It’s been two days since I returned to the US, and five since leaving the fires zone in West Kalimantan, my lungs are clearing, but the dry cough in my upper respiratory lingers, so too the feeling I have just witnessed Act 1 of Dale Jamieson’s climate tomb, Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change has Failed – and What It Means for Our Future, frighteningly, I know very clearly what it means for our future. What is also lingering is the frustration that I have just come from the front lines of the climate future and no one outside the region is paying attention, no one, especially those entrusted to do so, the media. Events in Indonesia are verging on what any reasonable human would label apocalyptic, yet the international media is bizarrely silent. I mean this is the kinda thing you would think CNN would die for — raging inferno, the world’s third-largest island lost in toxic smoke, children dying, adorable apes burning to death.
On return to the US I began immediately filtering the media for talk of the fires, the cost in lives, human and orangutans, and others, even the cost to economics — that great focus of all our concerns — nothing, nada, not a smoldering ember. The media was preoccupied, some legitimate – refugees, some much less so – warning of carcinogenic wieners, and debate about debate formats. The wind has been more effective at reaching the public than the media, at least in the region, spreading smoke as far away as Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. Unfortunately those winds have not reached the US or Europe yet.
I work in story-telling, a version of media, I understand it’s hard to convey certain ideas, concepts, actions, but that’s the challenge; a challenge even more formidable considering the depths of basic science understanding to which the public has sunk. Images can help, they are powerful tools. Communicating large-scale change is not easy, but this time it is illustrative – it’s on fire!
Imagery of fire the crisis in Indonesia could not be more media graphic – yet the world’s news cameras were all but absent – why?
One excuse I heard was that the event was too slow. Slow? Explain that to the guys on the frontlines fighting the advancing blaze. What I was told is that because the condition had grown over months there never was a “media attention grabbing” moment. It never really became international new de jour, like say a plane crash, hurricane or terror attack. “It’s like climate change.” I wanted to scream in reply — IT IS CLIMATE CHANGE! It can’t get any faster than this.
It’s hard to convey climate change, that draws on what’s been called a deep truth about our animal nature, despite our big-brain claims of evolutionary superiority, we are creatures of sense, not thought. What we are doing to the planet, and with these fires, on a planetary scale, must be sensed rather than thought, and we are not very skilled at thinking. Even if we succeed in thinking something is a threat, we are less reactive than if we sense it is a threat. A perfect example is in telling someone the burner on the stove is hot, versus having them touch it. In the case of Indonesia’s fires, few of us will sense it, and those responsible for telling us it is hot, the media, simply won’t touch it.
As the fire situation began to reach biblical proportions CNN International finally included the chaos as part of its “two” degree programing nod to climate change.
Maybe I am being too harsh on the media and the world, after all even Indonesia procrastinated for weeks in admitting the severity of the fires, ignoring the reality burning on their doorstep. Even in acknowledging it they don’t — referring to it as ‘haze’ rather than the toxic air pollution it is: “ozone, carbon monoxide, cyanide, ammonia and formaldehyde.” Or as CIFOR scientist Louis Verchot labeled it, “So I think we need to reconsider the use of the term haze, which to me conjures an image of a hazy summer day, where the sky is slightly obscured. This stuff is anything but that. The smoke is acrid and irritating. I would prefer to call it noxious smoke.”
The media has difficulty conveying scale, humans have even more difficulty understanding it — comparisons can help:
· uncontrolled fires are sending skyward more Green House Gases (GHG), namely carbon dioxide and methane than the USA.
· Just during my visit (most of October) these fires have released more CO2 into the global atmosphere than the annual emissions of two industrial giants, Germany or Japan.
· According the World Resources Institute, “Fires also emit methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2), but peat fires may emit up to 10 times more methane than fires occurring on other types of land. Taken together, the impact of peat fires on global warming may be more than 200 times greater than fires on other lands.”
· “More than two million hectares of forest area, the size of Wales, have been reduced to ashes in the past five months in Indonesia, according to the data published by the National Space and Aviation Agency (Lapan).”
· The 2015 fires have stalled the Indonesian economy, over $35 billion lost, the country’s 2015 net GDP has already gone up in smoke.
Somehow pumping out statistics on GHGs means little to most, or it hasn’t thus far. Yet even the stats on lives seem of similar disinterest, “After the last great conflagration, in 1997, there was a missing cohort in Indonesia of 15,000 children under the age of three, attributed to air pollution. This [2015 fires], it seems, is worse.” The surgical masks being distributed across the nation are a joke, and will do almost nothing to protect those I photographed living in a horizonless, sunless, ochre-colored smoke. While there I read, members of parliament in Central Kalimantan were wearing face masks during debates on the haze. The Indonesian government was refusing to call this a national disaster, in contrast children were being prepared for evacuation in warships; some already have choked to death. In desperation thousands of mask-clad protestors have called for a Blue Sky Revolution.
