Out of the Classroom and Into the Field: Assessing Climate Change, Up Close and Personal

By Christopher Ciano-Collins, Climate and Society ’13

Indonesia: Nusa Tenggara Timur (Eastern Islands NTT)- It was around sunrise when I stepped off the turbo-prop airplane’s worn aluminum staircase and into the thick humid air, filled with wood smoke, the smell of burning trash, and the calls of countless roosters. I had no idea what to expect on this, my first day of fieldwork on Flores Island.  Flores is one of the more than two thousand islands that make up the region called Nusa Tenggara Timur or NTT for short- a region situated about four hours by air to the east of Jakarta.

Chris at a community meeting in West Sikka District

Christopher at a community meeting in West Sikka District

I was here to perform a climate information assessment for the region under the direction of the Red Cross/ Red Crescent Climate Centre, a member of the Partners for Resilience (PfR) alliance.  This is a group of five international organizations and several Indonesia based NGO’s that are working to assist rural and developing communities in their fight to maintain their livelihoods in the face of increased climate variability and related hazards.

I had a long list of tasks in my pocket that needed to be tackled. First among these was the need to answer what climate forecasts were available for this remote region, who was producing them, and of what technical quality were they?

I could then move on to trying to assess who needed access to these materials and how the PfR could advocate for increased access to them. Through this I would be able to gauge the capacity of the regional partners and how it could be increased to address the three main drivers of the PfR program: disaster risk reduction, ecosystem management & restoration, and climate change adaptation.

My final task was to assess the feasibility in producing climate early warning systems, particularly in the public health sector, by focusing on mosquito borne illnesses such as Malaria and Dengue.

With my notebook in hand, I began what was to become more than eight weeks worth of meetings and presentations with government representatives, PfR partners, and community members from the districts, sub-districts, provinces, and all the way up the national offices.  This process would take me around NTT and back to Java Island before the end of my stay.

This project would prove to be a true combination of the scientific and social aspects of climate in the 21st century. I found myself time and time again falling back on my training from the Climate & Society program throughout these meetings. My recent exposure to the climate science, statistical analysis, and risk assessment allowed me to work with individuals with different levels of climate knowledge.  For example, I was able to discuss statistical correlations between Dengue Fever and climate at the national meteorological office in Jakarta and at the leading technical university in Bandung, as well as discussing how Mangrove restoration can aid in battling sea level rise, while visiting a remote coastal village in central Flores Island.

In reflection, I think what has had the largest impact on me was seeing that climate change was indeed palpable. I could see it in the faces of the villagers when we met in their modest homes as they expressed to me their concerns over crop failures, Dengue Fever, and the rising sea level. I could feel it in their firm handshakes, gripped by fingers callused from years in the fields-fields that were no longer responding to their efforts like they did in years past due to the recent climate shifts. Climate change was simply not an abstract and sterile concept discussed in lecture halls and computer labs any more.  It was right here in front of me with names, faces, hopes, dreams, and fears.

As I prepare to leave NTT, I know that as I walk back up that old aluminum staircase and into the turbo-prop airplane, that this experience in Indonesia has changed me, not just in my view of the field that I just entered but also in my citizenship of the world.  Not only will I carry these experiences with me long after I leave NTT but I will also carry with me those faces, names, handshakes, hopes, dreams, and fears.  I feel very strongly that this will be the fuel that propels me forward in my career.

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