Friday, October 18, 2013

2020 Vision: Shocking News Regarding Indonesia's Climate Future

Last week one of the most highly-regarded scientific journals in the world, Nature, published an article based on research conducted by my good friends and colleagues in the Department of Geography at the University of Hawai'i.  The study, which uses projections from dozens of climate models to predict dates for the onset of "climate departure", is particularly noteworthy for Indonesia, because it projects the archipelago will experience climate departure sooner than any other place on the planet.  The date for Jakarta is 2029, and it's even early for Manokwari in Papua, which is projected to experience "climate departure".  In this post I'll discuss the study and what its findings mean for Indonesia.

First of all, it's important to understand what is meant by the term "climate departure".  The researchers used historical temperature data from all over the world to create a special kind of digital map that shows trends in temperature for the past 150 years.  On their map of the world they created a grid with more than 800 cells, each with maximum and minimum temperatures.  Next they used projections on future climate generated by very sophisticated computer climate models.  These are the same models that are used by  the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their periodic reports that summarize current knowledge and research on the effects of anthropogenic global warming and climate change.

Courtesy of Abby Frazier and Mora et al.  

Next the team used the maximum temperature from the last 150 years as a baseline.  Then they looked at the projections of future climate change and compared them against the historical maximum.  As you can see from the example graph for Hawai'i, the average temperature is increasing and will continue to increase into the future.  The research team noted the year in which the projected average temperature increased permanently beyond the historical maximum as the year for permanent "climate departure".  In other words, after the year 2020, the coldest year in Manokwari will be hotter than the hottest year ever recorded.  As shocking as the study's findings are, they are all the more frightening for Indonesia because that country will experience permanent climate departure sooner than virtually every other location on the planet.  In general the study indicates that places in the tropics will experience climate departure sooner than places outside the tropics.

Note the historical maximum temperature.  
For Indonesia global warming is nothing new.  The country has been dealing with the effects of climate change for years now.  These effects include later onset of monsoon rains, which are crucial for agriculture.  Changes in seasonal cycles hit farmers hard because it makes it difficult for them to know when to plant their crops.  Moreover, if the rainy season gets shorter, which has happened in many places throughout Indonesia, rain gets concentrated over a shorter period of time, which means more floods.  Moreover, rainfall has become much more variable, and so unexpected droughts have become a common occurrence.  The permanent climate departure indicated by the UH study means that these periodic perturbations will the new normal.  In addition, yields of important staple crops will decrease.  A 2011 study conducted by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines indicates that every one-degree increase in minimum temperatures decreases rice yields by 10%.  Rice is the single most important food for the vast majority of Indonesians, and so lower yields will increase prices.  Other global warming-related changes will include stronger and more frequent El Nino events, which exacerbate during or flooding trends.  Warmer temperatures are also expected to lead to increased malaria and dengue fever.  And all of these impacts will fall disproportionately on the poor.

This is a big deal in Indonesia, where according to World Bank figures 43% of the population, or more than 100 million people, live on less than US$2 per day.  A significant portion of the population (the exact percentage varies significantly from province to province) earns their living from agriculture.  Thus lower yields and higher prices affect agricultural workers in two ways: first they are able to grow less, and second it costs more to buy food.  This overall inflation of food prices threatens to undermine the impressive progress Indonesia has made fighting poverty over the decades.

Global warming is also affecting fishing, both at the artisanal and industrial scales.  As a 17,000 island archipelago, fishing has traditionally been very important in Indonesia and many people make their living from the sea.  However, studies (For example, see Cheung et al 2010 in the references) have shown that the effects of global warming have been felt in tropical fisheries, and patterns of displacement and decreased productivity will continue into the future, paralleling increased global average temperatures.  One study suggests that catch potential will increase by as much as 40% in the Indonesian exclusive economic zone (EEZ).  Many fish and invertebrate species have a tendency to shift their distributions in response to climate change, and generally they move towards higher latitudes, away from the equator.

The situation is dire for Planet Earth, but even more so for tropical countries like Indonesia.  However, there might be a silver lining for the expansive island state.  Due to annual forest burning and deforestation, Indonesia is the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses.  While this fact is astonishing, it means that Indonesia can exercise some control over its climate fate.  By reducing emissions from burning and deforestation Indonesia could buy critical time that could be used for planning, adaptation, and amelioration.  In the most optimistic scenarios Indonesia could become a pioneer and leader on the world stage in developing innovative and creative ways to reduce emissions and prepare for what is to come.  As they say it's always better to act than react, and in the case of Indonesia it's all the more urgent, not only for the sake of the poor that will be hardest hit by climate change, but for the future of the country in general.  Not only will Indonesia experience climate departure sooner that countries outside the tropics, but it will also experience the onset of permanent climate change before its neighbors in the Southeast Asian region.  This means the potential loss of competitive advantage and influence, which in the long run could hinder Indonesia's economic development ambitions.

The climate story is complex and multifaceted.  The effects of climate change will be felt in Indonesia in many ways, too numerous to explain in this post.  However, the UH study shows us all we really need to know: climate change is coming, and soon.

Map courtesy of Mora et al.  

Special thanks and congratulations to the team at UH for an eye-opening research project.

References and For Further Reading

Cheung, William W.L., Vicky W. Y. Lam, Jorge L. Sarmiento, Kelly Kearney, Reg Watson, Dirk Zeller, Daniel Pauly.  2010.  Large-Scale Redistribution of maximum fisheries catch potential in the global ocean under climate change.  Global Change Biology 16:1 pp24-35.

Mora, Camilo, Abby Frazier, Ryan Longman, Rachel Dacks, Maya Walton, Eric Tong, Joseph Sanchez, Lauren Kaiser, Yuko Stender, James Anderson, Christine Ambrosino, Iria Fernandez-Silva, Louise Guiseffi, and Thomas Giambelluca.  2013.  The Projected timing of Climate Departure from Recent Variability.  Nature 502: 183-187.