Sunday, November 1, 2015

Climate Promises Go Up In Smoke

Rains have finally come to Indonesia, damping down the forest fires that have raged all over that nation for the past two months. Respiratory illness alerts will be relaxed  across Southeast Asia, and public health officials in Singapore and Malaysia can relax as well, though dozens of deaths are reported in Indonesia itself, and a staggering 300,000 cases of respiratory infection were attributed to the smoke in Singapore alone. The Guardian's George Monbiot called it "the worst environmental disaster of the 21st Century (so far)," while the director of Indonesia's response agency called the fires a "crime against humanity."

Why are these fires happening? Because burning is the cheapest way to clear forest for agriculture, because palm oil production is expanding rapidly into Indonesia's forests, because the government has been ineffectual at best in sanctioning the violators. And this year because El NiƱo has produced especially dry, tinderbox conditions all over the Pacific basin. These chronic conditions, worse this year but bad every year, contribute to Indonesia's deplorable record at forest conservation, but in this year's exceptional disaster the world sees something worse: the massive destruction of peat. Indonesia's unusually peat-based forest floor is an important carbon sink, and as the fires consume it, they release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. For the past two months Indonesia has in fact been the world's largest carbon emitter, worse than either China or the US, as the fires do their work.

Will the international community ever persuade a country like Indonesia to tame its fires? (Or America to lower its per capita energy consumption?) President Widodo was in Washington last week, but he and President Obama were more in a mood to celebrate Indonesia's adherence to the Pacific trade agreement than to carp about runaway greenhouse gas pollution. Control of deforestation plays a part in Indonesia's INDC proposal for Paris, but whether it can fulfill any promises regarding this politically charged topic--in the face of opposition from huge palm oil producers--is doubtful.  The specter of runaway emissions, blanketing a whole region of the earth in smoke, should haunt the well-intentioned diplomats seeking to solidify a global climate plan next month.

Thinking of my previous post, I have to wonder if this disaster in Indonesia doesn't confirm the opinion of 'peasant-philosopher' Pierre Rabhi: the climate crisis is just the expression of a larger failure of humans to respect the earth. It's not just the respiratory deaths, not just the carbon emissions that are horrific--it's the massive destruction of species, the threat to the world's orangutan population, the depletion of a vast ecological system. We are a destructive species, careening rapidly toward our own destruction. The heedless pursuit of profit--in Indonesia, and everywhere else--is the core of the problem. Can the Paris conference address itself to that?

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