The team of five million must join the team of eight billion to combat climate change. David Williams reports

In July 2019, Australian law professor Philip Alston, then a United Nations Special Rapporteur, explored the intersection between climate change and human rights.

Put simply, the poorest, who are the least able to cope with climate change, will, in general, bear the greatest costs, his 19-page report said. Those best-placed to cope are the wealthy, who have accrued the greatest benefits from the burning of fossil fuels, which is driving the climate crisis.

According to a 2015 report by Oxfam, a person in the wealthiest 1 percent uses 175 times more carbon than a person in the bottom 10 percent. Yet it is the poor countries and regions where the most severe effects will be felt.

Alston wrote: “People in poverty tend to live in areas more susceptible to climate change and in housing that is less resistant; lose relatively more when affected; have fewer resources to mitigate the effects, and get less support from social safety nets or the financial system to prevent or recover from the impact.

“Their livelihoods and assets are more exposed and they are more vulnerable to natural disasters that bring disease, crop failure, spikes in food prices and death or disability.”

Without immediate action, climate change could push 120 million more people into poverty by 2030, the World Bank estimated.

The beginnings of this phenomenon is perhaps being seen through the deadly floods in Pakistan.

The scale of the disaster – driven by record monsoon rains and exacerbated by rapidly melting glaciers in the face of searing temperatures – is hard to fathom.

A third of the country, an area roughly the size of New Zealand, is said to be under water, displacing 33 million people, or one in seven Pakistanis. Yesterday, the death toll neared 1300, a third of them children.

Nearly 1.4 million houses have been destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of livestock have been swept to their death. Almost half the country’s crops have been destroyed.

Flood victims jostle for food, distributed by Pakistani army soldiers, in Hyderabad, southern Sindh province, Pakistan. Photo: Ahmed Ali/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A rain gauge in Padidan, Sindh province, in the country’s south, reported 1288mm of rain as of August 30, compared to the monthly average of 46mm.

The European Space Agency said rain since mid-June had been 10 times heavier than usual. Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari estimates the clean-up bill will exceed $US10 billion ($NZ16.4 billion).

“People are devastated,” Naveed Hamid, of Auckland, says of the expat community watching on in horror. Hamid is president of the Pakistan Association of New Zealand, which wants to raise $50,000 for flood relief through a GiveaLittle fundraiser.

“Some people are still sitting on the trees because there is no dry land.”

As you can imagine, the hardest-hit areas have been hard to access, given the damage to roads, and bridges. That means little contact with areas without electricity or gas, no internet, and no phone lines.

“Finding out what are they doing and how they are doing and are they alive or [has] something happened to them? There’s no information.”

Tayyaba Khan, another Aucklander, who left her native Pakistan aged 1, says the house her mother grew up in, in the town of Sukkur, in Sindh province, was flooded by the raging Indus River.

“One of my grandparents has been in their house for a week,” says Khan, the director of advocacy for the Health and Disability Commissioner. “He’ll be exposed to a lot more health risks if he actually goes anywhere and travels through the water.”

Kiran Munir, of Christchurch, an ecotoxicology researcher for Manaaki Whenua/Landcare Research, says it’s heartbreaking to hear about people who have no clean drinking water, food or shelter.

While Munir’s family in Islamabad are unaffected by flooding but the prices of some fruits and vegetables are four times what they were. Inflation in August was 27 percent, a situation not helped by a tanking currency.

Munir says: “When you’re so far away from your home country, and you want to help your people, and you can’t, you feel so helpless.”

In Sindh province’s Dadu district, villagers complain there are no aid trucks, or planes dropping supplies.

The international response is mobilising, following last week’s joint appeal by Pakistan’s Government and the United Nations for $US160 million ($NZ262 million), to put an emergency plan into action.

New Zealand has pledged an initial $500,000.

There’s good reason to believe we should be contributing more.

🇳🇿’s thoughts are with the people of Pakistan impacted by devastating floods, and we’re contributing $500,000 to @ifrc to support immediate humanitarian response.

