The Pakistan Initiative would like to thank the American Pakistan Foundation and the APPAC Foundation for supporting this research product.
Climate change is a global problem, but it has a disproportionate impact on Pakistan. Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, despite contributing only 0.9 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The country is already experiencing the effects of climate change, including more frequent and intense flooding, changes in rainfall patterns, melting glaciers, and an increase in vector-borne diseases.
The role of youth in addressing critical issues like climate change must be reflected on. Youth are the global future, and the future will see intensified global challenges stemming from climate change. There is no better time than now to invest in and harness the potential of youth.
This issue brief summarizes current climate change challenges in Pakistan, presents potential Pakistani climate change adaptation measures, and current US-Pakistan engagement and opportunities for further engagement. It also makes the case for Pakistani youth leadership in climate change initiatives by presenting a set of key recommendations, including:
- Empowering grassroots and community leaders.
- Investing in education and knowledge that moves toward sustainable development.
- Partnering with leading Pakistani universities to fund climate change fellowships.
- Collaborating with the private sector to identify investment opportunities in climate change mitigation and adaptation.
- Strengthening relationships with the Pakistani diaspora.
Climate change in Pakistan
The impacts of climate change vary drastically, depending on sociopolitical context, geography, and resource capacity, which is why it is integral to empower local communities to effectively adapt. To build and enhance adaptive communities, it is crucial to understand people’s attitudes, experiences, and behavioral responses to the current impacts of climate change.
Scientific studies show that climate change was a significant contributing factor to the catastrophic floods in 2022 that directly affected more than 30 million people in Pakistan through loss of life, public infrastructure, and shelter. Loss and damage reports suggest millions more have and will continue to be affected through agricultural asset and production damage and loss.This has profound implications for food security, especially as inflation continues to run rampant. The consequences of climate change further exacerbate security concerns, as more and more people run out of options to feed themselves and their families and also lack shelter. This year Cyclone Biparjoy almost hit Karachi, Pakistan’s most populated city. This is only one instance of disaster narrowly avoided. As monsoon rains continue to ravage Pakistan, support beyond what was provisioned for the aftermath of the 2022 flooding will be needed. Balochistan, for example, long neglected by both the Pakistani state and the international community, has seen unprecedented rainfall-triggered floods this past summer. Given the conditions Pakistani youth are facing, it is no surprise that privileged and educated young people and professionals are leaving the country whenever possible, furthering the brain drain.
Actively involving local stakeholders, particularly those most vulnerable to climate change like youth, women, and the rural population, is integral to enhance climate-change-related decision-making and governance. There is a missing connection between climate change and weather phenomena, which is particularly exacerbated by the urban-rural divide. Practical policy and solution building must include local stakeholders; exclusion of the communities most affected by the climate adaptation decision-making process usually leads to failed interventions. Climate change is a traumatic experience that disrupts established ways of living—its toll is not just physical but psychological too. Adapting to climate change means redefining people’s relationships with land.
Climate change is a serious threat to Pakistan’s economy and security. South Asia will see more intense and frequent heat waves, a rise in humid heat stress, and an increase in both annual and summer monsoon precipitation.1 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds. Hans-Otto Pörtner and Debra C. Robert et al.), Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022, 3056, doi:1s0.1017/9781009325844. The government of Pakistan has taken some steps to address climate change, but the international community needs to become more involved.
The international community’s shared responsibility
Climate adaptation is a global struggle. While high-income countries (HICs), like the United States, are pursuing an agenda that requires low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) to consider sustainability and climate change in developing, the burden is on affluent global consumers and corporations. The international community must continue to provide financial assistance to both the Pakistani government and local groups to help Pakistani communities adapt to the impacts of climate change. Following the International Conference on Climate Resilient Pakistan, held in January 2023 in Geneva, the international community pledged $10 billion to help rebuild Pakistan after the floods of summer 2022. However, Pakistan needs a total of $16.3 billion to attempt full infrastructure recovery and reconstruction. That $16.3 billion is the cost associated with the current issues; additional assistance will be needed in the coming years. If effectively disbursed, this assistance can help support projects that will aid communities in adapting to climate change, such as flood protection measures, green energy production, and sustainable agriculture practices. Furthermore, pledges are not commitments, and Pakistani public opinion skews toward the belief that the funds are subject to governmental mismanagement.2 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds. Hans-Otto Pörtner and Debra C. Robert et al.), Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022, 3056, doi:10.1017/9781009325844. With almost 90 percent of pledges being project loans disbursed over the next three years, the main question for people who desperately need funds now are where and how the loans will be disbursed. The Pakistani government has established funding mechanisms for flood victims, such as compensation for those who lost relatives or shelter as of early 2023.3Panel on Climate Change (eds. Hans-Otto Pörtner and Debra C. Robert et al.), Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022, 3056, doi:10.1017/9781009325844. ethirdpole.net/en/climate/usd-9-billion-pledge-a-start-but-pakistans-flood-recovery-needs-more-than-promises/. For many Pakistanis, however, this compensation is too little, too late.
