The Strategic Case of Climate Change for Indonesia

A lot has been said on climate change and its implications to the environment. But not enough cases are being made to highlight that climate change is more than just an environmental problem, it is a people problem and moreover a strategic one especially for countries like Indonesia.

It is critical to frame the issue of climate change as a problem to the population. It should not be seen only as a problem to the environment, since it also poses grave challenges to social and economic development.

Planet Earth has been in existence for more than four billion years and has gone through solar storms, meteor impacts and several ice ages. Several dozens of high-grade hurricanes and meters of rising sea level will not jeopardize the planet as much as it will demolish the people living on it.

In short, it is to be taken seriously and should not be quarantined in the limited albeit important “environmental” policy box alone. It should be elevated into an issue of strategic importance – both in government policy-making processes and public discussion.

So how is climate change a strategic issue for Indonesia?

Let’s take food security as a real example. Though in the past we have taken pride in being self-

sufficient in food supply, recent years have also seen how vulnerable we are to the volatility of harvest yield.

Relying on import to meet domestic food demands is certainly not desirable, nor strategically sound.

However, a study by the World Resources Institute estimates that because of climate change, Indonesia’s agricultural productivity will decrease by 15 percent by 2080 at the time where our population is expected to grow to around 300 million.

Without proper planning and adaptation from today, food scarcity may lead to widespread famine, economic slowdown and costly social unrest.

Climate-resistant seeds, innovative irrigation patterns and adaptive agricultural practice require long-term research and development, knowledge dissemination as well as capable human resources – all of which need investment in terms of time, money and effort starting today.

It is true that these things need to take place with or without climate change – however planning made under the assumptions of the current climate and harvesting season will not hold at the time the climate is changing.

Another strategic issue to Indonesia is rising sea level due to climate change. It means that millions who lives on parts of Indonesia’s 80,000-kilometer coastline and whose livelihoods depend on this particular ecosystem (e.g. fisheries and its supporting industries) will need to, at the very least, adapt, but it is likely that some of them may even have to relocate.

This is not to mention major challenges to coastal cities such as Jakarta and Surabaya.

A United Nations Development Program study suggests that a rise of 1 meter could submerge more than 400,000 hectares of coastal land.

Relocating an entire village or perhaps the whole district requires unprecedented amount of resources and careful considerations that should include alternative means of living and employment should the customary line of work such as fisheries is no longer relevant. Especially as the latter also requires new skills training and new equipment.

But perhaps the most challenging one is a matter of social re-engineering when a society will have to change its way of living that they have been accustomed to for generations – a small but consequential glitch in this effort will have significant social and economic cost on top of a degrading environment and changing climate.

Even for the non-populated islands, the strategic risk remains especially for Indonesia’s outer islands that set its territorial boundaries – submergence of these islands may create complications to the country’s jurisdictional borders.

The list of issues and impact can go on and on, and many good reports and analysis have been done both by credible domestic and international experts.

It is these kinds of strategic and people issues that our negotiators and policy-makers who are to meet in Copenhagen in the coming days with policy-makers around the world need to also bear in mind when working towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions–the primary cause of climate change.

The cost of getting it wrong, i.e. mean temperature continuing to increase and the climate keeps changing in the coming decades, is relatively higher for Indonesia as an archipelago compared to most other countries.

Climate change is a long-haul march requiring long-term strategy but also short- and medium-term action for the strategy to work. Decisions and development policies taken now will shape or even locked us towards future pathways.

The window of opportunity for Indonesia to embed climate change considerations into its development plan and muster international support to undertake a low carbon development is still open – but not for long.

Copenhagen, 11 December 2009,
Michael Putrawenas

The writer is a member of the Expert Council of Palapa and Advisory Board of International Climate Champions.

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