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As the World Crumbles, Who Will Foot the Bill?

Image via EPA

It happened at night. The people awoke as the walls began to shake, disrupting what would otherwise have been a normal August night in Khairpur, Pakistan. Unbeknownst to the city’s inhabitants, a local canal had overflowed and burst. Water had begun rushing into the city, crashing through its narrow streets and pouring into homes, offices, and businesses. Outside of the central business district, Khairpur’s vast agricultural fields were inundated with water, rendering a year’s worth of crops worthless and sweeping away the livelihood of a primarily agrarian region. Before long, Khairpur was drowning under 10 foot floods.

Khairpur wasn’t the only city gasping for air in the face of a record-breaking monsoon season in Pakistan. It’s difficult to quantify the almost biblical scale of this disaster, but simply looking at images of the submerged land paints an astonishing picture. At its peak, the combination of torrential rainfall, warming glaciers, and insufficient infrastructure had left a third of Pakistan, the world’s fifth most populous nation, underwater. 

After the initial shock of devastation in Pakistan, officials from the country’s government and international relief organizations began releasing information on the impact of this year’s floods: 33 million people were directly affected, five million were left without access to potable water, and the nation suffered roughly 40 billion dollars in economic loss. These statistics were accompanied by chilling firsthand accounts of families swept away by heavy currents, never to be seen again. Pakistan’s monsoon season has long been a staple of its geography, critical to the fertile soil that first allowed civilizations in the region to develop some 5,000 years ago. The intensity of these seasons, however, has grown exponentially in recent decades, with 2010 and now 2022 both breaking records for the scale of their destruction. 

Climate scientists were quick to link these heightened monsoon events with climate change as floods overtook Pakistan this summer. This link was further supported in early September with the release of a World Weather Attribution study that established a causal connection between warming air and Pakistan’s 2022 monsoons. Of course, Pakistan is not the only nation to suffer from extraordinary weather events due to climate change. From droughts in East Africa to rising sea levels in Micronesia, the impact of our changing environment poses existential challenges across the globe.

 Notably, many of the countries most affected by the climate crisis are low- and middle-income. The International Monetary Fund has published research showing a strong negative correlation between exposure to climate change and national wealth. For middle-income countries like Pakistan, this means that events like this year’s floods not only threaten the short-term safety of residents, but also weaken the longer-term project of raising the nation’s most vulnerable out of poverty. Pakistan’s agricultural sector depends on the reliability of wet and dry seasons each year. The initial loss of a year’s worth of crops and livestock is devastating, but the devastation will come on an even larger scale in coming decades as Pakistan’s regular monsoons become more erratic and hazardous.

Organizing our global response to climate change is a monumental task. It will be an international project of unimaginable scale, and will break down the boundaries of politics and diplomacy that we have developed over the past century. It will also be expensive. The true costs of climate change are beyond the reach of our existing system of calculating economic value. Can one place a value on an entire island nation? Or on the agricultural output of a continent? A University of Melbourne study estimated the economic loss from untreated sea level rise to number in the tens of trillions, but this approximation doesn’t include any spending on possible mitigation efforts. If a calculable number does exist, it would certainly measure up against the gross output of the modern world. After centuries of decadence at the expense of the planet, nature will exact revenge of equal and opposite force. It follows logically, then, that the cost of saving the post-colonial world from climate change should be sourced from the wealth created by carbon emissions. As nations like Pakistan restructure their national debt to rebuild after natural disasters, Americans are enjoying their highest standard of living in history, simultaneously engaging in hyperconsumerism and widespread investment. Rising international inequality is not a new issue, but its injustice is brutally emphasized when the poor begin to drown at the hand of the rich.

The moral and logical imperative is clear and irrefutable: The West must pay for the consequences of their actions, specifically through climate change mitigation in post-colonial countries. International aid groups already make contributions to this effort, exemplified by a multi-million dollar cash infusion from the UN and supply drops from US military teams in Pakistan over the past few months. Ultimately these contributions are just a temporary solution, however, and as climate change increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters over the next century, a reactive strategy of aid will be far more costly than a proactive one. 

The developed world is certainly aware of this, as vulnerable cities in Western Europe and North America have taken major steps to prepare themselves for rising sea levels. Venice, for example, has for decades had teams of engineers working on flood mitigation. Their proposals have included grandiose ideas such as an underwater gate to restrict water flow in times of flooding. In post-colonial countries like Pakistan, however, pioneering ambitious infrastructure projects is less economically feasible. But that is not to say the situation is hopeless. Pakistan would benefit from green infrastructure projects like wetland rehabilitation, which have been proven to improve real outcomes in times of extreme flooding. 

Economic developments could also alleviate the suffering of nations vulnerable to climate change. Pakistani farmers are critically underinsured against natural disasters, which makes a disaster like this year’s floods even more catastrophic. Increased availability of flood insurance in Pakistan and other lowland nations could make these countries more economically resilient to the rising tide of climate change, and even promote further development by guaranteeing stability in the future. These changes will not happen without a concerted effort, however, meaning that the governments of countries like Pakistan and the international community will need to collaborate to support climate change resilience. 

 The UN’s Green Climate Fund is one example of the efforts being made today to help the Global South overcome climate change. However, it is mostly focused on reducing carbon emissions rather than disaster mitigation, and its 11 billion dollar budget is grossly inadequate for the tremendous challenge at hand. For reference, the United States Department of Defense budgeted 31.2 billion dollars for guided missile development in 2022, and the French government allocated over 17 billion Euros to “territorial cohesion” in that same year. Nonetheless, it seems that western nations have little political appetite for increasing their financial commitment to these programs. Rather, it may take the brute force of nature, and the continued destruction of life, land, and society to shock the global community into action. Climate change is an existential challenge, and one that calls into question the entire system of cooperation and capitalism within today’s international order. Luckily, the system can adapt as it has before—and it must if we hope to preserve our prosperity for future generations.