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In Indonesia, a Worrying Silence on Climate Change

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Dive into the limpid waters off Indonesia’s resort island of Bali and you’ll spot the beginnings of an environmental success story. Older reefs are recovering from the devastating coral bleaching of 1998 and 2009. New corals are now taking hold. On shore, local fishermen also see improvement. There are, at long last, more and bigger fish. It’s been a collaborative effort to reach this point. My organization, Reef Check, has worked with village heads, tour operators, local government, other NGOs and fishermen to try to conserve Indonesia’s coral reefs and the marine life and livelihoods they support.

Climate change and political inaction could doom these early successes, however. And, as Indonesia negotiates an election year, climate change is nowhere on the political agenda.

A colony of table coral that broke down, recovered and is now re-growing.

Recent reports from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made the situation clear: climate change is happening at an alarming rate, human behavior is largely to blame and if left unchecked, it poses a very real threat. Many will suffer, but those at greatest risk are communities living in low-lying coastal areas and on small islands. Ocean acidification, warmer sea temperatures, extreme weather and rising sea levels increase the chance of storm surges, coastal flooding and reduced fish stocks.

That’s bad news for Indonesia, an archipelago of thousands of islands in Southeast Asia that witnessed one of the worst natural disasters in living memory – the tsunami of 2004  - and which relies heavily on its natural resources. If the current rate of global warming persists, as many as 1,500 of Indonesia’s islands will be swallowed by rising seas by 2050, according to the Maplecroft Climate Change Vulnerability Index. Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport could be underwater as soon as 2030.

Indonesia’s Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries Sharif Sutardjo has called for new and innovative ideas to improve the sustainable use of our ocean resources. Speaking at the recent Global Ocean Action Summit, Sutardjo said Indonesia had recently crafted a fisheries policy that balances economic growth, social equity and environmental protection. How this policy will grapple with the effects of climate change remains in doubt.

Living coral grows and takes over a dead colony.

It’s an election year in Indonesia. We have just had elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate. The presidential contest, a direct election, will be held on July 9. But none of the potential candidates has spelled out his vision for tackling climate change. None of Indonesia’s most senior political leaders has said anything in reaction to the IPCC reports and their implications for our future security despite appeals by the media and some non-governmental organizations to lay out their environmental plans.

Even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry implored the Indonesian government to address climate change. “This city, this country, this region is really on the front lines of climate change,” he said in a speech in Jakarta in February. “It’s not an exaggeration to say to you that your entire way of life that you live and love is at risk.”

As a marine biologist, I have seen first-hand the effects a warming sea can have. At Reef Check, we monitor and document changes in this fragile ecosystem with the aim of finding out how best to manage it. The mass coral bleaching of 2009-2010 affected up to 40 to 60 percent of some of Indonesia’s reefs. The same phenomenon in 1998, caused by El Niño, wiped out up to 60 percent of reefs, creating fields of dead coral and rubble. Some have never recovered. Bleaching occurs when coral becomes stressed by unusual warmer sea temperatures. Further change in our climate system will make this worse.

A scientist from Reef Check records the recovery of coral near Bali after coral bleaching in 2009.

One study said that warmer and more acidic seawater could reduce Indonesian fish catches by an average of 20 percent, and up to 50 percent in some fishing areas. Coral reefs act as nurseries, feeding areas and mating places for fish and many other important marine organisms. But as the IPCC reports made clear, climate change is altering ocean chemistry with waters becoming more acidic as they absorb carbon dioxide, making it more difficult for corals to form. Some fish in the tropics could become extinct. Other species are on the move to cooler climes. All of which means countries like Indonesia could see a dramatic drop in an important food source.

If the damage continues unchecked we could also lose valuable tourism revenue. Reef-based tourism has created millions of jobs, contributing to both the local and national economy. Bali and other resort areas all strongly rely on the money earned from scuba divers exploring their healthy coral reefs.

