Two Countries Joined by Global Warming

Melting glaciers in Greenland contribute to rising sea levels.
Melting glaciers in Greenland contribute to rising sea levels climate change global warming oceans ice polar
CBS

While the experts are talking about climate change at the international conference in Copenhagen this week, the people of two widely separated places are living it, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips.

The Maldives are as close to a waterworld as there is on this planet: necklaces of almost 2,000 tiny islands tossed over a 600 mile stretch of the Indian Ocean.

But this little place miles from nowhere with a population approaching four 400,000 people is now at the center of the climate change debate. Whatever happens to the world will happen here first.

"We are a front line state with global warming," said Mohammed Nasheed, the Maldives president, who has become the designated hitter for the cause. "We are in conflict with nature and will fight it. When nature comes at us we would be the first people to face the brunt of it."

The Maldives' biggest asset is also its biggest liability. The country is made up of low-lying islands with perfect coral sand beaches. But no place here is higher than seven feet ten inches above sea level. Eighty percent of the land is three feet or less above the encroaching waves.

And the waves are encroaching. They certainly did during the 2004 tsunami. The U.N.'s latest climate change study predicts that as a result of global warming sea levels may rise by two more feet this century. Other studies using newer data predict an even higher rise.

"We've had it. If the range is at the upper limits we've really had it," Nasheed said.

The only way to get around the Maldives is on a fleet of sea planes that ferry tourists to the sun and sand resorts. But the sea, which has drawn people here and has given the Maldives everything it has - tourism lately and fishing since the dawn of time - is now threatening to rise up and take it all away.

That's why Nasheed has gone to such desperate measures to dramatize the threat. In one case, he held a cabinet meeting underwater to show what his country will look like if there is no deal to reduce the greenhouse gasses that are warming the planet.

"Well that's the bottom line isn't it? Underwater. That's where we will end up," Nasheed said.

The waters don't have to rise to cause damage. They just have to continue to get warmer.

An intense warming event a decade ago killed off the coral reefs that protect the islands and the ocean currents began to wash some of them away. The reefs are still recovering, but people like marine biologists Anke Hofmeister, who's been watching the process for five years, wonder if they're living on borrowed time.

"Enjoy it while you can. Come to the Maldives. One tour operator actually mentioned that in its slogan," Hofmeister said. "Come to the Maldives while you still can, while they're still there."

The problem stems from the melting glaciers of the world's icecaps. In Greenland, the biggest glacier at Ilulissat, halfway up the country's west coast, is now calving mountain-size icebergs out to sea at twice the rate it was 10 years ago.

How quickly the icebergs are breaking off the glacier and how fast they float out to sea and melt will determine how quickly sea levels rise across the planet. This isn't theory, this is the real consequence of climate change.

The melt back is forcing Greenlanders like Jahannes Mathaussen to do what the Inuit people in their harsh environment have always had to do: adapt.

He can't hunt for seals in the winter because there's less sea ice. But he can make a living taking intrepid tourists on sled dog trips.

The 55,000 Greenlanders have a quiet little secret. While the ice cap melt-off has been speeding up, so has their economy.

Mining companies are lining up to develop newly exposed resources and there are indications of large oil reserves now accessible off shore.

There's a building boom in the capital town of Nuuk.

Mathaussen laughs at the suggestion he's about to become a sled dog millionaire, but you get the sense he's looking forward to the future. That's more than you can say about the people of the Maldives where there's a sense that time is not on their side.

"Some might become boat people. A lot of us will die. Whoever survives might be floating somewhere," Nasheed said. "We really are talking about our own grandchildren, and if you cannot provide for them, there's really very little point of having a government now."