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A remarkable study published last week in the highly regarded scientific journal Nature detailed a new method for predicting specific dates for the onset of climate change for any location on the planet.
The study (hereafter known as the “Mora study” after first author Dr. Camilo Mora) has made waves around the world since for the first time it puts specific dates on “climate departure” for cities and regions. The implications of the study for Indonesia are immediately apparent.
The startling findings indicate that permanent alteration of climate is just around the corner for the expansive archipelago; the study pegs 2029 as the year for radical climate departure for Jakarta, and as early as 2020 for Manokwari in Papua, whereas the global average is 2047.
What this means is that the random, stochastic events, like increased flooding and extended drought conditions that now wreak havoc from time to time on the Indonesian landscape, economy and people, will become the new normal.
10% — the drop in rice yields for every increase of one degree Celcius in the average minimum temperatureIn other words, we will soon move from conditions of periodic perturbation to permanent and irreversible change. The study accounts for only one indicator, however — rising temperature — and acknowledges that additional social and economic factors could result in further unexpected pressures.
We see this startling new study not only as a call for greater urgency in preparing for climate change in Indonesia, but also as an opportunity for the country to move forward in providing global leadership in addressing these challenges.
Human consequencesThough generally framed as an environmental issue, for Indonesia the specter of human-induced climate change must be thought of as a multidimensional challenge as it has immediate and long-term economic, strategic and social implications.
In terms of economic effects, there are two basic scalar clusters at which the effects of climate change will be felt. The first is at the local, household, and individual level. According to World Bank figures, in 2011 43 percent of Indonesians, more than 100 million people, lived on less then $2 per day.
Empirical and model-based research indicates climate change has already affected rainfall patterns in Indonesia, decreasing the length of the rainy season in many places and concentrating precipitation over a shorter period of time.
This has the double effect of increasing uncertainty for planting and harvesting schedules while inflating the risk of floods and other weather-related perturbations.
In addition, studies indicate climate change is and will continue to affect fisheries throughout the world, with Indonesia being among the hardest hit.
One study in particular conducted in 2010 estimated that catches could decrease by as much as 40 percent in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. Though larger-scale businesses will certainly suffer, these changes will unfortunately fall hardest on those with the lowest capacity to cope, the tens of millions of Indonesians that derive their livelihoods from the land and sea.
Not only is their productive capacity in jeopardy, but decreased purchasing power due to rising prices threatens to undo many of the impressive strides Indonesia has made in combating poverty.
At the national level the economy stands to suffer because of the aggregate effects of the aforementioned dynamics combined with the country’s overall reliance on primary sector activities.
Recent research by the International Food Policy Research Institute indicates that for every one-degree increase in minimum temperatures, rice yields could decrease by 10 percent. Hence gross domestic product will experience a slight drop due to the adverse impacts on the agricultural sector.
Moreover, the inherent uncertainty associated with how climate change will be manifested should be understood as a wildcard as Indonesia pushes to increase production of primary commodities such as palm oil.
It is impossible to say how changing regional climates will affect long-term viability of palm oil and other commodities, but it most certainly will have a disruptive impact, given that agricultural production is subject to complex interactions of biological, physical, and chemical systems.
Since these systems react to changing climates in different ways, the ensemble of geographic variables that create suitable conditions will likely change.
Rising sea levels, rising floods
Sea level rise is another important consideration, as some estimates indicate that as much as 25 percent of national GDP is derived from activities located on or near the nation’s 81,000-kilometer coastline. Salt water intrusion, more intense storm activity, other impacts will displace or disturb many activities near the coast.
As the government struggles to cope with these problems it will draw financial and other resources away from other problems and initiatives. Potentially more devastating, though, is the fact that, according to the new study, Indonesia will feel these effects much sooner than other countries, including those of Asean (for example, the Mora study predicts Bangkok will reach climate departure in 2046).
This means Indonesia’s neighbors and regional competitors have a luxury that Indonesia does not: time to formulate strategies, adapt and act.
In other words, all of the aforementioned economic issues take on a strategic significance when considered in broader regional and global geopolitical contexts. Military planners throughout the world have long anticipated how climate change might affect security and stability.
