Image Credits to Asim Hafeez / Getty Images
“We heard the story all the time, told as a warning: When man first set foot on Earth, all the winged animals flew high into the sky, and the fish dived deeper into the sea, scattering in fear because they knew the destroyer of the world had arrived.”
– Fatima Bhutto, “What Is Owed to Pakistan, Now One-Third Underwater”
One-third of Pakistan is now underwater. Thousands are dead and upwards of thirty million — one in seven Pakistanis — have been displaced. The country’s Minister of Planning and Development, Ahsan Iqbal, called Pakistan a victim of climate change due to the “irresponsible development of the developed world.” He’s right: according to the Center for Global Development, the developed world is responsible for 79% of historic carbon emissions, while the worst consequences of climate change – devastating floods, famine-driving droughts, raging wildfires – are endured by developing countries like Pakistan. You could hope this would spur the developed world into climate action, as the gravity of our future becomes glaringly clear. Instead, circular bureaucracy has us chasing our tails, stonewalling meaningful changes and perpetuating the suffering of the developing world.
The United States is an undeniable key perpetrator of climate change. We have historically been the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, and are currently the second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. Further, combined with Canada as the North America region, we produce the largest carbon footprint per capita than any other world region. Yet our response to the climate crisis has been immensely disheartening. Meaningful progress is undercut or slashed altogether by attempts to appease both sides of the aisle.
In the first three months of his presidential term, President Biden unveiled a plan to achieve a 50% reduction in carbon emissions under 2005 levels by 2030. In its infancy, this plan is already facing opposition in both the legislative and judicial branches of government. In late June, the Supreme Court crippled the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate carbon emissions, mandating that any action taken to limit emissions would require explicit authorization from Congress. This was considered an unlikely event, given the current state of the Senate: the recent digression of certain Democrats from the party consensus has weakened their already shaky 51-50 majority, with the tiebreaker vote cast by Vice President Kamala Harris. Prior to this decision, the decades-old Clean Air Act had granted the EPA full license to confront any new climate or pollution issues that may arise. However, the stonewalled Senate was given an inch last month when Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia agreed to (on certain terms) vote yes on the Inflation Reduction Act. This act – a cut-back revamp of the original Build Back Better bill, which provisioned robust funding for climate reform across the country – redefined carbon emissions as air pollutants, which the EPA has full power to regulate. The act also included language that granted the agency full authority to regulate greenhouse gasses. Although this was celebrated as a victory by many, the EPA didn’t gain any net power – they only recovered what had been lost in the Supreme Court ruling. Further, securing Manchin’s vote meant granting his demands for concessions to be made to the oil and gas industry, which West Virginia’s economy and workforce heavily rely upon. Legislation that defunds these industries would severely impact the livelihood of innumerable West Virginians – Manchin is attempting to protect his electorates, although it comes at the expense of national climate goals. Alongside countless cutbacks and eliminations of swaths of the bill, Manchin also negotiated that the Interior Department could only issue clean energy permits if it had held recent auctions of federal land for oil and gas drilling. This means that future development of wind and solar industries may come hand-in-hand with fossil fuel expansion: one step forward, one step back.
Another example evident of this bureaucratic tug-of-war is California’s recent ban on the sale of new gas cars by 2035. This mandate is integral to the state’s longtime goal of carbon neutrality by 2045, which is most challenged by the state’s vehicle emissions: 80% of California’s climate pollution can be traced back to the transportation sector, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. However, attorneys general from seventeen Republican states have sued to revoke this mandate. According to the New York Times, Patrick Morrisey, the attorney general of West Virginia and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, called California’s waiver “favoritism that violates the states’ equal sovereignty.” The argument behind this lawsuit is that California’s influential economy will coerce other states to – willingly or unwillingly – adopt this policy, encroaching on their ability to direct their own economies. Although the basis of this argument is unproven, the lawsuit will be heard before the country’s second most powerful bench: the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. If the bench rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the California law will be revoked and the state’s future ability to establish independent climate legislation will be crippled. This 2045 goalpost was made in an effort to avoid the worst consequences of climate change – failing to meet this target will have severe implications for a state in which 75% of the population lives in coastal counties threatened by rising sea levels and abnormal weather events.
For much of the developed world, climate change still seems to hover in the distant future. Yet today, millions of people in Pakistan and other endangered communities are already suffering from the devastating consequences of our past actions and present inaction. We can hope that the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and its substantial allocations for climate measures will prove to be a step out of this tail-chasing cycle and in the right direction but, for now, this ‘one step forward, one step back’ dance will continue to stonewall relief for the Pakistani people and millions of others living in communities threatened by the climate crisis we’ve created.