Micah Fisher on Indonesia and Its Global Role in the Climate Crisis

Micah R. Fisher is a Fellow in the Research Program at the East-West Center. He is an environmental social scientist and conducts research on the human-dimensions of environmental change on topics such as deforestation, water resources, and urbanization in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. He has previously worked with the World Bank, Mercy Corps, Asia Foundation, and other international development organizations. He also holds affiliate graduate faculty and teaching positions at the Department of Geography and the Environment and Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and lectures in the Department of Forestry at Hasanuddin University in Indonesia. He currently serves as co-Editor in Chief for the academic peer reviewed journal Forest and Society.
Nadine Zahiruddin '24 interviewed Dr. Micah R. Fisher on on October 18, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Micah R. Fisher.

How vulnerable is Indonesia to climate change? Do you believe that Indonesia has the robust infrastructure and capacity to handle climate change issues?

Depending on whom you ask and depending on the metrics, many would say that Indonesia is probably one of the most vulnerable places in the world to climate change. Studies a decade ago explored a concept called Climate Departure indicating Indonesian cities would be among the first ones to go beyond historical climate thresholds. Indeed today, across Indonesia, communities are facing more hydrometeorological stressors in the form of droughts and flooding, and of course sea level rise has profound concerns for a nation of islands. 

We know who are most vulnerable to climate change across urban and rural settings. People living in informal urban areas who lack access to government services. Lowland coastal cities are already experiencing much more flooding. By contrast, rural communities dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods – such as weather patterns for their crop cycles – are facing increasingly precarious conditions. Let’s look at a couple case studies. Many have reported on the compounding challenges of a city like Jakarta: the whole northern coast is home to about 5 million people, much of which has experienced regular inundation from tidal fluctuations. If there aren’t serious efforts to relocate or introduce infrastructural solutions, much of this region will become unlivable. However, although climate is an important aspect of this vulnerability, the risk profile of Jakarta is linked to existing vulnerabilities. For example, land subsidence from deep groundwater pumping has accelerated due to a lack of access to clean water services. We therefore must understand underlying vulnerabilities to have a fuller picture of climate change impacts. That’s the first point I really want to make. Vulnerability is situated and context-specific. Climate change makes most of us more vulnerable by intensifying existing vulnerabilities.

More broadly, when you think of a vast archipelago like Indonesia, there's a really important change happening. Development policies and demographic shifts in Indonesia has meant that a lot more people are moving to, and living in cities. Today, more than half of Indonesia’s population lives in an urban setting, compared to 17% in 1971. While places like Jakarta have more resources to adapt, smaller urban areas like secondary and tertiary cities, are much more vulnerable to climate change. They don't have the resources or the systems in place to provide services to rapidly growing populations. This includes the basics like zoning and building codes, getting people clean water, dealing with sanitation, and others. When cities grow so fast, meeting development targets become challenging, much less prepare for the additional vulnerabilities from climate change. This is what is called the adaptation gap, and across the region this gap is widening. Indonesia has ambitious targets to be a global leader. For 2045, their centennial, they want to be one of the top economies in the world. The climate adaptation gap is going to push those targets further out of reach, which means more and more people aren't going to be able to achieve the kinds of lives and livelihoods they imagine for their futures.

Given its vulnerable position, what do you think Indonesia’s global role in climate change should be?

Indonesia in the last 15-20 years, has been responsible for about half of the world's global land use emissions. There are global organizations that track emissions and Indonesia continues to be responsible for so many more emissions than anywhere else in this sector. If we take it back even further, Indonesia’s deforestation in the past fifty years has been profound. This is why Indonesia gets so much global attention about deforestation and land degradation, not just the loss of biodiversity and habitat, but also significant levels of greenhouse gases emitted from these biophysical processes. 

Natural resources have always been the backbone of the Indonesian economy. It’s unsurprising that the Indonesian state and international companies are so eager to expand plantation areas. Jokowi just went to Beijing to talk to President Xi Jinping, and the number one headline listed was a food security commitment to increase annual exports of palm oil by one million tons. The question then becomes, where is that going to come from? A lot of the concern is that it will happen by expanding into forest areas. Yet Indonesia has outwardly promised to play a big role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Indonesia has committed to ecosystem restoration that will transition key regions into carbon sinks under an umbrella of programs for conservation and reforestation. So the tension becomes: how can Indonesia go about continuing to expand plantations as the backbone of its economy while protecting, restoring, and expanding forests?

The palm oil industry has important implications for both economic growth and climate change in the global south. For example, palm oil is extremely important for the Indonesian economy and for poverty reduction, representing almost 5% of its GDP. Can palm oil be produced sustainably in Indonesia? How should Indonesia reconcile the importance of this product for its economy and the need to fight climate change given its precarious position?

Indonesia knows that palm oil is not being produced in the most efficient ways possible. But scaling up gets really tricky given the tensions between industrial and smallholder agriculture. The question of sustainability here then translates to sustainability for whom? First, it's not exactly clear that large scale initiatives can produce more palm oil than smallholders. This is a debate in the agricultural literature and there are a lot of scholars that say large scale plantation agriculture is less efficient than conscientious smallholders. There is strong logic to this given productivity incentives for smaller farms. I think the key discussion taking place right now is how to make palm oil production more efficient without encroaching on forests, as well as how do you ensure that economic development benefits are more equitably distributed. 