Sending aroha to those affected, including many who have lost loved ones, homes or livelihoods. 🇵🇰#manaakitanga

— Nanaia Mahuta (@NanaiaMahuta) August 29, 2022

Pakistan is home 2.9 percent of the world’s population but its 2019 greenhouse gas emissions were 0.9 percent of the global total. Compare that to New Zealand, which has 0.06 percent of the world’s population but emits 0.14 percent of global emissions, according to Our World in Data.

“We are one of the worst polluters per capita in the world, in terms of climate change, but we’re doing among the least,” Christine Rose, the agricultural campaigner for environmental lobby group Greenpeace.

“We talk big on the climate but act small.”

By cumulative carbon dioxide emissions, between 1751 and 2017, Pakistan has contributed 0.28 percent to the total, compared to New Zealand’s 0.1 percent. (The United States is top on 25 percent, followed by China on 12.7 percent.)

“We do have the capacity with our high standards of living, and our high level of development, and our high share of emissions, to consider those that are affected, who have done so little to contribute to climate change,” Rose says.

A global wealth report published last year ranked New Zealanders as having the fourth-largest median wealth per adult in the world.

Under the Paris Agreement, countries, including New Zealand, have pledged to reduce emissions to try and stave off dangerous climate warming. But analyses suggest the promises won’t be enough to keep warming to below 2C higher than pre-industrial levels.

That’s despite growing evidence of a looming climate calamity, with a scientific study made public last week suggesting the melting of Greenland’s ice caps has locked in at least 27cm of sea-level rise.

Pakistan’s Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman suggests rich nations owe reparations to countries suffering climate-related damage.

“Historic injustices have to be heard and there must be some level of climate equation so that the brunt of the irresponsible carbon consumption is not being laid on nations near the equator which are obviously unable to create resilient infrastructure on their own.”

According to Germanwatch’s global climate risk index, Pakistan is the world’s eighth most affected country between 2000 and 2019.

Oxfam Aotearoa’s communications and advocacy director Jo Spratt says the emissions blanket wrapping the earth affects us all, but economic inequality has contributed to an inequality of climate impact.

Spratt says given this country’s relative wealth, it can afford to respond to the likes of Nelson’s recent flooding, and help the people of Pakistan. Part of our climate response is doing everything we can to reduce our emissions.

“We just need to do more, faster,” she says.

“It’s not just all doom and gloom, which I think tends to be what we hear about the most. I think we can actually do some really cool stuff to help people in Pakistan, to help people here, and respond as a global human family to make life better.”

Long road to recovery

The link between climate change and Pakistan’s floods are strong.

An extreme heatwave between March and May, was made 30 times more likely by climate change.

The city of Jacobabad, in Sindh, hit 52C last year, while this year’s monsoon rains broke records dating back to 1918.

Pakistan’s geography also plays a part, with its soaring mountain ranges and the greatest number of glaciers outside the polar regions.

Matters have been made worse by the government’s lack of preparation after devastating floods in 2010, and long-term deforestation.

Munir, the Christchurch ecotoxicology researcher, says the flood damage is far greater than that experienced in the 2005 earthquake, which killed 79,000 people in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

“My family says, and the people of Pakistan are really worried, that this [recovery] is going to take a long, long time.”

Meanwhile, Hamid, of the Pakistan Association of New Zealand, says beyond the immediate recovery, the country will need help, from the likes of New Zealand, for better disaster management planning.

Khan, who works for the Health and Disability Commissioner, says: “We’re going to need to start having some real conversations about our responsibilities around climate … the rich countries should take some responsibility.”

Pakistan isn’t the only country on the global climate front line.

“You can see our Pacific neighbors, they are suffering … We need to do something.”

At the international climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, countries committed to a goal of having $US100 billion climate finance a year by 2020. That amount is yet to realised, perhaps another sign of rich countries shirking their responsibilities.

However, last year New Zealand increased its international climate aid commitments.

While that’s to be commended, spending money to adapt to climate change is an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach. To give Pakistan and our Pacific neighbours more of a chance, New Zealand and other developed nations need to drastically reduce their emissions in line with what has been suggested by the science.

It’s very much in our own interests to do so.

Alston, as the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said in his 2019 report that climate change threatens truly catastrophic consequences, with by far the greatest burden falling on those in poverty. But they won’t be the only victims.

“As a full-blown crisis bears down on the world, ‘business as usual’ is a response that invites disaster.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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