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From our collaborating partner “Living on Earth,” public radio’s environmental news magazine, an interview by executive producer and host Steve Curwood with Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and a member of Pakistan’s Climate Change Council

Last year was the hottest summer on record in the Northern Hemisphere, and 2024 seems likely to top it, with torrid temperatures already sizzling the Southwest U.S., North Africa, South Asia and much of the Middle East.

But the climate emergency is not only battering whole regions with heat. Extreme storms and rain events are adding to the misery in places like Pakistan, which has yet to recover from catastrophic floods in 2022. And right now, Pakistan is in the grip of yet another extreme heatwave, with schools in Punjab forced to close as some cities reached more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and a member of Pakistan’s Climate Change Council, gives us a view from Lahore. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

STEVE CURWOOD: With June just having arrived, summer has got a long way to go across Pakistan. How would you say summer has been different this year, compared to the last few years?

RAFAY ALAM: It is extremely hot in Pakistan. It’s what’s now called the Asian heat wave, or the South Asian heat wave of 2024. We’ve seen temperatures since the middle of May through now, the first week of June, in excess of 50 degrees Centigrade, which is well over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Lahore, where I live, is 44 degrees Centigrade today, which is about 111 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The interesting thing is, while we are experiencing a heat wave right now and I want to get into detail with that, April was the wettest April in all of Pakistan’s recorded history. There were torrential rains in the northern and western parts of Pakistan that led to over 120 deaths. 

What we are experiencing is not just a heat wave, but actively the climate crisis. This is the coolest summer of the rest of our lives. It’s only going to get hotter and hotter from here.

CURWOOD: Remind us of what happened with the torrential floods that you had in the recent past in Pakistan.

ALAM: In 2022, we had historic floods, and we’re talking 400 percent to 800 percent of monthly averages falling within a couple of weeks. And that was in areas outside the Indus Basin, which is Pakistan’s major river network—so essentially, in places that couldn’t drain the water away into the basin. 

It was rainfall that saw not just flooding in our rivers, but also this 100-kilometer lake that was created, affecting over 30 million Pakistanis, displacing over 10 million Pakistanis and causing in excess of $35 billion worth of infrastructure damage. 

“This is the coolest summer of the rest of our lives. It’s only going to get hotter and hotter from here.”

That was just two years ago, when we had an early summer that started in March with a heat wave. By July we had biblical floods, as it were. Last year, we had rains through April, which is unusual. And again, a warm summer. 

But this summer is breaking all records. Just a few days ago, Mohenjo-daro, the home of an ancient civilization, recorded 53 degrees Centigrade, so in excess of 125 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the hottest place on Earth last week.

CURWOOD: How has Pakistan recovered from those floods of 2022?

ALAM: It’s difficult to say because a lot of the flooding took place outside the Indus Basin, so outside where it could be drained, in really far flung areas that are not very heavily inhabited, but obviously very devastating for the people who live there. 

Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and a member of Pakistan’s Climate Change Council.
Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and a member of Pakistan’s Climate Change Council.

Roads were swept away, schools were swept away, hospitals were swept away. This sort of infrastructure takes years to rebuild. So we’re facing a generation of Pakistanis who will grow up without access to hospitals, until the roads are built and until the hospitals are built, or even schools and the ability to get to work. So it is absolutely devastating. 

It crippled the Pakistani economy. I mean, $35 billion of infrastructure loss is approximately 10 percent of our GDP, and we are in an IMF program at the same time. Our ability to economically stand on our feet has been made worse, much, much worse, especially because a lot of the flood relief that we expected has come in the form of loans, and not things like grants and aid, which has doubled Pakistan’s external debt in the last two years as well. Economically, it’s very, very harsh. It’s affected people, it’s affected livelihoods, it’s affected livestock. Truly devastating.

CURWOOD: What are people in Lahore doing to cope with this insane heat wave?

ALAM: Well, we have advisories. We have something called the National Disaster Management Authority, which has a heat wave plan for all of Pakistan, which generally involves letting people know that it’s dangerous to go out, to consume lots of water. 

In Punjab, which is the province that I live in, school timings were changed so that schools wouldn’t be let off in the mid afternoon. They were being let off by 12, one o’clock. And then as temperatures rose, schools were shut down throughout Punjab. 

In 2014, Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, faced a week-long heat wave where over 1,000 people died. We’re reaching the sorts of temperatures right now which put human lives at serious risk. 

