While the climate change "issue" is covered frequently in the press and is implicitly or explicitly part of the U.S. presidential campaign, for developing countries it is just one of many pressing issues. For the man on the street, at least in many of the countries I visit, climate change is important but not urgent.
The same could be said of many other issues, of course, but what distinguishes climate change is that it is perceived as "an act of God" on which individual actions have only minimal impact. Unless it is linked to issues of social justice, energy security, economic growth, and the aspirations of a growing middle class in developing countries, support for action on climate change will remain pegged to the fortunes and attention of environmental liberals in the developed North.
While on a recent trip to Pakistan, shortly after the Nobel Committee’s Peace Prize announcement, I asked several people, "What do you think of Al Gore and the climate change issue winning the Nobel Peace Prize?" or alternatively, "What do you think climate change means for you and Pakistan?" Even to me these questions seemed ridiculous given what’s going on in Pakistan — especially the events of the past week, whenpa a U.S.-sponsored general showed what kind of friend he is to democracy. Answers ranged widely, from a sophisticated intellectual who had attended a viewing of Al Gore’s film as part of a film discussion club, to people who had heard of Clinton but not Al Gore, to a few who said they had never heard of climate change.
I looked in vain for any mention of climate change in the opinion pages of local newspapers, and while there was vibrant debate over important international issues (e.g., the nature of democracy, government ineptitude, pollution, poverty, the U.S. playing kingmaker, and energy shortages), there was nothing on climate policy. (Aside, that is, from glowing mention in a few blogs of the fact that one Pakistani national, Professor Adil Najam at Tufts University in the U.S., is a member of the IPCC and thus partial recipient of the Nobel Prize — read his blog here.)
A well-educated business man I spoke with had an informed opinion about climate change, summed up as: "Yes, it is occurring. We are the cause of it, so we should be able to solve it." We spoke about how the older generation had noticed the changes from their childhoods: the winters are shorter, the summers hotter and earlier, and the River Ravi — celebrated by poets for hundreds of years as it wound past the gardens of Moghul palaces — is now mostly a dry bed. In addition, monsoons this past year killed hundreds in Karachi — a function of poverty, heavier-than-normal rains, and poor civic planning.
When it came to renewable energy, or any energy policy, Pakistanis I spoke with had strong and nuanced views that I doubt I can adequately reproduce here; suffice it to say that energy supplies and politics in Pakistan are closely entwined. Huge shortfalls in grid production are leading to widespread "load shedding," and this means that when I mentioned home solar panel systems, I heard several enthusiastic responses — especially given that the cost of petrol used in home generators is going up.
All of this does point the way toward a pragmatic climate approach, one that is explicitly not an "environmental issue" but rather fully intertwined with reforming government and its dysfunctional role as energy provider, ensuring a prosperous and civic-minded middle class, and creating forward-looking strategies to save lives from flood, drought, and heat waves.
In a country like Pakistan, where democracy is at stake and tens of millions live in poverty, the solutions frame, based on small incremental steps, holds the only promise: small-scale rural and urban renewable energy projects, perhaps organized in a smart-grid fashion; compressed natural gas mini-cars enabled through tax rebates; investments in public transit by private companies; water storage solutions sold at a steep discount; low-energy air conditioning tied to demand pricing; urban density planning; energy-efficient, flood-protected public housing, etc.
Responses to climate change should not be put in a box as an altruistic thing to do, but should be a central component to improving the well-being of people around the world and promoting stable, prosperous democracies.