Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

"We have bought into the narrative of the West and failed to put the development argument forward"

Published in Nov-Dec 2022

Adil Najam, Founding Dean Emeritus & Professor, Boston University Pardee School of Global Studies, about the impacts of climate change.

AURORA: The recent floods in Pakistan have put climate change at the forefront of many conversations internationally and in Pakistan. How useful are these conversations in bringing about actual change?
ADIL NAJAM: A slightly cynical way to look at it would be to say that climate change is the one thing that is going somewhere; the one thing that is having, and will have, an impact. That is not to say it is going where you and I want it to go. It is not to say that these conversations stem from our actions; instead, they are a function of our inaction. The golden rule is don’t mess with nature. Humanity has known this for a long time, and every time we ignore this rule, we do so at our peril. The hubris with which we have not only ignored, but laughed at nature over the last 30 years, is what is having an impact now. I don’t say this lightly. There is this sense that we will ‘manage’ it. We are the ones who ‘tamed’ the rivers and ‘conquered’ the mountains. And all this is true – but without the realisation that what gave humanity the ability to become what it has become is not our victory over nature – it was the bounty of the natural system we were endowed with. Think about our relationship with nature. We say we ‘conquer’ mountains. We use the military language of control when we speak about nature and we are proud of it. You don’t ‘tame’ the river, you make peace with it; you live with the river. I am getting too lyrical here, but to your question, yes, we have made immense progress. Have we made a difference? No, we haven’t. Part of the reason why lies in the magnitude of the problem and part of it in the hubris I mentioned earlier.

A: In what sense have we made immense progress?
AN: In 1988 when I first started taking an interest in environmental issues, it was a very new field. One had to explain to people what one actually did. Today, everyone, everywhere in the world is talking about the climate. In those days, politicians or business leaders never talked about it, today they feel obliged to do so, even if they are not particularly interested because they know they cannot afford not to speak about the climate and the environment. You cannot open your Twitter without finding something about it; you cannot talk for 10 minutes on global television without the environment coming up. In that sense, the whole world seems to care about the environment. However, it rarely translates into actual action. I could not have imagined that between the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and today, the global uptake would be to this extent, but had I imagined it, I would have also imagined that by now we would have solved the problem because it is not a difficult problem. It is essentially a carbon management problem. We say it is very difficult, but this is an arrogance that stems from the basic idea that I will not change my behaviour, but somehow I will solve this problem. You will find a technological fix, but you will not change how you live, change the car you drive or change how you travel. I often say that we are in a race between human arrogance and human wisdom. I have no doubts about the fact that we can solve the problem, but I am not convinced we have the wisdom yet. What this wisdom means is that instead of trying to use our knowledge to tame nature, we will make our peace with nature and use our knowledge and wisdom to give humanity a decent life without imposing the type of costs on the very system upon which we not only thrive but survive.

A: Ultimately would not that mean having to adapt and slow our economic growth?
AN: You have used two important words. Adapt and growth. Firstly, I am a big proponent of what is called adaptation. Let me peel away that word. Adapt we will have to. Either we do it by choice or by force. With climate, there are two basic concepts. One is to mitigate the effects and the other is to adapt to the impact. To mitigate means that when we have a problem, we will do things to ensure the problem doesn’t happen again and this is what most experts have been talking about concerning reducing carbon emissions. Adapting is about adapting to the impacts of climate change once they have happened. For the first 25 years of my life, I did not want to talk about adaptation. My activism was to mitigate and bring carbon levels down. However, for the last 10 years, I have been arguing that we live in the age of adaptation and are now condemned to live with the impact of climate change. This is what the floods are about. They are an impact of climate change, and when such impacts happen what do you do? You deal with them. Humans are very good at adaptation; they became the dominant species because they adapted. What did the people impacted by the floods do? They took refuge on their roofs, and then they started to walk in the water – which is not a normal thing to do, but when you are in a bad situation, you adapt to it. My point is we are now living in an age of adaptation, especially in countries like Pakistan. We have regressed in our narrative. We have totally bought into the narrative of the West, which is all about carbon and we have failed to put the development argument forward. The rich countries are responsible for climate change but look at the impact on the poor. In Pakistan, managing carbon footprints and putting EVs on the road will have benefits, and we should do it, but they will not change the trajectory. You can go down to zero carbon, but nothing will change. We don’t have the luxury to just mitigate, we have to adapt. Secondly, when we think of economic growth – please note that in everything I have said, I did not use the word growth, I used the word development. Let’s first understand ‘growth’. There are two kinds of growth. One is the growth in our emissions, the other is economic growth. Until 2000-2010, growth was the mantra. However, economic growth means having more tomorrow than I have today. In other words, perpetual growth. The second kind of growth – carbon – has historically been linked to economic growth. Throughout the last century, carbon growth meant economic growth. You could take any country, plot its economic growth and then plot its energy use, which is essentially carbon. The more energy they used, the more carbon they threw into the atmosphere and the more they grew economically. Climate change requires that we delink that curve economically. China was the first country to demonstrate that this could be done and now the EU and the US are doing it. They are still growing but without the same levels of carbon growth. They have done so partly by exporting the dirty carbon – go into an American supermarket and there is almost nothing inside that is made in America – they are manufacturing somewhere else, although it is still their carbon footprint. Nevertheless, the fact remains that we have been successful in delinking economic growth from carbon growth and this is one of the best things to have happened, although because of our inaction, we also have an impact question. To me, the problem is that the carbon debate is very active because it is led by industrialised countries and by large companies. However, the debate in countries like Pakistan has to be about the impacts of climate change that have become real. These countries will have to create their intellectual discourse and develop their ideas and options. Such ideas will not come from Boston, but rather from Bahawalpur.

