Sunday, December 16

It’s Too Late for Later


Bali, Indonesia

The negotiators at the United Nations climate conference here in Bali came from almost 200 countries and spoke almost as many languages, but driving them all to find a better way to address climate change was one widely shared, if unspoken, sentiment: that “later” is over for our generation.

“Later” was a luxury for previous generations and civilizations. It meant that you could paint the same landscape, see the same animals, eat the same fruit, climb the same trees, fish the same rivers, enjoy the same weather or rescue the same endangered species that you did when you were a kid — but just do it later, whenever you got around to it.

If there is one change in global consciousness that seems to have settled in over just the past couple of years, it is the notion that later is over. Later is no longer when you get to do all those same things — just on your time schedule. Later is now when they’re gone — when you won’t get to do any of them ever again, unless there is some radical collective action to mitigate climate change, and maybe even if there is.

There are many reasons that later is over. The fact that global warming is now having such an observable effect on pillars of our ecosystem — like the frozen sea ice within the Arctic Circle, which a new study says could disappear entirely during summers by 2040 — is certainly one big factor. But the other is the voracious power of today’s global economy, which has created a situation in which the world is not just getting hot, it’s getting raped.

Throughout human history there was always some new part of the ocean to plunder, some new forest to devour, some new farmlands to exploit, noted Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, who came to observe the Bali conference. But “now that economic development has become the prerogative of every country,” he said, we’ve run out of virgin oceans and lands “for new rising economic powers to exploit.” So, too many countries are now chasing too few fish, trees and water resources, and are either devouring their own or plundering those of neighbors at alarming rates.

Indeed, today’s global economy has become like a monster truck with the gas pedal stuck, and we’ve lost the key — so no one can stop it from wiping out more and more of the natural world, no matter what the global plan. There was a chilling essay in The Jakarta Post last week by Andrio Adiwibowo, a lecturer in environmental management at the University of Indonesia. It was about how a smart plan to protect the mangrove forests around coastal Jakarta was never carried out, leading to widespread tidal flooding last month.

This line jumped out at me: “The plan was not implemented. Instead of providing a buffer zone, development encroached into the core zone, which was covered over by concrete.”

You could read that story in a hundred different developing countries today. But the fact that you read it here is one of the most important reasons that later has become extinct. Indonesia is second only to Brazil in terrestrial biodiversity and is No. 1 in the world in marine biodiversity. Just one and a half acres in Borneo contains more different tree species than all of North America — not to mention animals that don’t exist anywhere else on earth. If we lose them, there will be no later for some of the rarest plants and animals on the planet.

And we are losing them. Market-driven forces emanating primarily from China, Europe and America have become so powerful that Indonesia recently made the Guinness World Records for having the fastest rate of deforestation in the world.

Indonesia is now losing tropical forests the size of Maryland every year, and the carbon released by the cutting and clearing — much of it from illegal logging — has made Indonesia the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, after the United States and China. Deforestation actually accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars and trucks in the world, an issue the Bali conference finally addressed.

I interviewed Barnabas Suebu, the governor of the Indonesian province of Papua, home to some of its richest forests. He waxed eloquent about how difficult it is to create jobs that will give his villagers anything close to the income they can get from chopping down a tree and selling it to smugglers, who will ship it to Malaysia or China to be made into furniture for Americans or Europeans. He said his motto was, “Think big, start small, act now — before everything becomes too late.”

Ditto for all of us. If you want to help preserve the Indonesian forests, think fast, start quick, act now. Just don’t say later.