While fossil fuel use should be discouraged, the situation in Pakistan is complex. Alternative energy sources like wind, bio, hydro, solar, and nuclear should be pursued, but Pakistan does not have the infrastructure or finances to do so. Presently, it is pushing coal-powered energy production to lower energy import costs and for energy independence needs. With many coal-fired power plants receiving funding from China, the United States has a unique opportunity to restructure its relationship with Pakistan—provided the Pakistani government is willing to do so. The technology exists for Pakistan to move beyond coal and toward renewables, but it would need HICs, like the United States, to provide financing to make the transition happen as quickly as possible. Given that most CO2 emissions are generated by industrialized nations, it is not a fair ask of countries like Pakistan to shoulder the cost alone.
Pakistani efforts to address climate change
By empowering its youth, investing in climate-friendly infrastructure, and working with the international community, Pakistan can build a more sustainable and resilient future for its people, and by extension the global community.
Pakistan has robust climate change policies but no effective mechanism of implementation. Relying on the federal government, which has limited power in implementation compared with delegation, to enact policy offers poor results. Pakistani youth leaders want their perspectives to be valued, rather than governmental assumptions made about their needs. Policymakers and decision-makers need to include experienced professionals, civil society leaders, and youth voices in policy implementation. Improved coordination between federal and provincial governments is also needed, as well as more resources allocated to climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. Climate change is a complex challenge, but it is one that can be met if stakeholders work together. The government, businesses, and civil society all have a role to play in addressing climate change.
The government of Pakistan has a responsibility to protect its citizens from the impacts of climate change. There is no meaningful way to engage with policymakers and stakeholders around climate change, however, because politicians tend to tokenize youth voices and climate change is not a big-ticket item like infrastructure developments such as hospitals and roads. While the private sector is ready to engage with young people, the government remains reluctant to take advantage of the demographic dividend. There are several steps it can take to address climate change, including:
- Centering climate change as Pakistan’s greatest existential threat.
- Moving away from politicizing climate change and toward cross-party support.
- Looking at climate change in ways that resonate with people. For example, looking at excess heat, which is universally unwanted, and building localized understandings of the consequences of climate change from the community up.
Pakistan must move beyond mitigation and resilience and into the age of adaptation. While current efforts like the tree tsunami and mangrove restoration should continue, it is imperative to explore the climate emergency through other means, especially since there are limited implementation tracking mechanisms in place. Retrofitting infrastructure to be climate-resilient or climate-safe, updating and enforcing building standards, and addressing crises like food insecurity, flooding, heat waves, and glacial lake formation can and should be concurrently solved. If the opportunity to address these issues through youth empowerment is squandered, the potential of human security challenges is heightened.
Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change (MOCC) has created a National Adaptation Plan hat provides a helpful framework for moving forward. The plan lays out initiatives addressing natural approaches to climate change, urban climate resilience, and human capital investment, among others, that key responsible entities—namely provincial governments—should follow, but with limited next steps. Adaptation plans for districts and tehsils, where actual adaptation takes place, are still needed.
The MOCC is ambitious in its goals and recognizes the importance and value of investing in Pakistani youth. It offers limited space, however, for youth to meaningfully engage in its proposed initiatives aside from furthering educational investment, which even in the plan’s objectives is described broadly, with suggested time frames ranging from 2023 to 2025, 2025 to 2030, to 2030 and beyond. The National Adaptation Plan proposes idealized solutions but, ironically, limited planning. Furthermore, there is no mechanism to involve youth in strategic planning. The plan describes different key advisory and implementing bodies, with no provisions for youth involvement.
Youth in climate change initiatives
Climate change is a serious threat to Pakistan, but it is also an opportunity for youth to build solidarity and act. Sixty-eight percent of Pakistan’s population is under the age of thirty. This population offers demographic opportunities for climate action. Youth can be involved in climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts through a multitude of ways, from grassroots organizing and raising awareness, to advocating for climate-friendly policies, to developing innovative solutions. Young people have already proved themselves capable of progressing change on the policy front, for example, through the establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund at COP27. Additionally, Pakistani youth are already acting on climate change in innovative ways, such as using TV dramas to increase awareness of climate change. National grassroots efforts are still in the early stages, however, and young people have limited power in influencing policy, especially because institutions like the MOCC are still developing.
