The White House has announced the names of 40 world leaders invited by US President Joe Biden to participate in a virtual global climate summit on April 22-23. Many Pakistanis are unhappy – and with good reason – that Prime Minister Imran Khan isn’t on the list.
According to a White House statement, the invited leaders represent countries that are top polluters, show strong climate leadership, are “especially vulnerable” to climate impacts, or are “charting innovative pathways to a net-zero economy”.
Pakistan climate change vulnerability
Islamabad has suggested that Pakistan’s low emissions rate, coupled with its globally recognised tree-planting initiatives, qualify it for the summit. (It’s worth noting, however, that Pakistan doesn’t exactly have a stellar record on carbon emissions – as evidenced by its high deforestation rate, its heavy consumption of dirty fuels, its intense industrial production and its poor air quality.) But it is Pakistan’s acute climate change vulnerability that most justifies Khan having a seat at the table.
Pakistan’s heavy dependence on agriculture, serious water shortages, densely populated coastal spaces, and susceptibility to floods and drought underscore its fragility. It is ranked as one of the world’s 10 most climate-vulnerable nations. With a population of 220 million – the world’s fifth-largest – there are immense human dimensions to this vulnerability. All other top-10 population countries received invitations to Biden’s summit.
So why wasn’t Pakistan invited? Some Pakistanis depict it as a deliberate snub – a gesture to convey Pakistan’s lack of global importance, or a hardball tactic to compel Islamabad to help Washington achieve goals in Afghanistan or on counterterrorism. This is unlikely. US-Pakistan relations are relatively smooth right now, and Washington has little interest in antagonising Islamabad – especially as it cooperates closely with Pakistan to kickstart a floundering peace process in Afghanistan.
For years, US governments have applied a narrow lens to Pakistan framed through hard security issues and Afghanistan. This is why, when Washington invites 40 nations to a climate summit, Pakistan won’t make the cut
Pakistan’s omission is likely more of an unfortunate oversight, attributable to how Washington orients its relationship with Islamabad. For years, US governments have applied a narrow lens to Pakistan framed through hard security issues and Afghanistan. This is why, when Washington invites 40 nations to a climate summit, Pakistan won’t make the cut. Instead, it’s one of dozens of countries that meet the criteria for attendance but are left out.
Khan can potentially turn this omission into an opportunity. He can organise his own climate summit to showcase his leadership on the issue. And he can invite other developing countries, thereby highlighting his commitment to advocating on behalf of the Global South (as he did last year with debt forgiveness).
Climate change underpins cooperation
There’s also a teachable moment here for Washington. Because of mistrust and different policy priorities, the Biden administration may be unwilling to broaden the lens of its relationship with Islamabad in ways that the latter would prefer. But if there’s one logical topic for wider bilateral cooperation, it’s climate change.
The Biden administration has designated climate change as an essential theme of its foreign policy, and it’s surely aware of Pakistan’s deep climate vulnerability. Many senior Biden administration officials, including climate change tsar John Kerry and Biden himself, know Pakistan well. When Kerry was Barack Obama’s secretary of state, he co-chaired a now-defunct US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue that counted renewable energy as a core theme.
Resurrecting this dialogue is a hard sell in Washington today. A more realistic option is to bring back one of its components, the US-Pakistan Clean Energy Partnership, to sponsor a new climate-themed dialogue composed of academics and the private sector, and focused on information-sharing and investments in clean-energy technologies.
Additionally, Washington’s chief interest in Pakistan is stability, and climate change is destabilising. The impacts of climate change cause displacement, whether abruptly with natural disasters or more gradually with droughts and other conditions that prompt those with water-dependent livelihoods to migrate to cities. Rural-to-urban migrations impose added burdens on already-overcrowded cities to provide basic services. Their inability to provide these resources raises the risk of radicalisation. Mass movements of vulnerable groups, especially ethnic and religious minorities, can stoke social tensions and violence in their new communities.
The US-Pakistan relationship will need a new anchor, and climate change is an ideal candidate
Furthermore, the timing is right. With US forces likely leaving Afghanistan by the end of this year, America’s footprint will soon lighten considerably. For the first time in 20 years, Afghanistan won’t be the main prism through which Washington views its relations with Islamabad. The US-Pakistan relationship will need a new anchor, and climate change is an ideal candidate.
A focus on Afghanistan
In fact, Afghanistan itself can be a focus of US-Pakistan climate cooperation.
Washington favours more cordial relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have a disputed border and accuse each other of sheltering terrorists that stage cross-border attacks. Pakistan has leverage over the Taliban because of the safe havens it provides to the group’s leadership, and its close ties to the Taliban have given it a key role in the Afghan peace process. (Islamabad has long denied it provides sanctuary to the Taliban leadership).
Washington rightly believes that better ties between Kabul and Islamabad enhance peace prospects in Afghanistan.
Last October, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, called for a new agreement between Islamabad and Kabul as “an adjunct to an internal peace”. He envisions it revolving around border security. But Washington should also encourage the neighbours to explore a transboundary water agreement for the Kabul River.
Twenty-five million people across nine provinces in Afghanistan and two in Pakistan live within the Kabul river basin. In Pakistan, the Kabul River – a tributary of the Indus, Pakistan’s core surface water source – provides the drinking, irrigation and hydropower needs of several million people in the city of Peshawar and its environs. With climate change exacerbating Pakistan’s water woes, these supplies will become increasingly precious. Islamabad, however, worries that plans for dam-building on the Kabul River by India – Afghanistan’s friend and Pakistan’s foe – will impact flow downstream to Pakistan. US facilitation of an Afghanistan-Pakistan water agreement can address a climate-related concern for Pakistan and inject some goodwill into Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.
Islamabad relishes a reoriented relationship with Washington – one that mainly revolves around trade and economic cooperation. This may be a misplaced expectation, given America’s reluctance to jettison hard security-related goals. Climate change can be the happy medium: an increasingly urgent shared threat with both economic and security dimensions, and one that neither country – nor the world – can afford to ignore.