Jakarta regularly experiences crippling floods from both the rivers and the sea. A lot of it has to with the city’s rotting infrastructure underneath its glossy metal-and-glass skyscrapers, as well as poor city planning. Doping on unregulated investments, a scramble of property development projects have also pushed away flood dams and flood gate projects, soaking in lands for more shopping malls and housing compounds. Some of the rivers have disappeared since I learned about them in primary school, and are now clogged with waste or buried under commercial property.
Those existing problems — along with the fact that nearly half of Indonesia sits below sea level — make Jakarta one of the most vulnerable cities in the world to climate change. Heavier precipitation compounded with accelerated infrastructure development has worsened the effects of floods. What used to be a spill of water that could have been swept out of my friend’s front entrance has sized up to a pool of water as high as her knee. Her parents recently bought a second house in the south and their family will move in as soon as the renovation is completed. But for those living in the slums of Jakarta, in the hidden burrows, in the precarious sheet metal houses dotting the riverbanks, flood means their homes would no longer be habitable. And these are the same people who can’t afford to live anywhere else.
Similar terrors of flood permeate Al Gore’s climate reality presentation. 24 Hours of Reality captures the tragedy of climate change in numbers, temperature charts, timed videos and hi-definition pictures. The broadcast highlights everything from raging storms to parched rivers, from doom to gloom, from misery to despair. It was a lot of science and a lot of tears. Each picture is tagged with date and location – the dates recent, the location widely ranging across the globe. The bold, capital letters that repeatedly surface the presentation spells: reality. Halfway through the presentation I said to myself I couldn’t go on watching this – taking blows from one depressing news after the other – and felt tempted to walk away from the hall as I would from a movie theatre. But then the thought hit me that I wasn’t watching some fantastical movie, I was watching real life.
Growing up in Indonesia, I was accustomed to now-familiar scenes of devastation of places affected by landslides, forest fires, earthquakes, tsunamis and floods: endless stretch of debris and destruction of inundated villages; children in ragged, muddy shirts perching on the roofs of their houses as their area is submerged underwater; confused faces of those whose houses and lives have crumbled down. Sometimes the TV will show close-ups of people crying in hysteria, in sadness, in silence. Yet all those rendering scenes would dissipate and lose their potency once I turn the TV off.
Television paradoxically allows for the dissonance between empathy for others in misery and my “comfortability” as the nonpartisan bystander. I realize now I had developed a kind of immunity, a tolerance for an unspoken set of acceptable topics and acceptable relations to the topics that bears, at best, a peripheral relation to truth. What went missing was the mode of empathy that should have informed me that the images on television correspond to real, currently living people.
We all would rather change the channel from another broadcast of a flood somewhere, or better yet, savor the gory details over lunch and forget about it by dinnertime, simply because we want to take comfort in our esoteric body of knowledge, confining ourselves to a manageable “reality”. We can go buy flashlights and canned food anticipating Hurricane Irene, but what power do we have to prevent the cataclysmic floods in Pakistan, Brazil, Australia, Taiwan, the Philippines or the rest of the world? And this sense of powerlessness gives rise to rampant cynicism, in danger of paralyzing us to inaction. Sebastien Kelso, a sophomore, conveyed his distress during panel discussion: “My experience turns into cynicism after years of seeing the magnitude of force that is going to be needed to overcome this crisis. Psychologically, being cynical about it makes me place the issue in the repressed corners of my mind.”
As the deleterious effects of climate change become more pronounced, we wouldn’t be able to turn away from its harsh reality. These spectacular weather events compounded with ecosystem upsets will inevitably affect human beings. Erratic rainfall, rising temperatures and storm damages will unequivocally reduce crop yields around the world. The ensuing rise in food prices in tandem with declining productivity and environmental damages will invoke to despair. Too often, tropical storms, hurricanes, droughts, all exert strong effect on violence, the results of which will further exacerbate the difficulties poor countries have in adapting to familiar climatic challenges and de-stabilize global politics.
But simply making melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life is not enough to ameliorate the distress of a calamity. It is how we incorporate those reflections in our work, our etiquette, and our relationships that ultimately diminish this callousness and translate our intent into action. Our human actions have undeniably been exasperating the climate crisis and it’s time we start owning up to them.
“We know we have to change – because how many wars can we fight in the oil-rich Persian gulf region? How long should we remain addicted to a dirty and expensive fuel, and burn it in ways that destroy our future? How many energy-related disasters will it take to convince us that we need to shift away from carbon-based fuel?” asked Al Gore.
While we often lack the spiritual core to tackle the complex and seemingly insurmountable problem of climate change, the dilemma is that we’re not going to solve anything by constantly evading it. The good news is, for those of us who are not caught in its tragedy, there is a lot that we can do. Things will get worse before they get better. But before then, we need to brave ourselves to swallow the bitter pill of reality to allow changes to happen. It is only through increasing our awareness and taking action can we progress in this issue.
Image Credit: Google Images