that life has gotten “a bit worse” or “much worse” in the past five years. Compare that to 21 percent altogether for those two categories in India.

The findings on how Pakistanis feel about their government and its abilities to respond to environmental problems are equally dramatic. 51 percent of Pakistanis are said to have no confidence in the federal government to take “necessary actions to help respond to changes in water, food, energy supplies, or weather.” An additional 21 percent are listed as not very confident. The image these figures alone conjure is depressing, and the study’s overall conclusions aren’t much better:

“People living in large cities are most concerned about a lack of electricity and fuel, while lack of food is the biggest concern for people in rural areas.”

“Confidence in government is very low, and Pakistanis feel that the government doesn’t listen to the needs of its people. Inflation is high and people are feeling pressure on their household incomes.”

“These difficulties have been aggravated by changes in climate.”

“The impacts of these changes include a reduction in crop productivity forcing some rural communities either to change livelihoods or buy food that they cannot afford. People have health concerns such as increases in infectious diseases.”

“Compared with the other countries in this study, people in Pakistan feel most strongly that these changes are having a high level of impact on their lives now.”

“This feeling has driven Pakistanis to act. Their biggest motivator is the need to survive. Knowing that government support will be limited, they have started to take action themselves by working together in their communities or through the support of NGOs.”

“Information is also playing a role in equipping people to act. Those who feel more informed are adapting more to the changes. However, those without access to resources, relevant information or community support are not able to cope and feel helpless.”

What will happen in Pakistan as a result? How will the state collapse, and what will replace it? Will Pakistanis seek to surmount these challenges through grassroots action in the interest of a more democratized Islamic republic? Protests being held by Imran Khan and Tahir ul-Qadri leave much to be desired, but few would deny that their rhetoric has merit. Will the military step in to manage various climate effects? Civilian elites are as ineffectual as ever, especially during the rule of current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Will Pakistanis fall back on ignorance, fear, and superstition? Will they meet the challenge by building something totally new? Unknown. Whatever happens, Pakistan is unique as an Asian country in that it is facing great suffering as a result of climate change, at the same time as it is on the brink of transformation. Those two trends will affect each other very soon. It’s too soon to say if the result will be democratic, multicultural, or even “Pakistani” as we know it.


Photographs courtesy of 350.org. Published  under a Creative Commons License.