05 December 2007

Indonesia: Microcosm of climate change

The UNFCCC Conference on Climate Change is taking place in Bali, Indonesia until 14 December. This international meeting is the opening stages of negotiations for a comprehensive treaty on the adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. In many ways, the location is ideal. While the meeting is happening in Bali, a resort island, Indonesia as a whole represents a world in miniature for climate change. A wide range of the expected impacts of climate change are already beginning to be observed there.

Indonesia is an archipelago, with over 17 500 islands (6000+ inhabited) and a predominantly Muslim population of over 230 million. The country has seen its share of internal political strife, with several separatist movements in the last decade. It has also faced economic turmoil, particularly hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Straddling a major thrust fault, the nation is also subject to strong earthquakes and significant volcanic activity (source: CIA World Factbook). More to the point of this blog, there are many environmental issues of concern in Indonesia.

As an archipelago, the nation has an intimate relation with the sea. There are numerous coral reefs in the country. These have been long damaged by blast fishing and pollution, but now warming of the oceans associated with climate change is resulting in large-scale bleaching of the reefs. If unchecked, these could disappear within decades. Rising sea-levels are also a threat, with the possible disappearance of many small islands. Jakarta's airport could be flooded with sea water by 2035, and the Presidential Palace, 10 km inland could be flooded by 2080.

Indonesia also faces a threat to its food stocks. More erratic weather patterns have been observed over the past few years, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to successfully maintain crop yields. Indonesia lost 300 000 tons of crop production every year between 1992 and 2000, three times higher than the previous decade. Fish stocks are also dwindling, likely due to overfishing. Increasingly erratic climate variability associated with climate change suggests that these trends are likely to continue in the future.

Indonesia's extensive tropical forests are also in danger. Land clearing, particularly of the peatlands, can result in an enormous CO2 source. Much of the forest is being deliberately burned off to make room for palm oil plantations to make allegedly 'green' bio-fuels. At other times, the erratic climate results in widespread drought over the region, which dries out the forest an creates conditions suitable for massive wildfires. Conditions during the 1997-8 El Nino resulted in a particularly dramatic fire season here. Should such conditions become more frequent the resulting emissions of CO2 and destruction of forest could be devastating. Indonesia has made a proposal for wealthier nations to pay to avoid deforestation. It reeks of blackmail, but it may have to be adopted to avoid even worse consequences.

Climate-change-affected disease is also on the increase in the nation. This year has seen a particularly virulent strain of dengue fever become widespread. Whereas previously, fatalities from the disease mostly occurred among children, now 20% of the fatalities are adults. This is out of the realm of past experience. There have also been an unusually high number of cases of dengue in SE Asia in the past year.

This is not meant to single Indonesia out for particular blame. These problems, and many variants thereof, are occurring worldwide even as the negotiations ensue. Rather, this is a call to the delegates who are negotiating our future in Bali: Consider the impacts on the local environment of the conference. Take a look at what is happening around you. Do not underestimate the impact that climate change can and will have on our future. Of course, it is not just climate change but a whole host of environmental issues, like overfishing and deforestation, that need to be considered in the negotiations. Overpopulation and peak oil also should not be neglected. The basic framework for the future of our species and our planet is being decided at this meeting.

To use a sporting analogy, it's late in the second half and we are a few goals down. We can give up; we are sure to lose that way. Or we can keep playing like there is no tomorrow (because there isn't...). It is time to put aside our differences and play together as a team. Let's win one in spite of what the Gipper (and his ilk) have done to put us so far behind.

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