The limited role that youth have in addressing climate change is a major source of climate anxiety. This anxiety is associated with perceptions of inadequate adult and governmental action, feelings of betrayal, and moral injury. As youth feel like they have less agency, they become less capable of contributing to their communities, which further intensifies the feelings of economic deprivation and loss. It is important for Pakistan to foster youth to be the leaders of tomorrow on climate change. Otherwise, progress will plateau and drop off.
Additional notes on the role of youth in climate action in Pakistan:
- Bottom-up approaches are essential. Top-down approaches to climate action have often failed to be effective. Youth-led approaches are more likely to be successful because they are more responsive to the needs of local communities.
- Cross-sectoral collaboration is necessary. Climate change is a complex challenge that requires a cross-sectoral approach. Youth can play a key role in uniting different sectors, such as government, business, and civil society, to work together on climate action.
- International cooperation is imperative. Youth can help build international solidarity on climate action by sharing their experiences and learning from one another.
The US-Pakistan relationship
The United States and Pakistan have a complicated relationship. Pakistan believes that the United States is a fair-weather friend, only interested in cooperation when it needs Pakistan’s help; the United States believes that Pakistan has pursued its own agenda, often at the expense of US interests. Despite these differences, both countries have an interest in reengaging and building a relationship that serves their mutual interests. They do not need to have the same worldview to develop a partnership that enhances the security and stability of both countries.
A Pakistan that is stable, democratic, and respects human rights is in the interest of the United States. The United States’ political understanding of Pakistan is outdated, however, and U.S. policymakers must understand how Pakistani society, military, and political systems have evolved if there is to be meaningful engagement. Climate change offers the United States an opportunity to restructure its relationship with Pakistan.
The administration of President Joe Biden, which has designated climate change as an essential element of its foreign policy, is aware of Pakistan’s extreme climate vulnerability. Biden and many senior officials, including US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, are familiar with Pakistan and its climate-change-induced struggles. While secretary of state, Kerry cochaired the now-defunct US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, which made renewable energy a key focus.
Pakistan is one of the most populous Muslim-majority countries, armed with nuclear weapons, and located between South, Central, and West Asia. It must be seen through its own lens, rather than an Afghan- or Indian-centric lens. Furthermore, Pakistan is a strategically important country with a large and well-integrated diaspora in the United States. With US security interests in South, Central, and West Asia, and the almost-certain negative impact of US disengagement from Pakistan, American policymakers must reconsider the United States’ relationship with the country. Without US support, the risk of pushing Pakistan further toward China will persist.
Moving forward: Further bilateral engagement
The United States and Pakistan can both play a leading role in addressing climate change in South Asia. In 2019, the two countries launched the US-Pakistan Climate and Environment Working Group, a forum for them to share information and collaborate on climate change initiatives. The working group, which had its second meeting in 2023, should continue to foster productive conversations on climate change but move toward centering the potential of youth. The group produced meaningful results this year, including soliciting US Embassy Islamabad funding for further US-Pakistan educational partnerships on climate and environment, and strengthening the Pakistan-US Alumni Network, the largest US government exchange alumni network in the world, with 39,000 members (coincidentally, the network selected climate change as its 2023 theme).
The United States recognizes the critical strategic value in Pakistan through the Green Alliance framework, which aims to help both countries “jointly face climate, environmental, and economic needs, especially through partnership on renewable, sustainable, and clean energy.” In the past year, American and Pakistani universities have collaborated on innovative environmentally conscious and climate-change-centered development in education. The two countries have a history of energy engagement. In 2021, they convened an Energy Security Dialogue that set a target of 60 percent renewable energy production in Pakistan by 2030, a goal that was reaffirmed by this year’s Energy Security Dialogue.
These engagements promise great value to the US-Pakistan relationship and meaningful progress on the climate change front but must further engage and center the population that will bear the brunt of implementing changes. Here, the United States and Pakistan could further involve youth by placing them in direct conversation and contact with policymakers. By introducing young people into these dialogues, the Green Alliance framework can be strengthened and made more relevant. Youth can contribute by providing their perspectives on the curricula currently being restructured, what the majority of the population needs to drive further climate adaptive measures, and how to leverage generational-specific experiences, like navigating climate change through global social media landscapes.
Youth are the most affected by climate change. They also have the most to gain from addressing the crisis. The United States and Pakistan should engage to empower youth through:
- Organizing a youth summit on climate change to bring together young climate activists from both countries to share their experiences and learn from one another. This summit would help build a network of young climate activists in South Asia and also increase awareness of the climate crisis among young people.
- Strengthening existing partnerships with Pakistani research institutes, universities, and organizations to share knowledge and expertise, and to support research on and development of climate change solutions.
