It is almost impossible to comprehend the scale of the crisis Pakistan is facing. A third of the country has been flooded, 1400 people killed, one million homes destroyed, and fifty million people—almost the entire population of England—have been displaced from their homes as a result of this ecological crisis.
These floods make clear that we are already in the middle of a climate emergency, which is causing death and destruction in real-time. Climate action is no longer about preventing climate breakdown from happening; we must look to decarbonise as soon as possible in the hope of preventing even more damaging effects.
In addition to the reality of climate breakdown, however, what these floods have also exposed is the injustice baked into international relations. As extreme weather events become increasingly more frequent and deadly, we will have to demand a new global normal.
Since the flooding began, many have rightly pointed out that the situation in Pakistan epitomises climate injustice, with those least responsible for causing the crisis are suffering the most.
Pakistan, the fifth largest country in the world, is responsible for only one percent of global emissions, but its people are and will continue to be disproportionately impacted by climate breakdown.
Responsibility for the climate crisis lies with wealthy nations in the global North. Since the industrial revolution, countries like ours—which have the largest cumulative per capita greenhouse gas emissions—have grown through, and profited from, accelerating climate catastrophe.
For the UK specifically, our responsibility for the climate crisis also has a distinctly imperial origin, which is deeply relevant to determining how we should respond to Pakistan’s floods.
It is well known that the East India Company, followed by the British Empire, brutalised the Indian subcontinent. Britain stole wealth at an unimaginable scale: at the start of the 18th century the subcontinent’s share of the world economy was 23 percent, but by 1947 that had been reduced to less than four percent.
Attempts to quantify the amount looted from the subcontinent put the figure at $45 trillion, which was stolen both in the form of literal treasure, but also through the raw materials taken at scale to grow an industrial base at home.
This nation built its wealth by subjugating others. The success of the industrial revolution depended on a regular supply of cheap raw materials and a—quite literally—captive market to sell manufactured goods back to.
Manchester’s textiles industry only became viable through the forced deindustrialisation of the subcontinent, achieved through a combination of extreme tariffs on Indian textile exports levied at British-occupied ports, and impossibly low-priced British textile products, themselves heavily subsidised by slave plantation cotton.
The Empire was not only economically exploitative, but also demanded natural environments being fundamentally restructured.
Across the course of British rule, the subcontinent’s share of world manufacturing exports fell from 27 percent to two percent, which Shashi Tharoor described as the “first great deindustrialization of the modern world”.
This deindustrialisation led to masses of skilled manufacturing workers being driven to agriculture at a scale that the land could not sustain, which completely reshaped its landscapes.
In an 1853 article on British rule in India, Karl Marx described the same event, referring to the destruction of a self-sustained village system of agriculture by the hand of “English steam and English free trade.”
Historian David Gilmartin describes the “massive environmental changes that during the colonial era shaped the Indus Basin, the heartland of today’s Pakistan” as “one of the world’s great environmental transformations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries”.
He notes that the areas of western Punjab that “today provide the heartlands of Pakistani agriculture”, which were established during the colonial era to meet rising agricultural demand, “were not settled, even at the height of the Mughal Empire”.
Converting land-use to agriculture is not a neutral affair. Syed Mohammed Ali, in the Pakistan Express Tribune, described how the British Empire’s agricultural demand led to ecological destruction.
The “massive irrigation schemes launched by the British”, led to “aggressive damming and water diversion for irrigation… [which has] disrupted the natural flow of rivers”.
Intensive land-use and agricultural practices are significant contributors to flood risk, and no doubt have exacerbated Pakistan’s current susceptibility to flooding, and thereby the current crisis.
Not only is Pakistan one of the smallest per capita GHG emitters then, but British colonialism— through the systematic looting of its wealth and resources and the large-scale restructuring of its natural environment—made it more susceptible to climate impacts.
The international community has consistently failed on climate justice. The richest nations have until now refused to play their part in tackling the crisis: a pledge made during climate accords in 2009 that the wealthiest nations would deliver $100bn a year in climate finance to developing countries to help tackle the climate crisis and adapt to its impacts has still never been met.
It is therefore unsurprising that, despite its large historical culpability the UK Government’s response to Pakistan has been to champion charity over justice. It has offered to match public donations and gift a paltry £15m, extremely pitiful considering Pakistan’s loss and damage are estimated to be at least $10bn.
As one of the first incidences of a nationwide climate breakdown, it is likely that how countries respond to Pakistan’s floods, and its immediate need for international solidarity, will set the precedent for the international community’s future climate crisis-management.
For those concerned with climate justice this should be a cause for concern: the international response to the floods in Pakistan has been one of marked indifference.
This must be a wake-up call for climate activists. In addition to rapid decarbonisation at home, we need to reshape and rearticulate demands for international solidarity, beginning with the crisis response in Pakistan.
These floods have rightly prompted calls for Pakistan’s debts to be cancelled, so that its resources can be used to tackle the impacts of the disaster. In addition to this, we need to be articulating the need for reparations to address climate colonialism.
Through its empire and beyond, Britain has spent centuries reshaping the natural world to allow for the opportune extraction of wealth and resources, leaving a legacy of murder, theft, exploitation, and environmental destruction that cannot be undone.
What we can do, however, is call for reparatory justice at the same scale as the UK’s historic harms.
In the immediate term, we must demand for Pakistan climate reparations that will achieve nothing less than the complete restoration of everyday life for all impacted by these floods, as well as supporting climate adaptation efforts to mitigate the nation from future ecological crises.
And for the foreseeable future we need to build a global Green New Deal capable of transforming our economies, undoing colonial capitalism, and building the world anew.
Minesh Parekh is a Labour and Co-operative councillor in Sheffield and organises with Labour for a Green New Deal. He tweets as @min_esh