As world leaders descend on Qatar next week for the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) being held by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), most Pakistanis remain oblivious to what's at stake. Often the term "security" connotes concerns about terrorism, or pernicious manipulations of the "deep state," to most liberal Pakistani writers that grace the English media. In the vernacular Urdu media, security discourse is all about supposed threats posed by India or the United States and grand conspiratorial designs of world powers on poor little Pakistan. Yet there is a much more planetary dimension to security which can be just as consequential for the daily lives of Pakistanis.
The Doha climate change summit provides an opportunity to reframe our conversations around national security and consider other threats to the nation which are more potent but also more tractable than ethno-religious violence. I have no illusions about any meaningful progress at the Doha summit itself, but there is perhaps a chance that Pakistanis can use this as an opportunity to make the world more aware of their ecological vulnerability. During the past decade, the greatest loss of human life and economic damage that the country has endured has not been due to terrorism or drones, but rather due to environmental disasters ranging from the Kashmir earthquake to the floods of 2010, to seasonal water shortages and drought.
If the Pentagon can have a climate change strategy, why can't our establishment have one as well?
Although environmental treaties have no bearing on calamities such as earthquakes, the loss of life and environmental damage from such relatively stochastic events is exacerbated by our unwillingness to consider ecology in designing and sustaining human settlements. We should also recognize that much of Pakistan's territorial conflict with India is located in an ecologically and seismically sensitive region. Ethnic tensions over Kashmir are inevitably exacerbated by concerns around water resources and extremist elements invariably use water and energy scarcity as a means of casting aspersions on our neighbours.
However unlike religious tensions that are often confined to arguments about one person's beliefs and interpretations of theology over another, environmental issues have the potential to transform conflict into cooperation. Since environmental factors are ultimately predicated on scientific understanding of ecological systems. Using technological and social innovation provides room for constructive engagement. Cooperation on environmental factors can also be more carefully crafted to build longer-term trust that might also reduce the chance of conventional security threats. If the Pentagon can have a climate change strategy, why can't our "high politics" establishment have one as well? Many army generals upon retirement become ardent naturalists but there needs to be a clear championing of environmental security as a mainstream issue by the serving defence establishment as well. As for the religious establishment who seem to hijack most sensible security discourse, they too could be alerted to the importance of environmental norms and planetary processes through efforts such as the Interfaith Environmental Campaign.
Much of the useful exchanges at conferences such as COP18 occur outside the main treaty negotiation rooms. During the summit, India and Pakistan will be inclined to present a more united front on considering the common threat of climate change as developing countries. At past meetings which I have attended, Indian and Pakistani negotiators have demonstrated more agreement than disagreement on a range of issues. As the largest country in South Asia, India is perceived by its neighbours to assume a particular responsibility for action on regional ecological concerns.
In 2008 Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that India will pursue eight national "missions" for sustainable development: solar energy, energy efficiency, creating a sustainable habitat, conserving water, preserving the Himalayan ecosystem, creating a green India, creating sustainable agriculture and, finally, establishing something he called a "strategic knowledge platform for climate change." In announcing these missions, Dr Singh noted that "India traditionally "treats nature as a source of nurture and not as a dark force to be conquered and harnessed to human endeavour. There is a high value placed in our culture to the concept of living in harmony with nature."
Such aspirational statements need to be operationalized at a regional level around climate change adaptation strategies in South Asia. The well-resourced Climate and Development Knowledge Network, which was established by a major grant from the United Kingdom aid agency (DFID and now UKAID) in 2009 may provide an important avenue to allow for such constructive engagement. The regional South Asian hub of this network is based at a Pakistani NGO called Leadership in Environment and Development (LEAD-Pakistan), on whose board of governors I have the humble privilege of serving as a member. The strength of Pakistan's environmental NGOs such as the WWF is widely recognized internationally and needs to be further bridged with the business sector to find new enterprise solutions for regional climate change adaptation. Pakistani NGOS and universities could collaborate effectively with Indian research centres and businesses such as The Energy Resources Institute (TERI) to find clear solutions.
TERI's founding director Dr Rajendar Pachauri has visited Pakistan several times, including a meeting with President Zardari in 2009 and a recent presentation at LUMS in the summer of 2012. He has repeatedly called for greater cooperation between India and Pakistan on climate change including cooperation on gas pipelines (TAPI and IPI) which could provide cleaner energy to both countries (as compared to oil and coal). Yet few tangible outcomes have ensued because the political leadership still considers environmental issues as "low politics."
If with technologically we can find more efficient means of water and energy utilization across South Asia, the pressures on distributive aspects of water and energy scarcity can also be reduced, thus reducing the chance for conflicts over water. For this Pakistan must not just look east but also look west in its cooperative outreach across the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa frontier. Environmental cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan could play a role in more regional stability. For example data-sharing and technical cooperation could eventually pave the way toward a bilateral Afghan-Pakistani water resources commission and perhaps even a treaty governing the Kabul River's resources.
Common concerns around climate change must also be approached at a regional level and the role of institutions such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) need to be enhanced. Earlier this year the World Meteorological Organization under the auspices of ICIMOD established the first regional flood information system which is a positive omen for greater ecological cooperation.
The United Nations has committed to signing a new climate change treaty by 2015, to take effect by 2020, and that will be the focus of negotiations at Doha. South Asia includes countries like Maldives which could physically be wiped off the map due to climate change as well as Bangladesh which has among the most ambitious adaptation programs to climate change in the region. An environmental cooperation treaty (convention) has also been proposed for SAARC and must be moved forward at the next regional summit, regardless of what happens in Doha. Such a treaty must also be aimed at having a derivative trust-building objective between the region's most acrimonious players - India and Pakistan.
It is high time that politicians in Pakistan and across South Asia recognize that their disputes over "lines of control" and demarcations amount to naught when it comes to planetary processes. True security will only come if we are able to recognize our place in a world which is changing both socially and physically and how to adapt to these changes with alacrity and humility.
Dr Saleem H Ali is a professor of politics and international studies and director of the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also the founding director of the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security at the University of Vermont (USA). He can be followed on twitter @saleem_ali