The opening scenes from Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future have become somewhat iconic. In one, innumerable heads bob in the waters of an Indian lake, an act of desperation as an un-air-conditioned overpopulation attempts to escape uninhabitable heat. The water is cooler than the air, but warmer than body temperature. Frogs in saucepans come to mind. Well, this fiction is taking on all too real a face in South Asia today.
Acting politically to reverse the climate crisis, my personal mission documented by this blog, seems fantastical when such a remote, intractable location is the target. In the first installment of this Healing the Heat series, I saw the value of local action in the windmills of Geneseo, Illinois and voiced my support for the same where I live in Southeast Pennsylvania. In Healing the Heat II I thrilled to the passage of the most meaningful climate legislation in the U.S., ever, and committed to preserving and expanding it by securing climate-friendly legislators in the U.S. midterm elections in November. Now, in this final installment (and last post before I take a break until February), I move to the grand international arena and search for gates to enter.
Pakistan and India experienced temperatures before the current monsoon season beyond imagination, like 120˚F (49˚C) in several locations and averages 9–14˚F (5–8˚C) above normal, an event occurring in a La Niña year (which should be cooler than average) and is clearly attributable to human activity. When the monsoon rains finally arrived, it too broke records, so the “relief” from a parched Pakistan meant massive flooding, turning fully one-third of Pakistan into a lake, and creating hordes of refugees. Over 1,000 have died and destruction is everywhere. Moving accounts in this CNN video and an NPR interview with Pakistan’s minister for climate change might leave you feeling rather hopeless, as Robinson’s fictional images become the lived experience.
Well, not my lived experience, which is the irony. Pakistan contributes less than 1% of the world’s greenhouse gases, the cause of their suffering, while the United States is easily the planet’s largest cumulative contributor of this warming pollution, almost double that of the second emitter (China). What can a lowly citizen of our industrial behemoth do to change this?
I watch the noisy, lumbering train of families on CNN, with all their belongings and livestock filling a road now no more than a causeway, wondering what they are thinking. Perhaps they’re mostly worried about their immediate plight; where they will sleep, how they will eat, what they will return to. This calls for emergency relief, ASAP. Maybe they have a moment to think about how they can be better prepared for the next flood. In this case Pakistan needs to adapt to the new and future heat waves and flooding, the former predicted to happen anywhere from every fifty to every five years. Yet Pakistan is a very poor and populous country, with a per-capita GDP of about $1,500. This calls for international aid on a massive scale, something already promised, but not delivered. Finally, perhaps some of those climate refugees are wondering when, if ever, this will not be the fate of families like theirs, and if they have any prospect of a decent standard of living (e.g. fans or air conditioners in a place where 25% of the population has no access to electricity and blackouts have been frequent). This requires mitigation of climate change, meaning using renewables for that critical expansion of energy production, and phasing out the 66% of Pakistan’s limited electricity that currently comes from fossil fuels.
Emergency relief, adaptation, and mitigation. Yes, I can give my little push on each count.
The first is straightforward. There are many ways to send a donation to ease Pakistani pain now. I chose the United Nations World Food Program, because of course there is no food from submerged farms, markets, and roads.
Now, for adaptation. Assistance for adaptation in the Global South from the wealthy high emitters was promised at the Copenhagen meeting of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP 15, in 2009. Rich countries were to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 to help people adjust to the disappearing shores of the Pacific Islands, the parched farmland of the Sahel, the overtopped levees of Pakistan. It didn’t quite happen. We made it to about $80 billion by 2019, but what countries claim to have provided is not always “new and additional” money, over and above already budgeted aid, as it was supposed to be. Which also means that money for other sustainable development projects has been diverted away. We heard more pledges at COP 26 in Glasgow last year, but continue to fall short (the $100 billion can was kicked to 2023). And I haven’t even mentioned the funding for “loss and damage” demanded by struggling nations, often to be dismissed by wealthy nations.
The U.S. (did I mention that we are responsible for more cumulative greenhouse gas than any other nation?) is pretty pathetic in its contributions, so pre-Glasgow the world pressured our administration to put on its big-boy pin stripes and set an example. President Biden duly apologized for our absence during the dark days of Donald Trump and pledged to quadruple existing aid to $11.4 billion by 2024. Sounds like a lot, but when adjusted for things like the size of our economy or emissions, it’s measly. One think-tank says the U.S. “fair share” is more like $43 billion, as reported by Grid. In fact, as a percent of Gross National Income, the U.S. contribution ranks dead last among developed nations (see graph above). Biden had a hard enough time convincing congress to support a domestic climate initiative (and had to sell it as the “Inflation Reduction Act” — really?), so hopes are not high with little Trumpy isolationists crawling around the Capitol. The administration’s fiscal 2022 budget calls for only $2.5 billion for climate aid.
Personal political action may seem elusive here, but realize that two really influential things are happening in November: The next major climate conference, and the U.S. midterm elections. The former, known as COP 27, will be held at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, and climate finance and loss and damage will undoubtedly be a major theme. Climate, especially reparations to foreigners, will not be a high-profile issue in the latter, unless lots of Americans tell candidates that it should be. The November 8 election falls only two days into the summit on the Sinai, and attendees know that the results in America determine our ability to lead on climate. Activists must part the Red Sea to usher climate prophets into congress and build a promised land of milk and money — money for adaptation in the Global South. So my mission will be the same as that articulated in my last blog: Work for a climate-aggressive Senate and House by campaigning in many modes. After all, we promised billions in 2009, and I think someone once said “thou shalt not lie.”
The third way to respond to Pakistan’s plight, mitigation, is in fact part of the $100 billion promise. Without getting into the debate on the adaptation/mitigation ratio in aid outlays so far, suffice it to say that political action to meet our Copenhagen commitments will serve both.
I did take one other action to help demolish a major obstacle to mitigation, the financing of new fossil fuel infrastructure. Accelerating installment of renewables is clearly at cross-purposes with construction of coal-fired power plants, natural gas pipelines, or offshore drilling platforms, and here I have joined in the “Third Act” organization’s campaign to boycott banks who fund this effort. Bank of America, Chase, Citibank, and Wells Fargo are consequential international actors continuing to fund an unlivable future, so people are putting them on notice: Accounts will be closed, credit cards destroyed, and both will be widely publicized. Consumers will not abide paying for what might be called “reverse carbon offsets” to new solar panels and wind turbines. My scissors are poised over my Citibank Master Card.
The climate victims in Pakistan and elsewhere do not dominate the news like inflation, COVID, and Ukraine, but it’s helpful to put things in perspective. Six times as many Pakistanis are impacted by the floods than displaced by the war in Ukraine, a number three times the population of Portugal. The area underwater is the size of the state of Colorado. This climate “pandemic” knows national boundaries no better than SARS-CoV-2. It is not just a moral obligation to provide emergency relief immediately and support for adaptation and mitigation long-term, it is a truly epic mission to ensure our own nation’s well-being. When you stretch your hand over the checkbooks, ballots, and petitions you’re channeling Moses, and turning the Pakistani “seas” into dry ground.