I go for a walk in the evenings when the sun sets. It’s not unpleasant, but I noticed animals and birds collapsed to the ground looking for water, dogs on the side of the road unable to get up. This heat wave affects the wildlife in Lahore as well, the birds, the cats, the dogs, the other animals as well, who are hugely put out by the amount of cement we have in our cities. As you know, cities are usually warmer than places where there’s natural vegetation, something called the urban heat island effect. So while it might be 50 degrees Centigrade outside, it might feel several centigrade higher than that. It’s impacting everyone.

CURWOOD: As a member of Pakistan’s Climate Change Council, what’s to be done? What are folks in government doing to help people cope with this situation?

ALAM: I’m a member of the Council, but the less said about it, the better. It’s only met four times in its last seven years. And mostly to agree on what Pakistan’s position at the Conference of Parties is going to be. 

We’re a country of over 200 million people, the vast majority of whom are now exposed to dangerous amounts of dry heat, which is also dangerous. But as the monsoons come in, toward the end of June and July, we’re going to see rising humidity levels and something called wet bulb temperatures, where if you’re at 95 Fahrenheit and 70 percent humidity, it will feel like it’s over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. 

With the higher humidity, it becomes very, very difficult for the human body to release heat on its own through sweating. So people essentially will bake in these sorts of temperatures. 

About 20 percent of Pakistan’s GDP is from agriculture. And just a few days ago, one of the leading English newspapers had a headline about how crops were being decimated in Pakistan—cotton crops basically sizzling. Maize crops, mango crops, other vegetables and fodder for animals as well. There is going to be a decline in crop productivity, which of course equates to a decline in farmer livelihood. Nearly half the Pakistani workforce is associated with agriculture. These temperatures and the loss they’re causing to crops are pushing Pakistan’s workforce toward or under the poverty line as well. 

As a result of the heat, there is an increased demand for water and for energy, water for crops to prevent them from burning, and then energy as people turn fans and air conditioners on. We’ve seen our old grid system collapse in the last couple of weeks under the sort of accumulated weight of the spiking demand. So that’s its own problem, because with these sorts of temperatures, people actually need shelters. We need to have places where people can go and have access to electricity, to things like air conditioners, because in wet bulb temperatures, it doesn’t matter if you have a fan; the humidity won’t allow you to sweat, so you need to have access to air conditioners and electricity. All of these things have to be looked at.

This heat wave is a man-made event due to the greenhouse gases consumed and thrown into the atmosphere by the Global North since the industrial revolution. These greenhouse gases have to stop. Otherwise, places like Pakistan—which contributes less than 1 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions on a year-to-year basis—is paying the bill for other countries’ industrial and economic expansion. 

We have to change the way we do agriculture, we’d have to have heat-resistant crops. We grow our own food right now, but there’s no crop in existence that can withstand 50-plus Centigrade temperatures. We have to come up with better varieties of seeds that are more heat resistant. 

We have to change our water economy. Agriculture contributes about 20 percent to GDP, but over 90 percent of Pakistan’s water goes to agriculture. We have to find a better ratio where this water can be used to provide resilience and sustainability. It confounds me to think that 90 percent of Pakistan’s water is used to produce 20 percent of its GDP, and employs 40 percent of its workforce close to or at the poverty line. 

And we need to change the way our cities are designed. The cities are designed for cars. They’re not designed for human beings to withstand these temperatures. I’m not sure how to go about this redesign. But these are the big, bold things we need to do in the face of dramatic climate change.

Vendors fill cans with water amid the ongoing heat wave conditions in Jacobabad, Pakistan on May 28. Credit: Shahid Ali/AFP via Getty Images
Vendors fill cans with water amid the ongoing heat wave conditions in Jacobabad, Pakistan on May 28. Credit: Shahid Ali/AFP via Getty Images

CURWOOD: If 40 percent to half of the workforce in Pakistan is in agriculture, you can’t stay inside, you can’t be by a fan or an air conditioner if you’re working in agriculture. What’s happening to the people who are working outside?

ALAM: Millions of people are at risk of exposing themselves to dangerous levels of heat. But at the same time, this is harvest season. So they are working. They wake up when the sun rises, do a couple of hours work before it gets really, really hot, then go back inside and do a couple of hours work when it gets a little bit cooler in the evenings. It is incredibly disruptive and dangerous at the same time.

CURWOOD: Is what you are describing different from an apocalypse?

ALAM: Climate change is everything change. This is it. This is the coolest summer of the rest of our lives. Earth’s ecosystem has been in balance since the last ice age, a balance that’s allowed us to do enough agriculture to have human civilization, so that you and I can speak like this. 

That civilization is over. I mean, it’s not like human beings are going to become extinct. But this way that we interact with each other—extremely heavy energy use, extremely heavy water use, incredibly consumptive of natural resources, producing greenhouse gases for just about anything … 

I was reading recently that the YouTube viral hit Despacito reached 5 billion views on YouTube just a few years ago. That expended enough energy on YouTube to power 40,000 U.S. homes for a single year. 