- Involving youth in decision-making processes on climate change. This can be done by engaging Pakistani youth voices through the Green Alliance framework, like the Energy Security Dialogue or the US-Pakistan Climate and Environment Working Group. Subsequent meetings could be used to launch a youth advisory council to facilitate climate change discussions and the development of meaningful solutions.
The Pakistani government must empower its youth population to effectively address the climate change crisis. The Pakistani public has a key role to play in:
- Recognizing climate change as Pakistan’s greatest existential challenge and the need to address it across party lines. Emphasizing the consequences that climate change will have on Pakistan as a nation is integral to building support beyond party lines and making it a big-ticket item for parties and politicians to collectively address.
- Encouraging the elderly to recognize and contribute to intersectional youth activism. Older people must make space for the future of Pakistani leadership. Through the power of popular media, meaningful elder-youth engagement can be realized. Digital engagement can simultaneously recognize the rural-urban divide and the role of gender in moving adaptation efforts forward by calling it out—climate change is a shared burden, but its impact varies based on one’s background.
- Working with other LMICs to challenge unjust international financial institutions and provide funding and technical assistance to support climate change adaptation initiatives. Unjust financing mechanisms are not unique to Pakistan; to center equity, they must be addressed, and ultimately restructured, by global financial institutions. Alongside globalization, transnational climate solidarity in LMICs, which bear the brunt of climate change, has been built. The international community cannot remain silent to the demands of these LMICs, as evidenced by the establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund at COP27.
While provincial governments have a key role to play in uplifting youth leadership in climate adaptation initiatives, the federal government can also support initiatives by:
- Providing grassroots and community leaders with training and resources on climate change adaptation and mitigation. For example, the Pakistani government could create a working digital network to connect grassroots and community leaders through the MOCC and provisional governments to promote knowledge sharing and overcome geographic and gender barriers. To begin with, the MOCC could translate its existing climate change resources into Urdu to help create inclusive science communication that is responsive to popular understandings of climate, nature, and natural catastrophes.
- Providing students, teachers, and community members with training on climate change adaptation and mitigation. The Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training could collaborate with researchers, educators, and learners to construct curricula responsive to local needs. By investing in education, the impact of initiatives like the Prime Minister’s Youth Laptop Scheme could be furthered as youth would be able to leverage their understanding of climate change through the digital landscape.
- Partnering with leading Pakistani universities to fund a select number of climate change fellowships for youth to do climate-focused research and engagement. The government could push for relevant research by having guidelines dependent on present needs—for example, fellows must address and/or engage Pakistani green energy production as a means toward energy security.
- Collaborating with the private sector to identify investment opportunities in climate change mitigation and adaptation (e.g., green energy production, infrastructure development, etc.). The private sector has much to gain through investment and contracts.
- Strengthening relationships with the Pakistani youth diaspora. Pakistan has one of the largest global diasporas. Pakistani embassies could host younger members of the diaspora and promote relationship building by connecting with leading educational institutions and recognized Pakistani faculty to identify youth leaders committed to the betterment of Pakistan. By hosting engaged Pakistani diasporic youth, an active knowledge exchange can occur, as well as the strengthening of ties between diasporic Pakistanis and Pakistan.
- Tracking and monitoring the progress of climate adaptation policy implementation through data collection to ensure that the policies are relevant and effective. The MOCC has done an effective job of identifying and creating policies, but it must create tracking plans and commit to them. When it comes to climate adaptation policies, many governments fall short, leaving the public in the dark. By effectively tracking progress, the Pakistani government can strengthen its plans, making them fluid and responsive to current needs. It can leverage the existing monitoring programming of other countries and global institutions like the World Resources Institute to confirm the feasibility of its work. Good policy is dependent on good implementation.
By empowering its youth to tackle climate change, Pakistan can make meaningful strides in becoming a more secure, safe, and adaptable home to its citizens, while simultaneously leading LMICs in youth-led climate adaptation initiatives. Youth voices shape the future. To set the standard moving forward, it is integral to meaningfully engage with and involve them in these processes.
About the author
Omaer Naeem is an undergraduate student studying International Affairs, Asian American Studies, and Urdu, at Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to working with the Atlantic Council, he worked with the US Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs’ Security/Transnational Affairs team and The Brooking Institute’s Global Economy and Development Program’s Center for Universal Education.
A special thank you to the following contributors:
Erum Haider, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies, College of Wooster
Zeeshan Salahuddin, Director of Growth, Tabadlab
Maha Kamal, Cochair, Women in Energy (Pakistan)
Rida Rashid, Founder, Impact-Pakistan
Anam Zeb, Program Coordinator, German Red Cross
Zainab Zahid, Regional Youth Focal Point Central and South Asia, UN1FY
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