Over the past few weeks, Planet Earth has experienced a severe climate crisis, and it hasn’t made the front page, or the top story on TV news. This catastrophe will hasten warming of oceans and land, add to rising seas, threaten more species with extinction – and change our whole view of environmental action, and what we need to do to save the climate.
Massive fires have been burning in Indonesia. In satellite images, large parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore were buried under smoke. Red dots of fires and hot spots want to cover the whole map of the islands.
In a few minutes, I’m going to bring you interviews from two very informed people. We get a report directly from the scene, with Dr. Daniel Murdiyarso, at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor Indonesia. Then I’ll thrash this crisis through with one of the long-standing reporters on tropical forests, Mongabay founder Rhett Butler.
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INDONESIA FIRES LINK-FEST AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS BLOG
Scroll down to the end of this blog for a selection of links to satellite images, news coverage and must-read reports on the Indonesian fire catastrophe of 2015.
PEAT FIRES ARE NOT ORDINARY FOREST FIRES
These are not common forest fires as experienced in Western North America, as bad as those were. For one thing, unless climate change prevents it, Western forests are expected to grow back, recapturing some of the carbon. Indonesia tropical forests are not expected to return. They are being replaced with either palm oil plantations or just waste land.
At least half of the hundreds of major fires in Indonesia are burning peat. You know, like the peat bales purchased by gardeners. Or the peat formerly used as fuel in the Middle Ages. It’s a thick layer of very compressed vegetation, built up over the ages.
About 12% of the land in Southeast Asia is peat swamp forest. Eighty three percent of that is in Indonesia. Peat there can be one meter, or 3 feet deep, or up to 12 meters, or 40 feet deep. When peat dries out, it begins to emit both carbon dioxide and the more powerful greenhouse gas methane. When peat burns, it releases a mix of toxic dust and gases with grave effects on human health, and animal health, and the climate of the world.
You can’t put out a peat fire with a water-bomber or ground crews. The fire goes underground. It smolders and smokes until seasonal rains or snow comes. Some peat fires last for years, resurfacing every year.
INDONESIA CATAPULTS PAST U.S. GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS
Tropical peat fires release phenomenal amounts of greenhouse gases. Calculations by the World Resources Institute find that Indonesian fires over the past three months have released more greenhouse gases than the entire annual emissions of highly-industrialized Germany. For the past month or so, Indonesia has been emitting more greenhouse gases daily than the entire United States economy.
This is a burst of carbon not seen since the last great Indonesian fires in 1997. The Indonesian greenhouse burst throws off all previous calculations of how much carbon we could still burn before crossing the 2 degree C unsafe level. It will force a re-draw of our models, and will create, sooner or later, more swift and unpleasant surprises in our climate system. The unknowns loom larger.
You would think that a sudden jump in emissions would be raised at the Paris climate talks coming up in December. But Indonesia didn’t mention control of tropical fires in their emissions reduction plan.
Oh, and by the way, there are massive forest fires in the Amazon of Brazil at this same time!
Some of us know that our actions now are determining the fate of the planet for the next few thousand years at least. But now our plans, actions, and environmentalism have to change.
A THIRD STAGE OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Previously, in my own ignorance, I suggested there are two major stages of climate change. In the first, human greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels, create climate disruption, and then a hotter world. This is a process we hope can be changed, as coal goes bankrupt, and renewable energy becomes the main source of power. Or it might change because economically recoverable oil runs out. We are talking about the scale of human agency.
After that, very large natural systems, operating as positive feed-backs, kick in. For example, scientists know that once giant glaciers begin to retreat, in some parts of the world simple geography dictates nothing can stop them from melting into the sea. NASA says we are already at that point with the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica. Another example would be melting frozen methane from the sea bed, known as clathrates. When these big “natural” system kick-in, there may be little humans can do but run toward the mountains and the poles, trying to adapt, while killing off the fossil civilization that makes it worse and worse.
But now we see there is a third force. The small number of campaigners who work trying to save tropical forests have been trying to tell us for years. But they’ve always been a smaller party among the environmentalists and scientists who struggle to stop orgy of fossil fuel burning.
Now we have to open our minds to a horrible new truth. If humans continue to convert the gigantic biomass of tropical forests and peat bogs into carbon in the sky, it may not matter if you install solar panels on your home, or stop flying. The current crisis in Indonesia shows us that a less-developed country can create more greenhouse gases than the largest industrialized countries. Think about what that means.
One result is that environmental campaigners, and the public, have to quickly become global citizens, rather than nationalists. Let’s admit it. Hardly anyone in the America’s, and few in Europe, know anything about Indonesia. We don’t need to know. Our societies are self-contained. We go to work, we hope to buy things, we have our family. Who cares?
