Writen By: Ryan Moores
One of the first things I noticed as my plane landed in Jakarta about two months ago was the smog. Even in the last few minutes of the flight, as I looked in awe and anticipation at the wooden fishing boats, intricate streets of peripheral villages, and impressive highrises from above, I noticed everything was shrouded in an orange haze. Leaving the airport, upon my first exposure to Indonesian air, I noticed something which had only been described to me as the “ever-present smell of barbeque”.
Just days before my arrival, Swiss company IQAir—a group dedicated to air quality data and respiratory health around the world—determined Jakarta to be the most polluted city in the world. Its thick photochemical smog stems mostly from the coal-burning plants which produce over 60% of Indonesia’s energy, and the use of inefficient motor vehicles. Not only is smog a visual nuisance; it’s dangerous and expensive. In the first 10 months of 2023 alone, IQAir predicts that there have been approximately 12,000 deaths in Jakarta due to air quality, costing the city upwards of $3 billion. But this reality is nothing new, nor is it confined to the industrial regions of Jakarta.
Much of Indonesia’s air pollution can be traced back to the global industry which generates about 4.5% of the nation’s GDP—palm oil. Palm oil is used globally in everything from food and makeup to biofuel, and thus has a high global demand. In common development, powerful and exploitative corporations from the global north have not hesitated to sink their claws into Indonesia’s natural resources. Through often corrupt and unregulated land grabbing, foreign corporations have consistently avoided plantation regulations, prioritizing profit over the lives of Indonesian locals. To clear land for Indonesia’s growing 14 million hectares of palm oil plantations, agricultural slash-and-burning practices are often implemented, even though they have been banned since 2009 under the 32nd Law on Environmental Protection and Management.
In 2015, what has come to be known as the Southeast Asian Haze Crisis emerged from Indonesia. Much of Sumatra, Borneo, and Malaysia were choked out by thick haze, spanning from early July into the end of the dry season, around early November. In total, the event is thought to have resulted in over 100,000 deaths according to a Harvard University study. What were initially “controlled” agricultural burns in Sumatra became forest fires that scorched over 2.6 million hectares of land—over 4 times the land burned in a typical year. Westward winds carried smoke from Sumatra, resulting in an outcry from the approximately 60 million people of neighboring countries and islands who were subjected to the toxic haze. Traditional homes—having a much more open style than those in America—offered little protection, forcing millions to breathe the fumes around the clock. Reflecting on years since, wildfires and haze are not unique to 2015, with similar incidents significantly threatening air quality and public health namely in the dry seasons of 2019, 2022, and again in 2023.
Indonesia is caught in a sort of positive feedback loop. With the burning of peatlands and coal comes the release of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. These gases are named for their role in the “Greenhouse Effect” which occurs when certain gases (methane, water vapor, carbon dioxide, etc.) trap the sun’s radiation as heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. This trapping of heat has contributed to the complex collection of events falling under “climate change”. As heat is trapped, Indonesia becomes more prone to drought, its dry season gets longer and more severe, and heat waves occur more frequently—all conditions that support untamable wildfires. Furthermore, recent studies have linked the recent increased frequency of El Niño (Southern Oscillation) events with greenhouse gas emissions. During these events, increased easterly winds over the Pacific Ocean raise the surface water temperatures around Southeast Asia, increasing average temperatures and the severity of drought in Indonesia. Thus, as wildfire and coal burning increase emissions, Indonesia will become more susceptible to wildfires and will therefore release more emissions. Further, increases in extreme heat and drought force the reliance on automobiles and air conditioning, which will also spike global emissions.
In researching the history of pollution in Indonesia, I reflect on my limited experience in America with poor air quality. New York City, which neighbors my home state of Connecticut, USA, faced a sudden plummet in air quality in early June 2023 as forest fires burned in Quebec, Canada. Images of NYC’s famous skyline barely visible through the orange smoke shook the United States, as many people took to social media to criticize a lack of action towards fighting climate change and “big oil”. Every other post seemed to be about how “we” could no longer deny the consequences of unsustainable energy and industry, calling on Americans to take action, protest, and contact their local representatives. Yet in just a few days, the air quality index returned to “Good” and concerns seemed to fade with the haze. How Americans react to such isolated climate change events, whether they be heat waves, torrential rains, or wildfires, is indicative of our irrefutable climate privilege. While we may be occasionally uncomfortable or have to turn on the air conditioning a few more days in a year, the vast majority of us can still find consistent food, oil, water, and shelter. Without denying the existence of environmental racism and inequity structures existing within the United States and throughout the Global North, we must address that environmental disasters are still disasters even when we cannot feel their effects; when they are dismantling lives on the other side of the planet.
The debate over who is to blame for climate change is trivial; no matter the corruption and enabling of Indonesian politicians or the carelessness and exploitative nature of the Global North, the reality is that we all must address climate change as a common challenge. To only recognize the need to take action when the effects can be felt from the comfort of America is ignorant to the consequences of our domestic actions, many of which manifest abroad due to offshoring and global weather patterns. This behavior creates a sense that people around the world should be civically responsible for combating only how climate change appears in their home countries—an impossibility for many.
Since the fall of Suharto’s authoritarian regime in 1998, Indonesian democratic representation and transparency have been tainted by a lack of opposition, intimidation, and clientelism. In response to global criticism, Indonesia’s government has voiced its commitment to combatting climate change—by joining the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Kyoto Protocol, and Paris Agreement for example—while its legislative actions have stagnated. Indonesia concurrently promised to cease coal burning by 2040 while continuing to develop coal-burning plants and promised to minimize deforestation while approving the expansion of plantation industries. The Omnibus Bill on Job Creation passed in 2020 under President Joko Widodo, significantly reduced environmental regulations for businesses and eliminated the role of environmental experts in analyzing environmental impact. These changes were grouped with several legislative changes that have since enabled increased corruption and human rights violations, resulting in public protests around Indonesia and opposition from international organizations.
In a “democracy” so closed off from public opinion and lacking in opposition, climate mitigation is almost impossible on the governmental level. As long as green agendas do not align with the interests and benefits of those in charge, little should be expected to change. Comparing this political situation with that of America, similar shortcomings appear in different ways. Despite President Joe Biden’s campaigning for the fazing out of fossil fuels, he has continued to approve major drilling projects in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. In the United States federal legislative body, many representatives—among them new House speaker, Mike Johnson—remain committed to the belief that the fluctuations and events of climate change are not anthropogenic, but natural. Misinformation and inaction stemming from financial interests exist just as they do in Indonesia. Still, the difference lies in why the two governments fail to make strides toward sustainable energy and practices. While Indonesia’s government lacks much climate representation, America’s inactivity comes from excessive polarization between the two dominant parties, which often fail to reach necessary compromises. While the interests of the American people are represented, they become diluted by contrasting and often entirely incompatible stances.
As the climate crisis becomes even more evident to those with climate privilege, it will likely result in more global legislation, but far too late. For now, its status as a topic that politicians feel obligated to talk about but not to act on is failing to address how human rights to clean air, water, and the environment are already being violated. Global action must be taken, not only to condemn inaction from leadership in Indonesia but also to call on leaders in the Global North to address that they have played a central role in the creation of these climate catastrophes. No specific group may be to blame, but those who continue to fall back on privilege and turn a blind eye are surely not on the right side of what is potentially the greatest challenge ever faced by mankind.