in Indonesia

Harrison Ford in Indonesia for James Cameron’s “Years of Living Dangerously”

Years of Living Dangerously is a new documentary series about climate change. Broadcast in the US by Showtime, the nine episodes feature Hollywood stars presenting different aspects of climate change.

The first episode, broadcast last month, features Harrison Ford looking at deforestation, peat and oil palm in Indonesia, Don Cheadle in Texas talking about drought, climate science, and religion, and Thomas Friedman in Syria looking at the role of drought in the civil war in Syria. The website bills climate change as “The biggest story of our time”.

Showtime has made the first episode available – it’s been watched on YouTube more than 500,000 times. If you’ve not seen it already, it is well worth watching:

The programme doesn’t just present the facts about climate change. It shows the impacts that climate change is causing to people in the countries it visits. With James Cameron as Executive Producer, it’s no surprise that the programme is dramatic and entertaining. But it also raises interesting issues about communicating about climate change.

In Texas, many of the people affected don’t associate the hardships they are facing with climate change. Instead, drought is an act of God. The programme shows a prayer meeting:

“Father we pray for the situation in Cargill, my God. You bring the moistures, you bring the rain. Conditions will change, my God. Because it’s your rain! It’s your spirit!”

Another man explains that, “Genesis nine says that there will always be seed time and harvest. And this business of these people saying that there’s going to be a calamity in weather is not true.”

“But what if it is true?” Don Cheadle asks quietly. The programme profiles Katharine Hayhoe, who is a Climate Scientist and a Christian. It’s fascinating to watch how she communicates the science of climate change with people affected by climate change in Texas, but who see drought as God’s will.

In Indonesia, Harrison Ford travels to the Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra. He flies over in a helicopter and we see the devastation inside the park. Vast areas of the forest have been cleared to make way for illegal oil palm plantations. Ford asks,

“If Indonesia’s Forestry Minister won’t even protect a National Park, what hope is there for the rest of the country’s forests?”

He adds, “I can’t wait to see the Minister of Forestry. I can’t wait.”

Ford’s meeting with Zulkifli Hasan, the Minister of Forestry, is shown in episode 2 of the series. When Ford confronts Zulkifli with the destruction of Indonesia’s forests, Zulkifli explains that Indonesia has not been a democracy for very long and that “the point of balance” will be found in the long term.

Zulkifli laughs when Ford mentions Tesso Nilo. “It’s not funny,” says Ford. He describes the destruction. “You saw it. You pledged a resolution. What have you done?” Zulkifli talks about democracy again. “We have just started with what we call reform,” he says.

Ford’s visit to Indonesia was in September 2013. The day after he visited the Minister of Forestry, Ford was all over the news in Indonesia. Zulkifli, it seems, was shocked that Ford raised the issue of deforestation and threatened to get him deported. Presumably, Zulkifli had momentarily forgotten the rate of deforestation in Indonesia – which doubled in the years 2011 and 2012, during a moratorium on new forest concessions under the Indonesia-Norway US$1 billion REDD deal.

The following day, Ford met Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Ford asks whether the moratorium is being respected. Yudhoyono replies that some people oppose it, but “I must do it. Because much can be achieved through this moratorium.”

Ford talks about the destruction of Tesso Nilo, the lack of respect for the law and the illegal forest clearance. He asks whether a law enforcement effort would help, at least to set an example. “I do not always know what happens in every corner of Indonesia,” Yudhoyono replies. “I understand this is not acceptable and has to be addressed.”

Ford travels to the Katingan Peatland Restoration and Conservation Project in Central Kalimantan with Russell Mittelmeier, president of Conservation International.

Ford brings up the importance of preserving peat forests:

“The most remarkable and precious thing about this jungle is right under our feet. What we’re walking on isn’t mud, it’s a thick layer of compressed, decaying vegetation called peat. Many of Indonesia’s forests sit on peat. And peat is full of carbon.”

