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Oceans
Head Above Water
A sinking island nation sets an example by cutting emissions.

This wasn’t your typical cabinet meeting. Sure, the Maldivian president and 11 ministers were all there, gathered around tables. But instead of suits they had donned diving gear, and they were sitting on the seafloor, signing an SOS note.

The plea for help was part of a stunt last fall to draw attention to the plight of this Indian Ocean country of nearly 1,200 coral islands. The United Nations estimates that rising sea levels may make the Maldives—whose average height is about five feet above the watermark—uninhabitable by 2100, leaving its 360,000 citizens among the world’s first environmental refugees.

To protect their home, Maldivians are taking measures to go carbon-neutral by 2020. “There is no higher ground we can move to,” says Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed, the country’s ambassador to the United Nations. “There is no safe island within the archipelago.”

Rising water levels threaten other island nations, too, including Fiji and Samoa. Residents of Papua New Guinea’s Carteret Islands, which are expected to be completely uninhabitable by 2015, have already started to move to the main island of Bougainville, and the entire populace will be relocated within five years. By 2050 there will be at least 25 million climate refugees, the International Organization for Migration reports. “Small island nations are going to be destroyed by global warming,” says Joseph Romm, founder of the blog Climateprogress.org and a climate expert at the Center for American Progress, a think tank. Low-lying coastal areas of Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Netherlands, San Francisco Bay, and Florida are also at risk.

Globally, sea level climbed .13 inches per year from 1993 to 2008. Waters today are nearly eight inches higher than they were a century ago, and more than two inches higher than 16 years ago. Higher temperatures cause sea level to rise because warmer water takes up more space than cold, and because of runoff from melting glaciers and ice sheets.

The Maldives government is moving forward with its effort to slash emissions. This past November the country signed an agreement for a 75-megawatt wind farm that will power the capital, Male, and a number of tourist resorts, and cut a quarter of the country’s CO2 emissions. “We can make our country carbon-neutral, island by island, and use this as a symbolic model for other countries,” says Mohamed.

Maldivians are hoping other nations will follow suit to ensure global temperatures don’t rise more than 1.5 degrees. The world didn’t settle on a binding agreement at the climate meetings in Copenhagen last December. But the Maldivians are already looking to the next talks in Mexico in the fall, where they may carry out new attention-grabbing stunts.

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