Ring the Alarm

On our jaunt home from Bali early last month, Oliver and I remarked on the unusually smoggy weather on display during a layover in Kuala Lumpur; from the terminal shuttle window, a thick fog muddled the view of everything in sight—palm trees blurry and whatever was in the distance was left to our imaginations. Only later did we realize that the pervasive haze was actually the result of forests and peatlands being torched in neighboring Indonesia.

Freshly planted palm oil seedlings on recently burned land.
Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

These annual fires occur in part for the purpose of clearing land for agriculture use and palm oil plantations. Some experts have also cited the routine of setting fires simply out of habit (for the purpose of burning household garbage, food waste, etc.) or “just for fun” as additional contributors to the flames. Many of these fires are burning peatlands, which is especially concerning due to the immense stores of carbon and methane that peat accumulates over time, and the higher CO2 emission intensity of peat (106 g CO2/MJ) compared to other sources, such as coal (94.6 g CO2/MJ).

Adding to the complexity of this calamity is the confusion over land and resource ownership, which is spurring conflict between individuals and farms, and continuing to make enforcement and accountability of proper land management difficult. With ineffective national government regulation, these fires—already causing more than “500,000 cases of haze-related respiratory illness in Southeast Asia and the deaths of at least 19 Indonesians”—continue to have direct consequences not only for the Indonesian people and their neighbors, but also for our planet.

Writing for The Guardian, journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot details the magnitude of damages from these man-made fires still raging in Indonesia today:

“It is hard to convey the scale of this inferno, but here’s a comparison that might help: it is currently producing more carbon dioxide than the US economy. And in three weeks the fires have released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany….Orangutans, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, the Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger, these are among the threatened species being driven from much of their range by the flames. But there are thousands, perhaps millions, more.”

Daily Emissions from Indonesian Fires

Without action on the part of the Indonesian national government, this problem is likely to re-emerge as a destructive force on a yearly basis. Business as Usual isn’t going to cut it if we’re to truly make an impact on reducing CO2 emissions in order to curb the rate of climate change and its ever-reaching effects.

Here’s what you can do:

1. Consume responsibly

Our consumer choices have consequences. Support companies that value sustainable business practices in the communities they influence. Palm oil is present in an array of everyday products ranging from shampoo and detergent to chocolate and bread, and can be found in “about half of all packaged products sold in the supermarket.” Inform yourself about which companies are reforming their supply chains (you can feel less guilty about indulging in Krispy Kreme) and refrain from buying products made by those that aren’t–PepsiCo, Kraft, and Unilever are among the laggards.

2. Bring attention to the issue

The World Climate Summit will bring government and multinational corporate leaders across the globe to Paris this December and the more attention we bring to these forest fires, the more likely it is that this issue will be on the table of discussion. Share this post (shameless self-promotion) or any of the other informative sources found here on social media. Research the issue on your own and write about it yourself. Read The Snack Food 20 Report Card and write to the companies that aren’t taking sufficient action. Collectively, we can put pressure on the Indonesian government to restrict deforestation—spread the word.

Or, spread the photos.

Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

3. Financial support

Donate to organizations that are devoted to conservation efforts and advocate for smarter policies related to climate change. Remember, your donation to many organizations, including the two below, is tax-deductible.

Rainforest Action Network – They are committed to protecting the world’s rain forests and its incredible species. Join as a member with a one-time donation or dedicate yourself to contributing monthly.

World Wildlife Fund The WWF has a new project partnering with the Frankfurt Zoological Society and The Orangutan Project focusing on protecting Sumatra’s rain forest and its wildlife.

Recommended further reading:

Global Forest Watch Profile on Indonesia – A collection of data on the economic value of, employment reliance on, and changes overtime (depletion and gain) to the forests of Indonesia.

Project Potico – The WRI’s fact sheet on the palm oil industry in Indonesia and its push towards sustainable planting practices for companies by using already degraded land rather than clearing forests.

Project Potico Info.Click for full view.

3 Ways Obama Could Help – Different organizations and governments are working to put pressure on Indonesian President Joko Widodo to push for forestry reforms (and stick to enforcing them even after the fires burn out). Scientists from the World Resources Institute, alongside the WRI-Indonesia director, offer possibilities for the U.S. to support improved land management practices in Indonesia.

A Few Recommended Readings:

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1. The Global Goals for Sustainable Development – This weekend world leaders from across the globe will convene in NYC to commit to 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development aiming to end extreme poverty, fight inequality, and tackle climate change. A variety of organizations, nonprofits and NGOs are working alongside the UN to inform the world population of these targets. As stated by Project Everyone: “The more famous these global goals are, and the more widely they are understood by everyone, the more politicians will take them seriously, finance them properly, refer to them frequently and make them work.” Educate yourself on what the global goals are and what you can do personally to assist in accomplishing these necessary and ambitious goals by 2030.