Years of Living Dangerously is excellent in terms of communicating some of the realities of climate change. That is urgently needed, particularly in the US. And of course the forests that Harrison Ford visits in Indonesia should be preserved. But Harrison Ford is a board member of Conservation International. Not surprisingly, then, we don’t hear Ford raising any tough questions about carbon trading as a way of preserving forests.

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  1. Anybody else out there feel a little uncomfortable when the white superhero drops in from the sky to hold the brown man accountable for climate change? Especially when the US takes the gold in the climate change Olympics and Indonesia just gets the bronze. Ironies abound in this segment of The Years of Living Dangerously: in the new deserts in Texas, Americans are praying for Cargill, but in another they’re yelling at Indonesians for ripping out rainforest and putting in palm oil. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve spent decades fighting against palm oil, but I would have preferred it if CI had flown an indigenous activist from Indonesia, or Malaysia, into the US and had one of them yell at the CEO of Cargill for their participation in oil palm plantations. Environmental groups working in Indonesia and Malaysia constantly fight against the label of “eco-imperialisms.” Indonesia and Malaysia are tough neighborhoods for practicing eco-diplomacy. Corrupt governments have an easy time undermining hard fought gains of environmentalists by playing the nationalist card. Yelling at government officials could make thing worse; it could harden national pride and set back work to secure land rights of indigenous peoples. After the planes have left and the TV sets are turned off, it securing those rights that is going to preserve the forest. Time will tell if this Hollywood approach to an incredibly complicated situation wins any hearts and minds, and preserves any forest, or if all the passion and good intentions of CI produce the same results as the passions and good intentions of the people in Norway who were willing to spend $1billion of their tax dollars on REDD.

  2. Conservation International also has an International Trustee by the name of Ian Khama, President of Botswana, instigator of an important initiative – the Gaborone Declaration of 2012. The Declaration recognises that ecosystem services are Africa’s ‘natural capital’, and that this outflow should be recorded (in particular for mining), its contribution to GDP clearly identified and its long-term debt to natural resources quantified. In their final communiqué on natural capital accounting they recognised the severe limitations of GDP to measure social and environmental well-being, advocating the importance of natural capital accounting ‘As a tool for mainstreaming natural capital into informed economic decision making’. But the fascist actions of Khama, his Government and international capital against the bushmen, against ecosystem services in the fullest sense of the term, is an affront to humanity and should be condemned; Khama and his Government displaying yet another remarkable example of Orwellian Doublethink and hypocrisy. Conservation International is just another conservation organisation holding the hand of the miners and corrupt politicians.

  3. Echoing the above: “Yelling at government officials could make thing worse; it could harden national pride and set back work to secure land rights of indigenous peoples.”

  4. @Joe Lamb – Thanks for this. You’re right. I wrote a post last September about Harrison Ford in Indonesia, in which I pointed out Ford’s love of flying and the hypocrisy of turning up in Indonesia to tell others to reduce their emissions. I should have repeated myself in this article.

    And you’re right about the way the programme skips over Cargill’s role. (Just like Conservation International cuddles up to destructive corporations.)

    Having said all that, Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry has a lot to answer for when it comes to the destruction of Indonesia’s forests. And far too many organisations are far too deferential in their dealings with the Ministry of Forestry and the Indonesian Government. Like CIFOR, for example.

  5. Knock Harry Ford. Okay. But bringing attention to the problem isn’t all bad even if he is rich and white. The guy’s getting old so give him rant, hey? The U.N.’s ongoing population studies project world population by 2100 will be 13.8-16 billion. Fish and Wildlife and the Nat’l Geological Society both state definitely by 2100 oceans will have risen 1 meter. That’s almost 40 inches. If you’re into payback, Indonesia will lose some landmass. So what d’ya think energy and food consumption for 13.8-16 billion people will be? And you can multiply mass psychopathy in the middle east by 2. No waves of altruism are gonna wash over those lands. Call me Grim Doom Gloom but, hell happy me, I won’t be here.

  6. @Mik Henry – Thanks for this. I agree, there are serious problems ahead. But you’re taking the high end of the UN “Probabilistic Population Projections” (click on the graph to go to the UN page):

    Journalist Fred Pearce wrote a book about the coming population crash.