HALF A MILLION HOSPITALIZED DUE TO SMOKE
I know some of you will be surprised to learn Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. There are at least 250 million people spread out over thousands of volcanic islands, north of Australia, and south of the Philippines. Actually, the population is not spread out very much. In 2012, 141 million Indonesians lived on the single island of Java. That’s the real center of the country, and of the culture.
Periodically, the central government in Jakarta, on the island of Java, tries to pursuade more people to move out to the less populated islands, like Sumatra, or their part of Borneo, known as Kalimantan.
We’ll hear about Kalimantan in our guest interviews. That’s where dense and toxic smoke has covered everything for over 100 days. The Indonesian government considered an evacuation, but hasn’t been able to mount it. Kids play in the smoke, while hospitals fill up with babies and the elderly.
That’s another side of this disaster. At least a half million Indonesians have been hospitalized due to breathing difficulties and other health problems caused by the smoke. If the Indonesian economy managed to grow at all this year, all was lost due to the damages from these fires. Indonesians pay now and directly for this crisis. We will all pay, possibly for centuries, for the greenhouse gases released.
This isn’t the only terrible climate news recently. Perhaps we’ll have time to summarize more of it toward the end of the show. But as UK Guardian newspaper columnist George Monbiot wrote this week: the fires in Indonesia are “the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st Century (so far)“.
Let’s go to our guests. We’ll start with the view from inside Indonesia, and then get an activist perspective.
FROM INDONESIA: TOP FORESTRY EXPERT DR. DANIEL MURDIYARSO
In Bogor Indonesia, I reached one of the top forestry scientists in the country. Dr. Daniel Murdiyarso is senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, or CIFOR. He’s led Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. He has served as Deputy Minister of the Environment for the government of Indonesia.
Dr. Daniel Murdiyarso
THE FOUNDER OF MONGABAY: RHETT BULTER
When you want to know what’s happening in the wild places of the tropics, you need to go to mongabay.com. Rhett Butler founded and ran that web site and news service starting in 1999. It’s expanded a lot of places since then. That includes a mongabay project in the main Indonesian language – which may explain why Rhett gets those hard-to-find photos like illegal fires burning in an Indonesian National Park.
Western environmentalists focus on cutting tail pipe emissions and closing old coal plants. That’s important, but we’ve just seen Indonesia skyrocket to almost the number one global source of greenhouse gases, surpassing the USA. The cause is not fossil fuels or industry. What does this tell us about the NEW need to protect tropical forests, not just to save exotic animals, but to save
NEXT UP: THE ARCTIC PEAT
Here is yet another aspect of the Indonesian peat fire crisis. Despite the sky-high emissions coming out of the tropics right now, that could be just a preview for an ever bigger show. I’m talking about peat in the Arctic and sub-arctic.
The peat areas in the far north are even more vast than in Indonesia. Currently a huge portion of that is frozen all year round, in the permafrost. Just a few years ago, I listened to expert permafrost scientists at the convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver. They were a fringe study slowly being recognized as key to our future. You can listen to that whole Radio Ecoshock program, with talks by 3 prominent permafrost scientists, here. Or read my blog about it here.
Those scientists were not overly worried, thinking melting of the permafrost would take centuries, if not thousands of years. Now, we’re not so sure about that. For example, scientists working in a tunnel in Alaska found that melting Arctic soil can lose half it’s organic carbon in only seven days. About half of that carbon was grabbed by micro-organisms. The other half went into the atmosphere. In just one week upon thawing.
The study is titled “Ancient low–molecular-weight organic acids in permafrost fuel rapid carbon dioxide production upon thaw” with lead author Travis W. Drake, and published in September 2015 by PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Here is an easier to read summary of that science on Phys.org blog.
We know permafrost is melting all across Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. The study looked at a type of Arctic soil called ““yedoma” – formed about 35,000 years ago and kept in the deep freeze ever since. Scientists assumed yedoma was already degraded, but instead found it contains a lot of carbon. In fact, as Robert Scribbler reports, a significant methane pulse has already been detected from yedoma soils in Siberia.
Arctic peat bogs contain even more carbon. They are loaded with it. The largest permafrost peat bog is in Western Siberia. It’s bigger than France and Germany combined, and it’s been thawing for well over a decade. If these bogs stay wet, most of the emissions will be in the form of methane, the greenhouse gas at least 70 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
If a climatic drought dries the Arctic peat, it will release carbon dioxide, pretty quickly, even without catching fire. The ancient plant material, frozen for over 10,000 years, will finally decompose into the atmosphere. Of course dryer peat is likely to catch fire, as fires in the rapidly warming Arctic have been rampant so far this century. When peat bogs bigger than most countries catch fire, thee is no one there to put them out, and now way to extinguish them if we tried. If and when this happens, it will be
Indonesia on steroids.
HOW LONG BEFORE THIS NEW BURST OF CARBON HITS US?