The “haze” has delayed and canceled hundreds of flights in the region: after five days of canceled flights I abandoned the effort and hired a driver and car to take me 11 hours overland from Pangkalanbun to Ketapang, what should have taken 40 mins by plane. In the most severely impacted region, Central Kalimantan, schools have been closed for weeks, students are missing exams, and the chaos shows no sign of abating.
There is an ominous similarity to a disaster that brought me back into covering the shit we do to the planet (in turn ourselves), the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The fires echo the grand scale of that offense. The Natural Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) is now calling the fires a “crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions.” Erik Meijaard, an Indonesian-based terrestrial conservation scientists, and one of the regions leading expert on orangutan ecological needs, has declared, “Indonesia’s Fire Crisis — The Biggest Environmental Crime of the 21st Century.”
The only way to really see the scope of the fires – NASA image of the biggest environmental crisis of the 21st Century: created by Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, using data provided courtesy of the MODIS Rapid Response team.
A crime. That alone should be enough to titillate the media into rearing its sleepy head and investigate. But as a radio reporter commented to Erik Miejaard, “in the eye of the public, Indonesia’s annual fires were “boring” emphasiz[ing] the silent nature of this tragedy.” Fires and the resulting smoke is an annual event in Indonesia. Some years have been “catastrophically bad fire episodes”, 1982-83, 1988-89, 1997-98, and most recently 2004, but despite cries within and outside of the region in the wake of each, there has never been real change in political and societal attitudes towards the use of fire in land clearing. If anything the situation has worsened with the expansion of palm oil plantations, especially in hardest hit Central Kalimantan. So if nothings going to change, maybe the media reasons it isn’t news.
But boring? Let me repeat: this crisis is being called the biggest environmental crime of the 21st Century. I would like to ask the reporter what does it now take for the media not to be bored? I’m left with only two reasons that an inferno consuming millions of hectares and threatening the health of a half million people, plus global rich biodiversity, wouldn’t be news worthy. One, the media has determined that not all geographies and peoples are created equal; this place and these people are not important to northern-western media (and by extension the people of those markets), and/or two, corporate media has been told not to look and report.
A third scenario of silence has been put forth, again by Erik Meijaard, in a op-ed for the Jakarta Globe, but it fails to account for the international media silence. That’s where this has me baffled. Or is my confusion that I can’t see the Paris-effect through the haze?
Australian cartoonist David Pope for the Canberra Times not-so-subtle commentary on the fires raging across Indonesia and the juxtaposition of orangutan survival, little response, who’s to blame and the upcoming climate talks in Paris.
With only a month before global leaders, including Indonesian President Joko Widodo, meet in Paris for climate talks, one would think these fires would be ideal fuel for the media, but perhaps that’s exactly why they are getting so little attention, once again powerful forces don’t want such talks heating up. The last thing they want is the public seeing and feeling the heat of the biggest environmental crime of the 21st Century and how such events are the result of and acerbate a worsening climate condition. With a quarter-Century of diplomatic delays and bureaucratic balking, climate talks have become the black holes of accomplishment. International climate negotiators, lead by the USA, have made a mockery of addressing the climate issues. We are now in the 21st iteration of the COPs (Conference of Parties). What should have set us on a global climate course correction after COP 1 or 2, has muddle forward for 25 years with increasingly less virility. We don’t need the hazy prospect of a planet burning stirring up climate concerns.
There is an information-action covenant that is being broken, that is, science—journalism(media)—public/political policy, work in concert to create the change that benefits humankind. Science generates facts, journalism brings those to the public (politics) in such a way that intelligent, enlightened discussions can be had, and then the public through its politics enables policy change to, again, benefit humankind. When the media truncates the process, by not showing up, the flow terminates and public discussion dies or worse, as in the case of this disaster, never catches fire.
I head back to the crime scene next week, first to report on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) 13th conference, where discussions about the fires should be anything but boring, and then back to smoldering Borneo. This story still lingers, like the BP disaster its impact will be felt for years. Long after rains quell the haze, the crime scene will remain, but don’t count on the media to be there reporting on the felony.
Notes & Resources
1] Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change has Failed – and What It Means for Our Future; Jamieson, Dale;
2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo