IN 2019, the journal Science Advances published a study about the state of the world’s glaciers. This study found that glaciers in the Himalayan mountain range were melting much faster than they did at the end of the last century. Current losses at Siachen and other glaciers reveal that they have been losing a vertical foot and a half of ice since 2000 — a statistic that warns of a future of droughts as those in South Asia confront a dwindling supply of water from the main waterways.
Melting glaciers and rising seas, everyone now knows (or should know), are propelling us towards an environmental catastrophe which in turn produces human catastrophe.
The current heatwave gripping South Asia is one iteration of environmental cataclysm. For days, Jacobabad in Sindh has remained among the hottest places on earth. Scores have died in the subcontinent because of the ravages of heat exhaustion and dehydration. These are the casualties of climate change killed for no other reason than the fact that humans harbored misconceptions about the warming planet or did not pay any heed when just such a scenario was predicted.
For as long as they have existed on Earth, humans have been consuming the planet’s resources and, in the last many decades, spewing too much carbon dioxide into the planet’s atmosphere. Even now, growing economies like India and China are uninterested in commitment to reducing carbon emissions for fear that it will stall the growth of their economies.
The fact that climate catastrophe does not accord with national borders is proving to be a problem.
At the same time, it is just this phenomenon of environmental degradation that is exposing how earlier ways of understanding the nation state as the primary political unit are failing. The Treaty of Westphalia signed in 1648 gave birth to the nation state as the primary political unit in the world. The ‘kingdoms’ and ’empires’ gave way to countries organized around borders. Living inside them or even traveling through them required documents, a very novel concept. Travelers of yore like Ibn-i-Battuta never had to worry about passports and visas as all travelers must now. But at the time of the treaty, these were new ideas, including the fact that governance by the people would replace the system of monarchies held together for hundreds of years. It is very likely that just as we cannot envision a world without the nation state, so too did our ancestors laugh at the idea that there would be countries that were not ruled by kings and their courts.
New systems emerge when the old ones will not do or because their deficiencies make them redundant. In our present situation, the fact that climate catastrophe does not accord with national borders is proving to be a problem. When farmers in Indian Punjab burn straw stubble on their fields, the smog settles on Lahore and produces days of air quality so low that even seeing a few feet ahead is very difficult. Nor is it the smog alone, as many experts have pointed out. Pakistan’s status as the lower riparian vis-à-vis India creates a security issue as well, serving as the sword of Damocles suspended over our collective heads. If the last few weeks have revealed the hell that climate change can be, imagine it multiplied several times over as rivers dry up permanently and drought becomes a regularity.
The nation state model is also failing because its dated mechanics are unable to handle climate change in any kind of fair or equitable way. Take for instance, the fact that Pakistan emits lower amounts of carbon dioxide than most countries. Be that as it may, no concessions are ever made so that Pakistan is provided more resources to confront the climate challenges that it has only a small hand in producing.
It follows then that one of the most significant challenges of our time does not align well with the nation state model. The progress on studying ice cores from melting glaciers means that humans can now look at their planetary history going back thousands of years. The emergence and popularity of earth sciences such as geology and geophysics and others means that a large amount of data has been converted into numbers which can be put into predictive statistical models and reveal the future. Humans could hardly predict the weather when the Treaty of Westphalia was signed; they can now predict weather and climate-related catastrophe with great accuracy. It is just this sort of technology that has allowed humans to truly understand the depth of the climate catastrophe that the planet faces.
Even while wars such as the one in Ukraine seem to underscore the importance of the nation state, and the building of fortress-like border walls suggests as literal a meaning of the nation state as could be, it may well be the last gasp of the nation state. Environmentalists are pointing to the planet becoming a political unit such that its boundaries and general welfare become the basis for global cooperation. In simple terms, the assessment of time on the scale of millennia made possible by scientific advances and supercomputers highlights the need for new political units that focus on the interconnectedness of everyone and everything on the planet. The Covid-19 pandemic is arguably also the product of rising temperatures. It has underscored that countries have yet to come up with a collective response.
The move from nation state to planetary cooperation is inevitable. The long view of our planet, attested to from the ice cores of glaciers has revealed what the earth was long before even humans. The planet is getting hotter, habitats are being lost and environmental catastrophe is being courted and flirted with at every opportunity. The nation state model of political organization has not produced the means of reining in the biggest threat faced by our planet. It may be time to consider a new one.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2022