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Islands Sink; Blossoms Shrink – Climate Witnesses Make Wake-up Calls

Picture this: the 1,200 islands that make up the holiday paradise of the Maldives – often likened to a sparkling necklace on the Indian Ocean – all sinking and vanishing into the sea, with all their pristine, sandy beaches and glossy green vegetation, never to be seen again.

Picture this: the 1,200 islands that make up the holiday paradise of the Maldives – often likened to a sparkling necklace on the Indian Ocean – all sinking and vanishing into the sea, with all their pristine, sandy beaches and glossy green vegetation, never to be seen again.

The Maldive Islands are on average only 1.3 metres above sea level, making the Republic the world’s lowest-lying country. And the most susceptible to destruction from a rising sea level. That’s why in 2009, the then-president Mohamed Nasheed held a symbolic underwater cabinet meeting, signing documents to call for lower global carbon emissions. It was a light-hearted publicity stunt with a heavy mission, held prior to the United Nations Copenhagen Climate Summit, which aimed to set new global emission-cutting initiatives as the first commitment period of Kyoto Protocol neared its end in 2012.

Targets set at the Copenhagen Accord weren't very ambitious, and were especially dwarfed by the massive efforts of the little archipelago’s president to call for real measures to deal with global warming, as documented by filmmaker Jon Shenk. With beautiful cinematography complemented by a haunting score of Radiohead tracks, The Island President came out last year to humanize a topic that often seems to be bogged down by figures and data. The documentary, which won the People's Choice Documentary Award at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, follows Mohamed Nasheed’s first year in office and his pressing mission to save his country from being swallowed up by the vast oceans. This includes his ambitious, pioneering pledge to make the Maldives carbon-neutral by 2020.

Whether or not Nasheed is really the hero that The Island President makes him out to be is beside the point – and ironically, the man championing against pollution chain-smokes throughout the movie – it is his passion and zeal against all adversities, his guts to stand up to the big countries, and his willingness to fight for his cause, that is inspiring.

Of course, the urgency of the Maldives gives Nasheed extra drive, but while the rest of us may be a few more steps away from immediate urgency to curb climate change, let’s not forget it is really the same planet we’re living on. It’s not hard to see the effects of climate change that the world is experiencing.

From sinking islands to shrinking blossoms

Part of WWF’s Climate Witness programme, Japan’s Toemon Sano is a cherry blossom guardian. The fluffy pink and white clouds of blooming cherry blossoms are one of Japan’s most iconic landscapes. But Sano-san says he’s been worried.

Cherry trees accumulate energy during the cold winter and depend on the warmth of spring to start growing buds, until they open up when it reaches 15 ºC to 20 ºC. But in the past few years, Sano-san has noticed that peculiar changes in temperature have confused the cherry trees’ blossoming schedule. Winter hasn’t been smoothly graduating to spring lately; it’s warming earlier – which gives the cherry blossom buds a surprise opening up – but then plunges back into coldness again, before transitioning into the hotter weather. Sano-san says that’s why we now see many incomplete cherry blossoms.

“When a famous cherry tree faces extinction, people try to protect that tree,” he says. “But I think that only trying to save the plants in front of us is meaningless. It’s not that there is something wrong with nature, but the problem lies with our way of living. Isn’t it the life of human beings, with our unquestioning consumption and throwaway lifestyle, that must change?”

Meanwhile, Professor Emily Chan of The Chinese University of Hong Kong has been quantifying our need to change this unsustainable lifestyle with scientific data. Studying the connection between rising temperatures and human health, she has found lethal consequences in this heated issue. “For example, when the temperature rises to 28.2 ºC, the mortality rate increases by 1.5% on average. The rate will further increase to 2.5% on average when the temperature rises to 32.2 ºC. In some densely-populated districts like Mong Kok or Tsim Sha Tsui, the situation will become more worrying.”

Professor Chan’s research makes way for important public health policy-making, but ultimately she believes that the responsibility lies on every individual living on this planet. “We should try our best to mitigate the human impact of climate change by reducing our own carbon emissions. In the end, this is crucial for our health and the well-being of future generations.”

With trouble brewing hot in the pot, we need to wake up to the warning calls of our planet. Not everyone can make change as a country’s president, but as Mohamed Nasheed says, it’s down to the people to push for change. He himself resigned from office in February this year, but has insisted he will continue fighting for the green revolution. Back home, Hong Kong is also facing a change in government this year, let's make this an opportunity for a renewed effort to safeguard the future of our beautiful Earth.

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