A: How does this translate in the Pakistan context, specifically to the people who can make a difference?
AN: The awareness is growing – certainly among young people. Climate change has become a talking point even in Pakistan, although it still doesn’t get the resources it needs. The floods have made people realise that the challenges are real. Firstly, because of the real and visible impacts and secondly, because people like the UN Secretary-General and Angelina Jolie have shown up. The question is to translate awareness into action. For example, I worked with Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change and the UN on an initiative called Living Indus, which was released just before the floods. The objective is to develop strategies aimed at the conservation and restoration of the Indus as a living river. Ninety percent of Pakistanis live or depend on the Indus Basin and it is where 85% of our economy is based. The river has sustained us for more than 5,000 years. So how do we keep the Indus as a living river system and how do we tackle the issues of impact? If we start thinking about adaptation, then we can also start to think about redevelopment. Let’s take Karachi’s repeated heat waves, which are also part of climate change. There is no reason why over 100 people should have died. We live in Karachi and we are not unused to heat. People do not die because of an earthquake; they die because they were crushed by the roof that fell on their heads and was not properly made. Give people proper roofs and everything becomes better. Same with heat. People don’t die because of the temperatures. But when you cut down trees, don’t replant and do not provide any hydration options on the streets, then people will die. This is what adaptation is about, and the reason why this agenda has to come from us. Adaptation can have positive benefits. Show me an adaptation project and I will show you a development project. Most solutions related to carbon emissions mean cutting down on something. Solutions related to adaptation mean putting development on a better path that provides benefits. So awareness has gone up, but action has not as much. Partly because it is expensive and partly because it is a challenge of imagination. Our imagination is still stuck in the zone of what the industrialised world is doing.

A: Isn’t tackling these issues with both resources and concrete actions a matter of some urgency given that these kinds of calamitous events are likely to multiply?
AN: If you go back to human wisdom, including traditional wisdom, this is not an unsolvable problem. I am giving a double message. I am giving a message of urgency, but I do not want to give a message of complacency. Complacency comes either when we are arrogant and think we can do something later or we believe we cannot do anything about a situation, so what is the use of trying? It is still a solvable problem for Pakistan and if handled right, we may be able to undo many of the development wrongs of the past.

A: What is your take on issues related to climate finances and climate justice? Do you think the industrialised countries are ever going to agree to any sort of compensation, and should Pakistan be pursuing this agenda internationally?
AN: This is not a new issue and Pakistan has been arguing this case, like every other developing country, since 1992. There are two key concepts. One is called ‘Loss and Damage’ and the other is ‘Climate Justice’. Pakistan should certainly raise them. There is logic in doing this. Having said so, please don’t hold your breath waiting for the West to say, “We were wrong and we will compensate you.” However, that does not mean you don’t talk about it and don’t ask for policies that make it juster. This is my take, but I also have another one which is unpopular. Yes, the price of climate change is indeed being paid by developing countries. But a similar view is equally true within countries. You drive a Pajero and I drive a Honda 70, yet the person whose house was swept away by a flood doesn’t even own a bicycle. So, the same logic of climate change justice applies to countries and communities. So firstly, Pakistan should raise the climate justice argument, because we need the international system to be juster. Secondly, unless we are also prepared to talk about climate justice within our own countries, our legitimacy will be questioned. Thirdly, discussions regarding climate reparations should not be the sole strategy. The argument should be for a more just international climate order, but it should not preclude individual action.

A: Is climate change ultimately irreversible?
AN: No. Some change is inevitable and you cannot stop that change. Our grandchildren could see a reverse. It is about the chemistry of the planet. The planet has gone through carbon cycles naturally before, so it is possible. The word I would use at this point is that some level of impact is inevitable. However, the less we act on carbon, the more inevitable it becomes. There is a caveat to that inevitability. If tomorrow the EU and the US start to cut down their emissions seriously, this will reduce the impact. However, my argument is that for about 2.5 billion people, climate impacts are a reality, including for about two-thirds of Pakistan. At the international level, Pakistan should keep talking about climate justice and better resources and push the industrialised countries to mitigate faster. In Pakistan, we need to get ready for the inevitable climate impacts and do so with a development lens.

Professor Adil Najam was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback