Thomas Pepinsky on Indonesia’s Climate Change Crisis

Thomas Pepinsky is Professor of Government at Cornell University and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He specializes in comparative politics and international political economy, with a focus on emerging markets and a special interest in Southeast Asia. He is the author, most recently, of Piety and Public Opinion: Understanding Indonesian Islam (Oxford University Press, 2018, with R. William Liddle and Saiful Mujani), and his work also appears in the American Journal of Political Science, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Democracy, Perspectives on Politics, Political Analysis, World Development, World Politics, and other venues. Currently, he is working on issues relating to identity, politics, and political economy in comparative and international politics. He is a member of the steering committee of the Association for Analytical Learning on Islam and Muslim Societies (, and recently helped to found the Southeast Asian Research Group ( in order to highlight the best new contemporary research on Southeast Asian politics in North America.

Indonesia contributes to climate change as the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. At the same time, Indonesia is especially vulnerable to climate change, and rising sea levels in particular. Does the current government sufficiently acknowledge this pressing problem? 

The current government is aware of climate change as a threat and it makes rhetorical allusions to climate change as the type of problem that is going to be addressed going forward. Every government is equally cognizant of how serious and immediate the problem is and Indonesia is doing fairly well considering its economic size and so forth in terms of acknowledging and responding to climate change, but it is not doing a ton to address some of the root causes such as deforestation, conversion of land to palm oil, logging, illegal and legal and the release of pollutants in the atmosphere due to burning, which all have really bad repercussions through much of Indonesia. So, it’s true that they acknowledge it but I don’t think they are taking sufficient steps to slow climate change on its own.

How is the issue of rising sea levels being addressed from an infrastructural perspective?

This issue is not being significantly addressed from an infrastructural perspective. Indonesia faces the problem of a large population urbanizing and the infrastructure challenges for an archipelagic nation are particularly serious. You can do some things like reducing the number of cars on the streets or trying to convert to alternative methods of power but this is only a drop in the bucket given the scale of the problem. These examples are of things that would address pollution, but not sea-level rise. In terms of rising sea levels, it is not clear that Indonesia can do much. It’s a polluter, but it’s not the worst and not the largest, so the work that needs to be done is multilateral and international rather than just Indonesia itself. You could move low-lying settlements to higher ground but I’m not aware of any systematic efforts to do that. Some things are being done on the city level, so particular city governments may be taking steps to shore up dykes and dams to ensure that water run-off doesn’t lead to more floods but this is a tough thing to do.

In August, President Joko Widodo announced that Kalimantan would become Indonesia’s  new capital. Would relocating the capital sufficiently address this problem, given Kalimantan’s own ecological challenges?

It acknowledges the problem but doesn’t fundamentally solve it. The part of Kalimantan that he’s planning to move Indonesia’s capital to is itself vulnerable to flooding. It’s also vulnerable to smog and haze from forest fires. So, you can move the capital and avoid some of the vulnerabilities that Jakarta has of literally sinking into the Java sea and flooding but it creates vulnerabilities for a number of other things. The other thing to say is that this doesn’t really solve the problem that Jakarta will still face. Jakarta will remain a city of 30 million people in the metropolitan area that’s sinking, which is incredibly tough to manage in terms of infrastructure. Addressing sea-level rise and the sinking of Jakarta is going to remain a problem.

Climate change is detrimental to Indonesia’s economy, especially the agricultural sector. What are the expected long-term effects of climate change on Indonesia’s economy?

This is something that is out of my area of expertise, but in the sense that the agricultural sector is directly contributing to climate change, it is cutting down forests to plant oil palm, which is bad for the global environment and bad for Indonesia’s environment. What we don’t know is how climate change and sea-level rise impact agricultural production, or other types of crops like coffee and sugar which are big exports for Indonesia and I just don’t know how climate change will affect them. I suspect that it could have an effect on the quality of the soil but it’s always going to have volcanic soil and it’s always going to have, especially in the parts around Java and Bali, a very humid and productive climate. So, I don’t know the extent to which a couple extra degrees Celsius will affect things like that. I’ve heard stories of Vietnam that as sea level rises, fresh-water river deltas where you can grow rice become inundated by saltwater and you can’t grow rice there anymore. I suspect that in some areas of Java that could also happen.

Are poorer populations disproportionately affected? How does the population density of Indonesia play a role?

In some sense, it affects the poorer populations, namely the farmers, that the land becomes unsustainable. Some of the areas in Jakarta, for example, that are very vulnerable to flooding are the very areas that are inhabited by the poorest people in Jakarta. They are sort of the first order victims. In terms of how this affects the most densely populated parts of Java, this again depends on what the long-term effects of climate change would be on agricultural productivity. If you particularly think about Central and East Java and Bali that are very densely settled, most of those folks aren’t living on the coast; many live inland and it is unclear how climate change would affect them. It’s the poorest and those least tied to the land who stand to suffer the most from climate change.

What does Indonesia’s crisis tell us about the global threat of climate change? Will other countries, especially in Asia, soon be dealing with similar challenges as Indonesia?

One important thing to note is that Indonesia has one of the world’s largest tropical forests, so a large portion of the world’s humid forest cover is in Indonesia. As Indonesia goes, so goes the rest of the world. I don’t think Indonesia should be a model for other countries, but we should look to Indonesia as an example of the kind of problems that can emerge from climate change. Indonesia is incredible in the fact that it’s so big and so densely populated. The difference with Indonesia is its scale; it’s so big and its so important in that way, and it does suggest that domestic driven solutions on their own are unlikely to be affective. It’s going to require multilateral actions, and Indonesia is going to need partners around the world that can help it manage climate change. It is also important to acknowledge Indonesia's decentralized and democratized political structure. In a decentralized country like Indonesia, the problems are not just corrupt governments, greedy politicians or firms that don’t care about the environment. It’s just difficult to implement a comprehensive policy across the country that’s so big and diverse. This is why local governments play an important role.

Do you have any suggestions for Indonesia’s government regarding the first steps they should be taking in combatting this issue?

The amount of pollutants that go into the air through forest clearing is just immense, and Indonesia needs to figure out a way to manage this and does not leave the country vulnerable to the type of damage that we are seeing right now. After that, if they want to be serious about the population on the coast, they need to start thinking about where to move Jakartans, not move the capital city but find out where people who live by the coast can go.

Salonee Goel CMC '20Student Journalist

Featured Image by VOA Indonesian Service courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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