PAkistan is not often praised for his leadership. Yet his climate change minister, Sherry Rehman, was one of the stars of the UN the climate talks held in Sharm el-Sheikh last week. At the head of theg77+China” negotiating group of developing countries, Ms Rehman was applauded for leading a new deal to channel money from rich countries to poor countries that have suffered climate-related disasters. It was the main achievement the annual climate jamboree.
Ms. Rehman, a former journalist, information minister and ambassador to the United States, combines well-heeled glamor with toughness. A rare champion of Pakistani liberalism, the 61-year-old Karachiite is known for her fights against honor killings and the country’s cruel blasphemy laws. They earned him multiple death threats. She also bears the scars of a suicide attack targeting her friend Benazir Bhutto (the former Prime Minister survived this jihadist attack, but not a week later). By comparison, the Sharm el-Sheikh talks must have looked like the holiday camp the Egyptian city usually is.
Yet Ms. Rehman was also helped by the fact that the massive floods suffered by Pakistan this year, costing an estimated $30 billion in damage, are one of the biggest climate-related disasters on record. They gave moral authority to his argument that poor countries should receive funds for “loss and damage” from rich countries whose emissions contributed to such calamities. A study attributes waterlogged monsoon floods in part to global warming. Yet Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of the stock of global emissions.
Pakistani environmental activists, a subset of the country’s beleaguered liberal activists, hope Ms Rehman’s triumph will spark more climate action in her country. It had increased slightly before the floods, with, for example, a few cases in which activists sued the government for neglecting its environmental commitments. Yet Pakistan’s climate change ministry is grossly underfunded. Only $43 million has been allocated to it this year out of a federal budget of $47 billion. A national climate change authority has yet to be formed, five years after a law was passed to facilitate it. Pakistan, which experiences some of the hottest temperatures on the planet, has only just begun serious work on a national adaptation plan.
The floods have contributed to making these shortcomings known. Pakistan’s few climate experts suddenly found themselves on the country’s news channels. But will this concentration be maintained? As the government scrambles to provide flood relief, it gives little thought to climate protection against future disasters. Prior to the floods, Ms. Rehman was pushing an $11-17 billion initiative to regenerate the Indus River which supports the livelihoods, indirectly or directly, of more than 200 million people. But funds that could have been earmarked for the program are now earmarked for flood relief.
The increased global attention it has brought to flood losses in Pakistan could attract a lot more money and relevant expertise. It could make the country a poster child not just for activism against loss and damage, but, more usefully, for long-term planning and climate resilience. There is a precedent for this. After a devastating cyclone in 1970, Bangladesh implemented one of the best disaster preparedness programs in the world. A tragic and more likely scenario would see the momentum generated by the Pakistan calamity and Ms Rehman’s shrewd diplomacy lost in a protracted relief effort and Pakistan’s usual obsessions with politics and scandal. At least, until the flood waters come back up.■