For many, the visual shock of images from the recent floods in Pakistan have brought home the point that was already known to science: Climate change is no longer a future issue.
I have been in my native Pakistan the last two months and even for a place that has lived with floods for 5,000 years and is no stranger to natural disasters, the scale and intensity of what was really a series of extreme climate events — an elevated heat wave, followed by drought, massive monsoon cloudbursts, and riverain floods — has been unimaginable and beyond all expectations.
The numbers from Pakistan provide a stark and dramatic realization of what climate impacts can look like: one-third of the country is under water; more than 1 million houses damaged or destroyed; 2 million acres of crops ruined; nearly a million head of cattle lost; more than 30 million people homeless, including around 130,000 pregnant women; and about $40 billion in estimated loss and damage. Read those numbers one more time. It should be a shock, but for anyone following the unravelling climate emergency, it should not be a surprise.
The flood was specific to Pakistan, but the climate crisis is not.
The extreme weather that has devastated Pakistan is a progression of the headlines that have so often pocked social media feeds that people have probably stopped noticing. Just this year: wildfires in Spain, drought in China, extreme summer across Europe, hurricanes in Florida, and, of course, floods in Pakistan. Clearly, nature has noticed our climate inaction and signaled its intent: Expect a climate crisis near you — and soon.
Science has also become restless and is stating the facts more bluntly. Over 1,000 scientists came out to proclaim that keeping the global temperature rise below the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius is just not possible. The United Nations Environment Programme also does not see any “credible pathway to 1.5 (degrees) C”, and its most recent Emissions Gap Report points out that even if the major industrialized countries were to meet their pledges, the world should expect a temperature increase of 2.8 degrees C or more. The 2022 World Energy Outlook projections for 2030 suggest that the much trumpeted national commitments made at previous UN climate talks or the even more touted “net-zero” proclamations will have barely any impact on total fossil fuel use or emissions.
This realization, that climate change is here and now is beginning to sink in and for too many, like those in Pakistan, has become very personal. And that is also changing the politics of climate change. As the impacts of global climate change become more local and the immediacy sinks in, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable countries, expect the discourse to become more shrill, the negotiations more contentious, and the divisions between high-emission and high-impact countries more divisive.
We have already seen this in the emergence of “climate justice” and “loss and damage” (essentially, a demand for a legal mechanism for those countries with high emissions to pay for the damage and loss caused in low-emission vulnerable countries) as major issues on the COP27 docket. This is significant because major industrialized high-emission countries that had been able to block these issues from COP negotiations in the past have not been able to do so this time. It’s unlikely that any real headway on either of these issues will be made in Egypt this fortnight, but it is clear that they can no longer be avoided. The more volatile the climate impacts become, the more contentious climate politics will be.
Welcome to what I call “The Age of Adaptation.” Until now, the world’s focus was primarily on mitigation — i.e., reducing emissions to avoid climate change. With impacts now a reality, the attention shifts also to adaptation — i.e., preparing to deal with the impacts of climate change. The former was nearly all about managing carbon; the latter is entirely about building resilience, particularly for the most vulnerable.
As delegates begin talks in Sharm el-Sheikh for COP27, it will be wise for them to recognize that whatever they have been doing in their last 26 outings has not worked. Their job is now much more difficult: Not only do they have to demonstrate immediate and real action on mitigation, they must also urgently start investing in adaptation.
Ours is a patient planet, but it is difficult to fool the world 27 consecutive times. On climate, 27 may be the limit. While all of us have consumed nearly three decades in talking ourselves hoarse about what to do and how, the planetary climate has changed, both physically and politically.
Here, then, is some unsolicited advice for those attending COP27: Spare us the long speeches. Replace future intent with immediate action. In the Age of Adaptation you — and COP27 — will be judged not by the promises you make for tomorrow, but the commitments you fulfill today. Good luck.
Adil Najam is professor and dean emeritus at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies and former vice chancellor at Pakistan’s Lahore University of Management Sciences. He has served as a lead author on the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.