For twenty years, the United States and its close allies have focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan largely due to the threat of terrorism. But the climate change show of force unleashed on Pakistan this August should raise alarms in capitals the world over. Its destructive power dwarfs the conventional threats that preoccupy world leaders.
Immediate aid is a welcome first step. This week, the United States announced that it is providing $30,000,000 USD to Pakistan for flood relief — still less than the $70 million pledged in 2010, but not insignificant. But this must be accompanied by serious structural reforms in the West and coordination with frontline countries most immediately impacted by climate change. If not, Washington is merely paying interest on a fast accruing climate time bomb. The effects of climate change on North America and Europe are noteworthy but not yet severe enough to wake us from our collective slumber on this issue. The horrors faced by the people of Pakistan should be our wake-up call.
Ideally, we should assist the people of Pakistan out of a sense of collective global responsibility for a climate change crisis that is largely driven by the world’s most industrialized nations. But if altruism and humanitarian incentives are not enough, then we should take action for our own security.
Pakistan’s 2010 floods occurred in the backdrop of the U.S. surge in Afghanistan. This is important for two reasons: A large U.S. troop presence next door made the logistics of helping out easier, and Washington had an incentive to improve ties with Pakistan. But there are still many reasons for Washington to be concerned about the stability of Pakistan and other countries disproportionately impacted by climate change. The current floods in Pakistan have directly affected over 33 million people and that number is climbing. Tent cities have popped up along the sides of highways and entire communities have been erased from the map. This will have troubling long-term effects that extend for years to come. Crops were destroyed, which will assuredly increase food insecurity. Mass migration to urban centers will place increased stress on infrastructure already teetering on the edge. Extremists and non-state actors may capitalize on resentment felt by the displaced. As the worst effects of climate change become irreversible, these events will spread across the world.
The hard choices of what to do about climate change will always occur in the backdrop of seemingly high priority threats and goals. This is what makes climate change so dangerous. It requires collective and sustained global action — something that has historically been difficult to achieve. It is time that we accept that climate change presents an existential threat to life as we know it and is already here.