Indonesia’s Fires: Is this the Biggest Climate Story of the Year?

November 2, 2015

George Monbiot in the Guardian:

I’ve often wondered how the media would respond when eco-apocalypse struck. I pictured the news programmes producing brief, sensational reports, while failing to explain why it was happening or how it might be stopped. Then they would ask their financial correspondents how the disaster affected share prices, before turning to the sport. As you can probably tell, I don’t have an ocean of faith in the industry for which I work. What I did not expect was that they would ignore it.

A great tract of Earth is on fire. It looks as you might imagine hell to be. The air has turned ochre: visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30 metres. Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships; already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate. It is almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century – so far.

What I’m discussing is a barbecue on a different scale. Fire is raging across the 5,000km length of Indonesia. It is surely, on any objective assessment, more important than anything else taking place today. And it shouldn’t require a columnist, writing in the middle of a newspaper, to say so. It should be on everyone’s front page. 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.

But that doesn’t really capture it. This catastrophe cannot be measured only in parts per million. The fires are destroying treasures as precious and irreplaceable as the archaeological remains being levelled by Isis. 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.


The fires in Indonesia that are creating hellish amounts of toxic smoke are also doing their job: clearing land. This year they’ve removed about 21,000 square kilometers (8,100 square miles) of forests and peatland, according to the country’s National Space and Aviation Agency (link in Indonesian).

For context, that’s greater than the land area of the US state of New Jersey, or of the nations of Slovenia, Kuwait, or El Salvador. And it’s about three times bigger than Indonesia’s haze-plagued neighbor Singapore.

Set to inexpensively clear land for the palm oil and pulp-and-paper industries, the fires have generated smoke causing respiratory ailments in half a million people in Indonesia. At least 19 have died (most from breathing in smoke, some from fire-fighting accidents). The fires have also cast a toxic haze over a large part of Southeast Asia, including Singapore and parts of Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. By some calculations the smoke has catapulted Indonesia to the top of the rankings of the world’s worst global warming offenders, just ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held next month in Paris.

Yahoo Australia:

Endangered orangutans are falling victim to a devastating haze crisis that has left them sick, malnourished and severely traumatised as fires rage through Indonesia’s forests, reducing their habitat to a charred wasteland.

Rescuers at a centre for the great apes on Borneo island are considering an unprecedented mass evacuation of the hundreds in their care, and have deployed teams on hazardous missions to search for stricken animals in the wild.

At the Nyaru Menteng centre in Kalimantan, sixteen baby orangutans have been put into isolation, suffering infections from prolonged exposure to the thick, yellow smoke suffocating Indonesia’s half of Borneo island.

A devoted carer tries to entertain the youngsters with toys and games as the infants recover from high fevers and serious coughs.

In another enclosure, several orangutans lie about listlessly, too exhausted to move after days hunting for food and water as fires relentlessly encroached on their forest homelands, forcing them to flee.

Others swing repeatedly from bar to bar, occasionally pausing to make a distinct smacking with their lips — a sound that makes their carers anxious.

“That’s called a quick kiss,” said Hermansyah, a carer at the centre, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

“When they make this gesture, it means they are under tremendous stress,” he told AFP.

4 Responses to “Indonesia’s Fires: Is this the Biggest Climate Story of the Year?”

  1. jimbills Says:

    “Indonesia’s Fires: Is this the Biggest Climate Story of the Year? ”

    It’s hard to see how it isn’t. As Monbiot is saying, “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.”

    And yet, the media is conspicuously silent about it.

    The blame is tossed from this person or group to that person or group, but what it boils down to in all cases is humans placing a higher priority on economic growth and personal gain than their environment.

    Two links:


  2. indy222 Says:

    it’s heart-breaking. And angering. It appears our ability to psychologically drug ourselves to tragedy is bottomless. This speaks volumes of where we’re headed, not from climate change, from from our ability to embrace the conspiracy of silence that has been an ongoing, and largely silent, aspect of this tragedy. I’m tempted to sympathize with the Guy McPherson crowd, and who perhaps feel, in the infamous words of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” hero Francisco d’Anconia “Brother – you asked for it!”.

    But it’s the innocent other species I feel worse for.

  3. redskylite Says:

    The measure of the harm we are causing is recorded daily at Mauna Loa and its going nowhere but up.

    For the unfortunate animals that have managed to escape the fire and smoke, nothing good awaits them, in the unfriendly domain of mankind.

    As forest fires continue to blaze across Indonesia, environmentalists are becoming increasingly concerned that the destruction of certain habitats may force wild animals to seek refuge in populated areas, potentially causing a spike in human-animal conflicts. Speaking to 7.30, Monterado Fridman of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) explained that orangutans are being driven from the burning forest and onto local farmland. This, according to ABC’s Indonesia correspondent Adam Harvey, leaves them exposed to the wrath of the “angry locals.”

  4. otter17 Says:

    Just jaw dropping. We certainly shouldn’t be helping nature emit more carbon, we gotta hope for the best that neo-natural sources don’t go off on their own.

    I hope we get lucky with the potential for peat fires and permafrost loss in the boreal and Arctic regions. I hope we get lucky with the clathrates. I hope we get lucky that the forests and oceans carbon sinks don’t saturate too quickly.

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