A lot of economists point to palm oil as doing all of these great things, especially its role in bringing millions of people out of poverty. Smallholders I’ve met across Indonesia corroborate this, sharing with me they were able to send their children off to college because of their oil palm harvests. But for me, the type of research I do always seeks to understand who gets left out of in policies and practices related to environment and development. Who continues to have opportunities across rural Indonesia, and who are compelled to migrate across urbanizing Indonesia? If a couple of families consolidate land and do really well from oil palm, at whose expense does this take place? I’ve been entire villages rushing to convert their lands to palm oil, yet the benefits accrue to a handful of local elites, at times at the land dispossession of others. More and more, those without access move to cities, creating new development challenges elsewhere. 

The bigger question then becomes: what is palm oil’s role in the broader context of how Indonesia’s future will support its population and interests, while also fulfilling its global commitments to climate mitigation? My studies show that there’s going to be a lot of difficult choices to be made in answering that question. 

Reforming the use of energy poses major challenges, given Indonesia’s high dependence on fossil fuels. What can and should the Indonesian government do to encourage a shift from non-renewables to renewable energy sources?

Indonesia is a major coal producer for export but also dependent on cheap coal for it’s energy needs. East Kalimantan, the province where the new capital city Nusantara will be built, is home to half of Indonesia’s coal production. Just recently, President Joko Widodo went to Ukraine, making additional commitments to export coal . Extracting from coal dependency will be a painful process. Political leadership is increasingly dealing with the tension of doing what's right for the planet versus addressing the day-to-day election commitments of ensuring cheap energy. Unpopular positions on these matters determine how leaders secure and maintain positions in power over the long term. 

There are a lot of voices coming out with critical analysis about the development of the new capital. President Jokowi said it's going to be a model city of the future characterized by renewable energy. Many say that’s greenwashing, but I believe that visions also suggest a power of possibility. In articulating this vision, Indonesia is charting the potential for innovations, because all of a sudden people are responding to new ideas and commitments. In the past, migrants looked to Jakarta because that's where the opportunities were located. A new capital is being framed as a promise to seek out new opportunities elsewhere, redirecting resources and producing opportunities for other regions. Several observes have questioned the wisdom of this, however. Moving some administrative offices doesn't reposition the entire economic engine of Indonesia. I think a lot of families of public officials are concerned about moving away from the networks of power beyond government that will remain in Jakarta. In addition, calling Nusantara a renewable energy city built with green values doesn’t address the underlying resource extraction economies of Indonesia’s economic base, which will remain mining and plantations for the foreseeable future. 

These are fascinating tensions and I believe it’s important to not reduce the issues into its simplistic elements, but rather to engage the social and environmental complexities wrapped up within the political economy of the region. My concern is that all the attention to building a capital city diverts away from the bigger problems unfolding across the region.

Various US companies still have a large stake in many of the metal’s mines in Indonesia, especially with the rise in the demand for nickel. How can the Indonesian government work with US companies to shift to a greener economy, given their stake in Indonesia’s natural resource industry?

I’ve already mentioned the geopolitical dimensions of President Jokowi’s trips to China and Ukraine but before that, he was in the US spending time with Elon Musk. A recent Financial Times article talked a lot about the emerging role of nickel in Indonesia, recently becoming the country with the top nickel reserves of anywhere in the world. This repositioning is in anticipation of the growing demand for electrical vehicles. President Jokowi is really betting big on nickel. 

That could be a problem for various reasons. If you fly over the middle of the island of Belitung, for example, it's completely destroyed. There was a huge nickel mine there that was the backbone of the economy, but during the financial crisis of the late 1990s, the mine closed. People still needed to make money for their families, however. So they went and did the only thing they knew how to do. They started mining in their backyards and destroyed much of the inland areas of the island, severely damaging water systems. Price fluctuations totally transformed those ecological systems and landscapes. I’m not saying that will happen with the rush to mine nickel today but these are again big choices about environment and development for the region’s future. 

Why is this happening? The shift to electric vehicle demand has created a huge boom in rare earth minerals that states and corporations are eager to control. It comes back to issues related to climate change. People are now driving EVs and thinking they are saving the planet. But it is also having some negative externalities on people and environments around the world. There are different ways you can manage the waste. You can layer them up and dry them, but this is difficult it wet, tropical claims. Without the kind of regulatory systems in place, they’re going to flush into oceans. The rush to extract must also proceed with the right regulations and safeguards that don’t produce environmental disasters down the road. 

What can we do as citizens to help the government or mitigate the effects of climate change? 

Much of what I’ve said is rooted in common critiques of global political economic systems and practices, build on development dilemmas shaped by the legacies of colonialism. Solutions should always be approached with that context in mind. What should citizens be doing? My answer is everything. That’s the only option: understand the issues, innovate at small and large scales, but always be aware of potential unintended consequences and how things play out. This is an important point because with climate change, there is a rush to fix the planet, and in a rush to make some things right, it can happen at the expense of others. Often, initiatives to do good drown out the voices of the marginalized. The resource footprint of a small few impact climate change far beyond millions of poor, but often solutions are skewed at further burdening the less fortunate. 

I hope these stories don’t come across as depressing. I think it’s important to be a critical optimist in these times. We need to be sharp in our analysis but hopeful in our approach. Looking at young people now, we need more innovations and possibilities for ways to do things better and fairer. Innovate to undermine the inequalities in capitalism, seek out solutions for renewable energy, establish new networks, listen better, protect the vulnerable. 

Nadine Zahiruddin CMC '24Student Journalist

Agência Brasil, CC BY 3.0 BR <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

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