15 Jul 2021
Indonesia’s emerging climate crisis is also a regional crisis
There is perhaps no other place in the world with such a large population exposed to a more dangerous constellation of rapidly emerging climate hazards than Indonesia. Yet the exceptional risk in this geo-politically pivotal country of 275 million people has gone largely unnoticed.
...by far the most exposed country in the world...
Now a major scientific study, just published in Nature Communications, has found that Indonesia’s exposure to a key climate change threat, sea level rise, is 14 times worse than was previously realized. This makes it by far the most exposed country in the world, accounting for a staggering 11 percent of the global total of land area that is at-risk (at less than two meters above mean sea level).
Most Indonesians live in coastal communities. Tens of millions of them will increasingly be directly affected by extreme flooding. Even seemingly small changes in sea-level have enormous human impacts. A 10cm rise transforms a 1 in 100-year extreme flooding event into a 1 in 33-year event. With a 20 cm rise, it becomes a 1 in 11-year event. By 2050 extreme flooding will be annual events in many parts of the world. But Indonesia will reach this point far sooner because its sea-level is rising about four times faster than the global average, driven by climate change and other factors, such as groundwater extraction.
The authors of the new study note that their findings are important because Indonesia “is not usually prioritized in discussions of areas most at risk of SLR (sea level rise).” That’s an understatement that applies equally well to many other climate hazards. When taken together, this makes the country a global hot spot of climate impacts that will test the nation’s political, economic, and social resilience, and have major consequences for its regional neighbours.
Indonesia’s location, between the Pacific and Indian oceans, uniquely exposes it to the naturally occurring El Nino and La Nina climate pattern, which is globally the most significant cause of extreme weather. Climate change is expected to double the frequency of El Nino events in little more than a decade. The country will not only experience more severe weather, but also more frequent swings from extreme heat and drought to severe floods. The diminishing time for recovery in between these events will undermine the country’s food security and resilience.
...crop production may decline by one-third...
Scientists have determined that by 2040, at 2 degrees Celsius of warming, Southeast Asia’s per capita crop production may decline by one-third. In the past, when faced with climate-related food shortages, Indonesia has imported additional food, as it did on an unprecedented scale during the severe drought of 1998. However, climate impacts occurring outside of the region will further diminish the options available to Indonesia to offset the domestic effects.
Its fisheries are also in trouble. Indonesians get more than half of their animal protein from fish, but fish species are already moving out of the region to escape warming waters, and the region’s coral reefs, the “nursery” for roughly 10 percent of the world’s fish supply, are degrading rapidly; globally, 70- 90 percent of reefs will have collapsed at 1.5 degrees C of warming.
Indonesia clearly has many resources to address natural hazards. It’s the only Southeast Asian country in the Group of 20 and regularly mounts large-scale responses to disasters. But it also has significant vulnerabilities. About a quarter of Indonesians live on less than US$3.20 per day and 55% of employment is in informal sectors, with few official social safety nets to support large populations displaced by disasters. Inequality is increasing, and ethnic and religious tensions have previously led to major outbreaks of violence.
...These problems are very unlikely to be contained within Indonesia’s borders...
The combination of steadily rising sea-level and temperatures, and sudden on-set disasters, such as extreme flooding, cyclones, and fires—emerging, in effect, simultaneously--will have enormous cascading impacts across the society, displacing large numbers of people, undermining economic growth and development, and potentially increasing political extremism and instability. These problems are very unlikely to be contained within Indonesia’s borders.
Similar climate impacts are unfolding across the region, including in Australia where last year’s devastating bushfires linked directly to climate change destroyed over 20 million hectares of land.
Indonesia and its regional partners need a coherent regional strategy to address this rapidly emerging and intensifying risk. Many national government departments, including associated with defense, foreign affairs, internal security, and climate and weather forecasting, are already working on various aspects of the climate and security nexus.
Nevertheless, much of this national work is siloed, ad hoc and only very modestly resourced, and is not part of an integrated and coherent regional plan. Developing such a plan would also reveal many gaps and opportunities for cooperation and greater efficiency.
Underpinning a regional climate and security strategy should be greatly strengthened systems for climate and security long-range forecasting and early-warning and increased analytical capacity. Regional partners would then be better prepared to identify the most likely paths through which disruptive climate events in Indonesia, and elsewhere, would cause cascading impacts with security implications.
These may include disruptions of critical supply chains, food insecurity, emboldened separatist movements, humanitarian disasters, population displacement, opportunistic intervention by outside powers, political instability and conflict. The objective should be to identify opportunities, such as aid interventions, defense cooperation initiatives and technology transfer, to reduce the risk at critical points in the chain of cascading effects, and to identify the measures we now need to begin putting in place nationally and regionally to address the regional risks we are unable to reduce.
The science confirms that climate change impacts are now accelerating. The recent heatwaves in Western North America, the most extreme in world weather records, bears this out. We need to prepare for much worse in the years ahead. No one country alone will be able to cope with the scale of the challenges that lay ahead. It is time to begin scaling-up regional cooperation to address the rapidly emerging climate and disaster risk.