When climate adaptation fails, who is responsible? Indonesia is asking.

Asilulu, Indonesia

The fishermen of Asilulu knew something was up when the tuna fled their shores for cooler waters. They didn’t grasp that global warming was heating the ocean and displacing the fish on which their livelihoods depended. But they knew they needed to rethink how they fished.  

So the community of roughly 2,000 people adapted. They pooled their resources so boats could travel further in search of tuna. In 2011, an Indonesian PhD student wrote his thesis about Asilulu’s successful community-led adaptation to climate change on a seashore thousands of miles from the centers of power where climate policy is decided.

That was then. This is now: Most fishermen have since given up on long, costly expeditions and turned their back on the sea that nourished past generations. “The fish have gone too far,” says Umar, one of the last remaining tuna fishermen.

Why We Wrote This

Climate change means communities must adapt in order to sustain their livelihoods. But there are limits to what small fishing villages can do by themselves.

The need for adaptation is a mantra in climate debates and there are many examples of adaptations that work, from heat-resistant crops to natural flood defenses. But perhaps just as resonant is the story of those that failed to outrun a rapidly warming planet and its devastating effects on livelihoods, particularly in poorer countries like Indonesia, a vast archipelago of islands that straddle the equator.

For fishing communities who depend on the ocean’s bounty, there may be no easy solutions and only hard questions for richer industrialized countries whose emissions have led the planet down a perilous path of extreme weather from which there is no respite.

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