It’s this behavior, this civilization, which is at risk. And yes, it is very much an apocalypse.

CURWOOD: There’s a civil defense official who’s asked people not to put cooking gas cylinders in open areas as a safety measure. He’s also warned the people living near fields that snakes and scorpions could enter homes and storage places in search of cooler spaces. What is he talking about?

ALAM: This is something that’s heavily localized. A lot of domestic energy use in Pakistan is gas for our ovens and stovetops. With the weaker distribution system, a lot of rural areas rely on cylinder-based gas for their domestic purposes. 

In rural Punjab, rural Sindh, where there are scorpions and snakes, they are being heavily impacted by this heat wave as well, and they’re gonna look for shade. So be careful, especially if in the rural areas in Pakistan. You might meet some nasty creepy crawlies when you go into your hut.

CURWOOD: You’ve lived in Pakistan for much of your life. When did you wake up and say, Whoa, what’s going on here?

ALAM: I was made aware of climate change in 2008, 2009. That was around the time when Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” came out. 

People in Pakistan don’t tend to think about climate change, but about unlivable amounts of air pollution. And this is very much our own doing. This isn’t greenhouse gases coming out of the Global North. This is about some of the worst-quality fuels that we have. In Pakistani cities, you’re losing two to three years of life expectancy. And in my city of Lahore, it’s seven to eight years. We’ve been seeing these chronic air pollution episodes since at least 2016. 

There is a significant denialism on climate change in places like the United States. And it angers me because I see people affected. I see animals affected. And this is a lived experience for the global majority, the Global South. It’s extremely infuriating to see people who’ve participated in this global warming deny it, deny any accountability, try and move on as if nothing’s happened and try and continue to make money and drive that bottom line.

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CURWOOD: You’re an attorney, not a political scientist. But what do you see are the political implications of this in terms of regional stability and worldwide stability?

ALAM: I am not a political economist or a political theoretician, but there’s this fellow called Anatol Lieven in the United Kingdom who wrote a book on climate change and the nation state. His thesis is that the nation state emerged in the 18th and 19th century from the kingdoms that ruled Europe. It’s predominantly a security state; you’re involved in securing yourself against aggression from other states, but not from an existential threat like climate change. The very basis of the legal systems and the international system that we have, he argues—and I tend to agree with him—can’t cope with an existential crisis like this. 

One of the worst ways to deal with something like climate change is to divide the world into 200 different countries and have them argue with each other. This does not augur well for regional stability, not that there’s a considerable amount of regional stability in Pakistan right now. On one side, we’ve got Afghanistan. On the other side, we’ve got India, with which we’ve had an acrimonious relationship. So we’re not talking to either neighbor, which can’t be good at the end of the day, because people are important. 

There are also climate-induced migrations, a lot of them, of course, political as well, when it comes to Afghanistan, but climate-induced migrations that we have no consideration for, because there is still no legal definition of a climate migrant internationally. We don’t have our eyes open for that. It doesn’t augur well for regional stability going forward, or even the international order.

CURWOOD: What portions of Pakistan are less vulnerable to climate disruption, and where people might be migrating to?

ALAM: Vulnerability is the strength of your infrastructure to withstand climate events, but also vulnerability at a higher level: your ability to get on your feet if you’ve been pushed to the ground. 

The richer you are, the more likely you are to be resilient to climate impact. And the less affluent you are, the more likely your home’s going to get swept away. But my concern really comes to the majority of the Pakistani people, who are middle class, working class and at or close to the poverty line. Their ability to withstand climate shocks is much weaker than my own. We have to understand vulnerability in that way. 

“There’s really not many safe places unless you find a rich friend and stay in the house.”

So where in Pakistan is vulnerable? Most of it, because most of it is poor, and you’ll have some pockets of rich Pakistan that will be less vulnerable. 

If you think you can head to the mountains and enjoy some cool weather over there, well, we have over 3,000 glaciers in Pakistan which are at risk of something called glacial lake outburst floods, when the water of the glacier unexpectedly and unannounced makes its arrival and can be quite devastating. 

So 3,000 of those glaciers, some of which have split and burst and caused knocked-out roads, especially up in the northern areas when we’re talking roads and bridges that connect valleys and mountain ranges. If you knock out one of those you more or less knock out an entire region from other transport logistics, so you’re not safe there much either. Then if there’s excessive rainfall, the rivers that pass through the mountains can also disgorge. There’s really not many safe places unless you find a rich friend and stay in the house.

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