Given my family roots in Pakistan, I have been watching the election drama unfolding in the nuclear-armed state with a good measure of anxiety and hope. While serious concerns about voter suppression have been recorded, it is heartening to see a record number of women candidates and enthusiasm from the youth to vote. Independent candidates supported by the former prime minister Imran Khan have surprised many pundits by their success at the polls. The jailed leader has no chance of becoming the Prime Minister at present, but he continues to galvanize the Pakistani diaspora overseas and a wide swath of younger voters. His uncompromising bravado against the industrial and feudal elite of the two other dominant political parties — the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Group (PML-N) — has endeared him to many but also led to political impasse and his ultimate downfall.
Amidst the intense polarization of the political sphere, there is perhaps a green glimmer of compromise that should be the focus of international interest in Pakistan. Despite their intense disdain for each other, all the major political parties in Pakistan have come to recognize the importance of environmental concerns and rallying under the call for responding to the country’s climate vulnerability. According to the Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is among the most vulnerable to climate change. Unlike the United States, there is no “climate denial” fault line in Pakistani politics. Indeed, all the political parties, even those from draconian religious groups, agree that we need focus on environmental concerns.
Imran Khan’s government won international acclaim for the massive afforestation scheme termed the “tree tsunami” from the World Economic Forum. After his dismissal, the caretaker government appointed the highly capable diplomat from the PPP Sherry Rehman (who had served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States) as the Climate Change minister. Under her leadership the country was able to lead a coalition of climate-vulnerable states to motivate the establishment of a Climate Loss and Damage Fund in 2022. The PMLN’s senior leader Shehbaz Sharif has described climate change as a “development, economic, human and national security issue”.
The Biden Administration neglected Pakistan’s environmental issues in some of its early engagement due to some foreign policy disagreements between the former Climate Envoy John Kerry and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. However, more recently, the U.S. Mission to Pakistan sees environmental investment as a smart neutral strategy for engagement. In July 2023, the U.S. government partnered with the Coca Cola Foundation and the Green Climate Fund to support the “Recharge Pakistan” project, to support climate adaptation strategies in the country. The US government has already pledged over $215 million to help Pakistan’s recovery from natural disasters and is packaging its engagement through the “U.S.-Pakistan Green Alliance.” A next step might be to also consider a regional approach to environmental peace-building with India, as the US has done in the past through technocratic mediated efforts such as the Indus Waters Treaty and the South Asian Regional Initiative for Energy Integration.
As the dust settles from the election, there is an opportunity for Pakistan and its international allies to seek meaningful consensus on environmental action. In particular, this is an area where even the United States, China and Russia could seek a means of collective assistance through various multilateral donor mechanisms. Pakistanis across the political spectrum and income strata have awoken to the primacy of natural systems for sustainable livelihoods and poverty alleviation. From private sector investments in renewable energy to cleaning up smog in cities like Lahore (rated the most polluted in the world by some measures), there can be unity of purpose both domestically and abroad. With a population of almost a quarter billion people, one-third of whom are between the ages of 10 and 24, Pakistan has much potential to harness the demographic dividend. This electorate of the future needs an environment in which to thrive for not only domestic but international stability.