2. The Rise of the Nudge – Governments are investing in research teams that use behavioral economics and psychology to create ‘nudges’ to meet certain policy goals. As highlighted in this WSJ article, this science based approach can be used to fight poverty and test ways to help the poor find economic security. Unfortunately, this isn’t always how these data-driven teams are being utilized. A recent article from Aid Thoughts found that a Behavioral Insights Team has been tasked in the UK to figure out how to get illegal migrants to return to their native land voluntarily. Perhaps the team can test the effectiveness of Hungary’s wall?

3. This Cartoon Succinctly Explains the Background to the Syrian Conflict – Some background to help people understand how and why the situation in Syria developed as it has. Heed the warning and be prepared: Syria won’t be (and isn’t) the only country to suffer under the stresses wrought by climate change and political instability. Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 9.10.50 PM

The Great Wall of China Isn’t Visible From Space, Pollution Is

Credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

To witness first-hand the ever-evolving results of China’s massive economic growth over the last 30+ years is an impressive and simultaneously nerve-wrecking sight. They build buildings at an unfathomable rate, bestowing cities with a super-ability of transformation, constantly condensed into shorter and shorter periods of time. They are among nations investing aggressively in infrastructure, including clean energy, and are producing the greatest farm output of any country in the world. They are also bearing the consequences of their rapid development, particularly and most noticeably in the form of hazardous air quality. Coupled with and compounded by the challenges of climate change, China’s mitigation actions to limit or decrease CO2 emissions thus far have proved insufficient.

The graph below offers a stark contrast between the top two producers of CO2 emissions in the world–China and the U.S..

Though the current situation is grim and hard to swallow, China can and has taken action to cut back on CO2 emissions, including increasing investment in renewable energy from wind turbines and setting a target to generate “15% of energy needs through renewable energy by 2020.” China is also home to the city of Rizhao, a city of roughly three million in Shandong Province, which has been recognized by the United Nations for its habitable environs and, more notably, for its dedication to clean energy generation through large scale solar panel adoption “Rizhao has effectively reduced its energy consumption by 30 percent and achieved annual CO2 savings of 52,860 tonnes from solar water heaters.” (-WFC) 

By providing incentives to residents and educating the public of the benefits of solar power generation, plus the favorable market conditions for consumers seeing a decrease in solar panel prices, the people of Rizhao embraced renewable energy. This success story doesn’t have to remain an isolated exemplar. To take greater steps towards mitigation, China should continue to invest in clean energy solutions, provide incentives for consumers themselves to invest in renewable energy at home, and provide subsidies for clean energy industries. Enforcing stricter regulations for emissions and continuing to focus on decreased coal production will not only aid in improving conditions for those residing in the middle country, it will also assist in turning down the heat worldwide.

Climate change is a battle every single living thing will be impacted by and a challenge we all must tackle through making conscientious decisions about how we consume. China’s scale never ceases to shock me; it is a place unlike any other with a significant contribution of consumers capable of making decisions with widely felt consequences, for better or worse.

A few recommended readings for your weekend

1. Majority of U.S. public school students are in poverty – “The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches.”

Last year I taught at a school in Nashville, Tennessee in which 99% of students were eligible for free and reduced lunch. Though it’s crucial to hold all students to high academic and behavioral expectations, it’s a near impossible challenge for students to learn when their concerned about their basic needs and too often experiencing great emotional trauma from the impacts of poverty on their lives. Even in developed nations such as the U.S., there’s still much to be done in regards to working towards sustainable development and equality.

2. Is a Climate Disaster Inevitable? –  An op-ed with an eye on the universe focused on the importance of studying sustainability: “Depending on initial conditions and choices made by the species (such as the mode of energy harvesting), some trajectories will lead to an unrecoverable sustainability crisis and eventual population collapse. Others, however, may lead to long-lived, sustainable civilizations.”

3. Entrepreneur Changes Life in Uganda by Turning Waste Into Fuel – Sanga Moses was tired of seeing the forests in his village disappear and children lose the opportunity of education because they needed to go farther and farther away in search of wood to burn for their family’s fuel. He developed an eco-friendly solution, recycling sugar cane and coffee waste to create charcoal briquettes.

4. The Ethics of the ‘Singularity’ – A brief piece on the possibilities in our future of super-intelligence and a need to consider the ethics of such a situation.


A few recommended readings for your weekend:

1. Control, Eliminate, Eradicate  A Disease: What’s the Difference? – An interesting look at the new exhibit opening at the Natural History Museum titled Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease.

2. Pursuing the Impossible, and Coming Out on TopThe story of the incredible feat of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, who successfully free-climbed the 3,000 ft* Dawn Wall.

*The article puts this distance into perspective–“3,000 ft is the equivalent to three Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other”!

3.  NOAA Global Analysis – Annual 2014 – Or, simply jot down in your memory this key highlight: “The year 2014 was the warmest year across global land and ocean surfaces since records began in 1880.”