Indonesia is slowly waking up to the economic value of its marine resources. Recently, the government declared full protection for manta rays, creating the world’s largest sanctuary for a fish estimated to be worth $1 million in dive tourism revenue over the course of its life. The same animal is worth between $40 and $500 if caught, killed and sold at market. Also, we have created more protected marine areas as a refuge for our coral reefs. But as one of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses after China, the EU and the United States, Indonesia should be doing more – by continuing to curb deforestation, evolving better agricultural practices, and reassessing the reliance on coal for Indonesia’s energy supply and economic growth.

There’s no doubt that this would be expensive. But so is the alternative – and we are talking about the environment, our biggest asset. As the economist Ottmar Edenhofer, who led the IPCC team, put it  “It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet.”

We need to act now and we need our political leaders to lead. And the international community can help. World leaders need to publicly pledge support for efforts to fight climate change in Indonesia. The World Bank and other development agencies should prioritize climate considerations in new Indonesia programs. And Indonesia’s many friends abroad should join with voters here in asking presidential candidates what they intend to do to mitigate the effects of climate change and save the vital marine environment.

All images courtesy of Reef Check Indonesia.

Jensi Sartin About the Author: Jensi Sartin, is a director of Reef Check Indonesia, which coordinates a national volunteer network of coral reef monitoring and facilitates collaborative management between local communities and government. Jensi Sartin, is a director of Reef Check Indonesia, which coordinates a national volunteer network of coral reef monitoring and facilitates collaborative management between local communities and government. He is a 2014 Aspen New Voices Fellow.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 7 Comments

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  1. 1. RobFromLoveland 2:33 pm 05/15/2014

    Apparently the people of Indonesia, like their counterparts in the western world, are pretending that if they ignore climate change it will just go away, like a childhood hobgoblin. Not just the archipelago, but all the low-lying and coastal regions of the world will be severely impacted in the next half-century or so, yet there is no general sense of danger or urgency. To the candidates now queuing up for the US elections in November, the threats of gay marriage and defective ACA web sites are far more serious than the threat of climate change and inundation of major residential and industrial areas. Well, enough of that – it’s time to go watch Survivor and American Idol.

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  2. 2. Olichen 3:53 am 05/16/2014

    According to Wikipedia, Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport elevation is 32 ft. AMSL. Sea levels have been rising less than 2mm per year for the last century. To flood the airport in 16 years, sea level rise would have to jump to two feet per year. That would be something.

    The University of Southampton is leading a group of four other major universities in a multi-year study to verify “the acceleration of sea level rise.” Because of all the noise in the readings, last week they said it will take until 2020 or 2030 before they can demonstrate the acceleration that we all know should be there. Perhaps they are going to camp out at the Jakarta airport until it goes underwater in 2030. That should give them all the proof they need.

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  3. 3. SAULT18 12:20 pm 05/16/2014


    Sea level rise is already MORE than 3mm per year and we don’t need to wait until 2020 to know that the rise is accelerating since we’ve determined that it really is accelerating long ago:

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  4. 4. SAULT18 12:28 pm 05/16/2014

    When calculating total emissions, Indonesia is one of the highest CO2 emitters. Through deforestation to grow palm oil or peat fires used to turn bogs into cattle grazing pasture, Indonesia is a major emitter. Funny thing is, while Indonesia emitted 18 billion tonnes of CO2 due to land use changes from 1990 – 2010:

    we probably could have paid them a few dollars per tonne over that time period and they might have made MORE money than they did clearing / burning all that land. If you account for the negative environmental effects of all that land-clearing, it DEFINITELY would have been in everybody’s best interest to pay countries like Indonesia to keep their forests intact.