Virtually all agree that climate change will increase the probability of domestic instability by altering access to vital economic and subsistence resources, which could exacerbate and inflame social tensions.
This is a key concern for Indonesia since some areas projected to be the first to experience permanent climate departure are also confronted with lagging economic and human development indicators.
The study underscores the urgent imperative to address not only the environmental issues, but also the socioeconomic issues that complicate the situation throughout the archipelago.
Furthermore, the rapid onset of climate change threatens biodiversity resources which could potentially become a significant economic asset in the future. Over time, states and their citizens have recognized the value of biodiversity at different levels.
At first, Western countries recognized the aesthetic value of biodiversity, both at home in their colonies. In many places this led to somewhat repressive policies that enforced a separation of local communities and their natural environments.
In the 20th century, with the advent of systems science and ecology, the value of ecosystem services is now recognized from scales ranging from local to global. Indonesia, considered by some authorities the most species-rich country on Earth, is also home to the largest rainforests in all of Asia and some the most extensive and productive coral reefs in the world. Because of this the country has long been acknowledged as a biodiversity hot spot by international conservation organizations.
However, properly valuing ecosystem services has proved to be a daunting task (though Indonesia is currently at the forefront of these efforts). Now, though, humanity is entering a new phase in terms of its collective evolution and history whereby biodiversity becomes a quantifiable resource providing genetic information that can be extracted, manipulated and used.
Indonesia’s biodiversity then might be thought of in terms of an absolute advantage that it has over many other countries, especially those in the global north. Each of the myriad and multitudinous combinations of genes that constitute Indonesia’s unparalleled biodiversity represents a uniquely successful adaptation to nature’s challenges.
In other words they are natural solutions to problems posed by nature. Biodiversity could then be considered an irreplaceable knowledge resource that could potentially form the backbone of a wide range of economic activity.
There is something of a silver lining for Indonesia, though. As the world’s third-largest single national emitter of greenhouse gases, the country can exercise at least some control over the timing of changing climate trends.
The vast majority of Indonesia’s emissions come from burning of forests to clear land for plantation agriculture; in fact, carbon emissions from deforestation in Indonesia have been estimated to account for as much as 6-8 percent of all global emissions.
This is a structural part of the primary sector economy that has been encouraged in Indonesia since it began in earnest in the 1970s, when the interests of business conglomerates began to be privileged at the expense of environmental management.
This upside comes with an inescapable caveat, though, and the rapidly approaching zero-date for irreversible climate change creates a unique imperative for policy makers and political leaders. Indonesia must choose its future economic development trajectory. Will it continue to promote a form of economic development that will hasten the arrival of new climate conditions?
A sense of urgency
Global warming and climate change are not new problems, nor are they problems that Indonesia is responsible for creating. But the findings from the Mora study uncover a new urgency and underscore the fact that it is time to get beyond the blame game, time to get beyond politicking, and time to take concrete steps to mitigate the adverse effects from climate change and anticipate the “new normal” that is beating down the door.
The unfortunate reality of the situation is that Indonesia does not have the luxury of waiting for others to act. The Mora study compares its revelations to an imminent car accident. The more that can be done to slow down the impending collision, the greater the chances to survive.
The effects of global warming are clearly being felt in the form of more frequent storms, catastrophic flooding and shifting growing seasons. These will only get worse. Now we know such challenges will come sooner to Indonesia.
Moreover, the rising temperatures predicted by the study are only one indicator of changing climate, and while temperatures have known direct and indirect relationships with other factors such as ocean acidity, other effects on complex biological, chemical and physical systems are less well understood.
Hence the unprecedented nature of this climate departure, and the unpredictability of its manifestations on other climate components makes it imperative to buy as much time as possible so that we can understand the full socioeconomic and physical implications of the changing climate. Thus steps must be taken to anticipate the coming changes and increase Indonesia’s adaptive capacity and strategic position.
Keith Bettinger, Wendy Miles and Micah Fisher are PhD students at the University of Hawaii’s Department of Geography and all have extended fieldwork experience in Indonesia.