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In Indonesia, a Worrying Silence on Climate Change

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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.

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

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