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  5. 5. SJCrum 4:39 pm 05/16/2014

    Olichen – Your comment about the yearly rise of sea levels being 2 mm per year is very revealing, and in one sense, I believe what you wrote. The true point though is that global warming did, and did NOT, cause that “ultra-humongous” situation.
    The point is that the polar cap ice will not increase ocean levels at all when it melts, and that is because in salt water the ice amount above the oceans doesn’t increase the water volume at all, and the height will remain the same. And, this can be tested totally by just filling a glass full of water, add a good amount of salt, then after adding ice, which will have its top above the water level, and then let the ice melt. By the way, put a small piece of scotch tape at the top of the water level before melting occurs also.
    One thing to note also, is that if you take another glass and fill it with water and ice, that water, without salt will have the top of the ice down to where the water level is. The point of this is that the salt causes the ice to be higher, and well above the surface.
    So, the rising sea level scare is totally wrong.
    As for your 2 mm rise in water level, the real cause is from the temperature of the water simply expanding, and yes, it does expand because of more heat, but it isn’t by polar cap melting at all. By the way, all of these things can be fully proven by simple science testing.

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  6. 6. SJCrum 5:03 pm 05/16/2014

    As for the basic topic of the article about how a warmer climate will be devastating to ocean life, and every other thing on earth, you might note that the tropics are thriving from the heat, and heat is enormously important and totally successful for the most productive plant growth on the planet. Icy temperatures, on the other hand, can cause extremely bad results.
    Another extremely great item is that if the polar caps were melted and totally gone, the world’s climate would be far better in every way. No hurricanes or tornadoes are just two of the worst.
    In the beginning of earth, the weather was extremely mild and had longer and better growing seasons, and earth was a tropical paradise as far as everything being great.
    And, all of this because the Jet Stream would always be parallel to the equator, and not snaking wildly from streaking northward toward the cold of the polar ice during night times, and then when the morning sun rises, the sun’s heat rips the stream around and down toward the southeast. The entire Jet Stream is pulled at nights toward the COLD of that area, and then after the jet air gets cold, and the morning sun rises, the sun’s heat pulls it rapidly toward the sun.
    And, the Jet Stream, and all of the hot and cold air masses that it affects is what causes all of the very wild weather totally.
    A horizontal flowing jet stream that is parallel with the equator is all tropical, and totally right and good for all of the tropical life living there.
    So, all of the scientists doing the polar cap scare has the entire situation completely backward. Unfortunately, they couldn’t have it more wrong.
    By the way also, all of the enormously successful growth of tropical plants and life there ALL exists in that success because of the higher amount of heat.
    The main source of life in all plants and animal life is heat, and that heat inside all living cells is combined with the moving energy of electrical current, but also the critically important moving heat, that combines with the electrical current to make the living life energy that exists in all living things.
    So, too much dry heat can be damaging, but wet heat is ENORMOUSLY right and PERFECT.
    In the end, scientists need to get the science right and not try to do the scare tactics.
    As for the scare thing, they are likely thinking there are life species that are at risk, and then assuming that too much heat will cause them to be extinct. The end point is that animals will thrive more in oceans that are warmer, and sea life will just simply move to where they like it the most. But, you might note, if there is more warmer water THEN there can be MORE sea life and because their totally happy critter selves will like it all more. In truth, they would be eager to fill all of the warmer water with lots more sea life. Think of the oceans being chuck full of them. For one itty bitty item, lots of them could escape sharks lots easier, and every other predator as well. And, this is no minor item as far as their far better survival. So, that is just one of many reasons.

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  7. 7. SJCrum 5:18 pm 05/16/2014

    By the way, CO2 emissions appear to be extremely bad in the world now, but trees and all plants that exist absorb all of that.
    Even though that is fact in real science, it is still far better to have energy created in ways that are totally free of all fuel types. And, just one example is to take all garbage and have all of it changed back into the enormous amount of energy that it took to make all of the atoms in the first place. And, this would provide more energy than all of the nuclear power plants in the world.
    Another totally-free energy generator would be an electrical generator that ran continually by using just permanent magnets in it, and which would run just like an electrical generator that is powered by electricity, but wouldn’t need any added power at all.
    So, the CO2 isn’t a real problem at all, but fossil fuels are getting to be a joke also.

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