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Pakistan Flooding Shows ‘Adapting’ to Climate Change Can Be a Dangerous Illusion

By Philippe Benoit

Sep 20 2022 · 4 min read

Illuminem Voices
Climate Change · Public Governance · Environmental Sustainability

One third of Pakistan is now under water. The scope of the destruction is difficult to fathom, not just the enormity of the devastation its people are facing today, but also the damage to its infrastructure, its buildings, and its economy that will weigh heavily on the country for months and even years to come.

While experts may debate the extent to which greenhouse gas emissions impacting Pakistan’s weather patterns may be to blame, the scale of this devastation shows the shortcomings of invoking notions of “adaptation” as a meaningful strategy to respond to climate change’s destructive force.

Pakistan is facing the type of large-scale destruction that is seen in wars — and not just any war, but total warfare that consumes entire regions and countries. This is what many countries suffered in World War II and others in more recent conflicts. In Pakistan, the cause isn’t an army, but a changing climate fueled at least in part by the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions clogging our atmosphere.

A core strategic element of the international effort to address climate change is “adaptation,” namely action “to respond to the impacts of climate change that are already happening, as well as prepare for future impacts.” This operates in tandem with “mitigation” which focuses on reducing GHG emissions.

Because our historical and future GHG emissions will produce some degree of climate change, we indeed do need to fund measures to respond to the inescapable changes in weather patterns and climate more broadly – even as, through mitigation action, we seek to lower our GHG emissions to limit how much our climate will change.

Yet, the recent events in Pakistan illustrate the shortcomings of an adaptation strategy in the face of widespread devastation. Any notion of “adapting” to these events is tragically misplaced. We cannot, just as countries cannot adapt to the destruction of war. They can resist, fight, look to recover, but the tragedy they suffer cannot be undone.

And while the number of lives lost because of climate change arguably may presently be smaller than that wrought by war, the capacity of both to destroy property, livelihoods and economies is similar.

The goals and elements proposed by the experts within the “adaptation” effort are the right ones. We must look to limit the losses generated by changes in our climate, to accelerate the recovery from extreme climate events, and even seek potential opportunities.

We must invest in climate resilient infrastructure, drought-resistant crops and other strengthened agricultural practices, better weather forecasting capacity, tools to reconnect power supply more quickly, and in a multitude of other measures. And these efforts need to be adapted to the changes in our climate. Moreover, as climate specialists and others advocate, many more resources need to go into this area.

But while technocrats and politicians of the past landed on this terminology of “adaptation”, what today’s events in Pakistan show is that you cannot truly adapt to climate change and its potential for widespread devastation — especially developing countries that do not have the financial resources to counter extreme weather events.

Even at a smaller scale across both developing and wealthier advanced economies, the rising number and severity of localized wildfires, heatwaves and floods are causing irreparable damage. People suffer loss. Although they might recover and rebuild their homes or businesses, there has still been harm and too often tragedy. People die because of climate change. Too much is lost forever.

There has been growing discussion in the international climate arena around payments for “loss and damage” caused by climate change. This type of funding, including for additional adaptation measures, can help — but it will not remedy the problem, especially given the potentially massive magnitude of the destruction.

Pakistan cannot be expected to adapt to having one third of its country under water. Families should not be expected to adapt to the tragedy climate change can inflict.

Let’s find another term that better conveys what is truly within our reach in responding to climate change so that we can have a clearer appreciation of the climate threats we face. The global community can indeed work to reduce the loss people will suffer and do a better job at helping them to recover and rebuild. But truly “adapting” to the devastation that climate change can cause is a dangerously misleading notion.

Yes, there must be additional funding for adaptation and to help poorer countries respond to climate disasters. But what the events in Pakistan show is that so much more needs to be done to reduce GHG emissions and thereby limit the degree of climate change and accompanying destructive forces people will need to face.

This article is also published in Inter Press Service. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Cover Image Credit: UNICEF/Asad Zaidi

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About the author

Philippe Benoit is a Senior Scholar at Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy and the Managing Director for Energy and Sustainability at Global Infrastructure Advisory Services 2050.​ He also served as Head of the IEA's Energy Environment (Climate Change) Division and as Energy Sector Manager at the World Bank.​

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