Scientists have generally said there is about a 40 year time lag between a large injection of greenhouse gases and the start of real climate impacts. Dr. James Hansen and others published a paper which estimated about 60% of the effects of added greenhouse gases would kick in between 25 and 50 years. That is mainly because the ocean absorbed so much carbon, and then mixed it down to deeper levels.
Theoretically, about half the impacts of the Indonesian carbon burst of 2015 would appear around the year 2055. Thawing of Arctic peat would change the climate toward the end of this century. I have serious reservations about this estimate, and I think it’s likely the timetables will have to be revisited.
First of all, there have been a series of papers in the past two years showing the climate is far more sensitive to even small temperature changes than previously thought. See here, here, here and a million other places.
Secondly, the oceans are already hotter than before. Some scientists wonder how much more carbon and heat they can absorb. The ocean sink may be ramping down, meaning climate impacts would come sooner. Everything is coming sooner.
I’m not a scientist, but my guess is we’ll see the impacts from 2015 emissions as early as 2030. Even if I’m wrong, global emissions started to skyrocket around 1990. That means we’ll find out what we’ve done around 2030. Right now, according to Hansen’s estimates, were only feeling the impacts of oil, gas, and coal burning from the 1970’s.
Just so you know, greenhouse gas emissions were 75% lower in the 1970’s, compared to 2004. And look at the record storms, rainfall, droughts, and fires we’ve already got. When it comes to climate disruption, the worst is yet to come.
DISAPPEARING POLAR ICE: IF WE BURN IT ALL, WE LOSE IT ALL
Add into the lose/lose column: a scientist from the Potsdam Institute in Germany has calculated that if we burn all the fossil fuels, all the ice on Earth will disappear. An article in the New York Times September 11th 2015 quotes Ricarda Winkelmann saying “If we burn it all, we melt it all”.
This piece in the ClimateCrocks blog has a whole bunch of videos with scientists on this question of how much it would take to melt all of Greenland and Antarctica.
There is an excellent radio special with short recent talks by Ricarda Winkelmann, produced by Maria Gilardin of TUC Radio in San Francisco. TUC stands for “Time of Useful Consciousness” and this program certainly is.
As an example, I play a clip explanation from Winkelmann on why the melting of Greenland is self-sustaining and unstoppable. In the end, she says on our current course, we are headed toward a world 5.8 degrees C hotter by the year 2100. That would threaten our survival on this planet, and certainly doom many ecosystems and species to extinction.
Ricarda also says the giant West Antarctic ice sheet is committed to melting, and the sub-sea based glaciers of East Antarctica are also going to go. We already know that Miami will go underwater, along with many other port cities around the world. Hear selections from Ricarda Winklemann at the conference “Our Common Future” on TUC Radio at tucradio.org.
I found this TUC program here at radio4all.net
Great work Maria.
MIDDLE EAST TO BECOME TOO HOT TO SURVIVE OUTSIDE
In fact, we learned last week that scientists predict by the end of this century parts of the Middle East will be too hot and humid for humans to be outside. Six hours outside, without air-conditioning, and you die. That’s in a paper from Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Elfatih Eltahir and environmental scientist Jeremy Pal from Loyola Marymount University. The title is “Future temperature in southwest Asia projected to exceed a threshold for human adaptability“, as published October 26, 2015 in the journal Nature Climate Change. Or read this story in Science Daily.
Other scientists on Radio Ecoshock told us a whole belt around the tropics, even into parts of the subtropics, will be too hot for humans to work outside. Whether it’s fatal to simply be outside depends on a high humidity – because humans can only keep their organs cool enough when sweat can evaporate. Once the wet-bulb temperature, that combined measurement of heat and humidity reaches
35 degrees C, we humans, and most mammals, cannot live there.
Add in the known historical trend of bands of deserts circling the Earth during hothouse ages, and we know that humans will have to leave large parts of the Earth as uninhabitable. That’s the game we’re playing now, as we change the atmosphere.
WHEN INDONESIA BURNS, OUR FUTURE CATCHES FIRE
So when Indonesia catches fire, we all catch fire in the long run. The world is not an island of isolated events. When the big alarm clock goes off, anywhere in the world, we need to wake up, get up, and get to work making a future worth living in.
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I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening, and caring about our world.
A SELECTION OF LINKS TO THIS KEY STORY OF 2015
Washington Post on links between El Nino and Indonesia peat fires.
World Resources calculations of Indonesian carbon surpassing U.S. emissions.
Greenpeace calls on Indonesia to adopt a fire action plan.
The connections between palm oil and these deadly fires.
INDONESIA FIRE RESOURCES FROM CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)
What is in the smoke? Science looks at the toxic contents.
Fact file from CIFOR: ‘Clearing the Smoke: The Causes and Consequences of Indonesia’s Fires’
B-roll footage of fires and haze in and around Palangka Raya.
Photo story: ‘Life amid the fires and haze of Central Kalimantan’