INTERVIEW: Former HK Observatory Director Chiu-ying Lam “Climate Change Is Real Beyond Any Doubt”

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Former director of the Hong Kong Observatory Chiu-ying Lam is an expert conservationist and meteorologist, and we recently had the opportunity to interview him on Hong Kong’s environmental issues. Since retiring from the chief position at the HKO, Mr. Lam has been championing environmental conservation and education in the city. Below is our interview, where Mr. Lam shared with us his conservation work in Hong Kong and discussed his thoughts on the city’s contribution to global warming, and what we can each individually do to make a difference and protect all the living species that inhabit the planet.

GQ: As a well-known conservationist and meteorologist in Hong Kong and Asia, you’re a true expert in the space of sustainability. Just to introduce you to our Green Queen readers, could you give us a bit of an overview of your work as the former director of the Hong Kong Observatory and your efforts to protect the ecosystems and wildlife of our planet?

CYL: At the Hong Kong Observatory, my job was to forecast weather and warn people so that they could act to protect themselves. Once I realised that climate change was going to cause harm, I started telling people that they also had to protect themselves from climate change. I told them that they could reduce the risk by changing their lifestyle so as to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and therefore the extent of climate change.

I have been a bird-watcher for more than four decades. I noticed the great damage done to the countryside during this period and started promoting bird-watching to the local community, as a means to build up a core of people keen to conserve nature. During my chairmanship of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, conservation was established as a key objective. I initiated the campaign to save Long Valley in partnership with other green groups in 1999, supported the capacity building of bird-watching societies in China in the 2000s, and motivated the public to object to the intrusion of housing development into country parks. In recent years, I have also objected to major reclamation projects such as the third runway and the man-made island both of which would intrude into the marine environment.

GQ: The HKO recently released the news that Hong Kong has just experienced the hottest year since records began in the 19th century. What does this tell us about the seriousness of climate change and the state of our planet?

CYL: At the same time, the global average temperature for the last five years is the highest 5-year average since record began. It tells us that climate change is real beyond any doubt. Indeed, the rate of temperature rise is accelerating especially since the 1980s while the frequency of extreme weather events is also rising at an alarming rate. The wildfires in Australia show that the impact of climate change is approaching an apocalyptic magnitude. Climate change is evolving into “climate emergency” in the sense that within a few decades it could affect the survival of humanity.

GQ: Some reports have made the statement that you have previously been a skeptic of anthropogenic climate change until around 2001. What made you change your mind?

CYL: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its Third Assessment Report on climate change in 2001. The data and analysis contained in the report provided unequivocal proof that climate change had taken place and that the impact on the human race could be fatal.

GQ: How, in your opinion, can we convey the severity of our climate crisis to some people who still remain unconvinced about the threat?

CYL: Unfortunately, people do not relate to the threat of climate change unless they personally suffer from severe weather or drought events caused by climate change. We need to be innovative to get across that personal sense of impact and emergency without having to go through severe weather events. Powerful media coverage of events such as the Australian fires should help.

GQ: In terms of awareness, do you think that Hong Kong people in general are up-to-date or conscious about environmental issues? Why or why not?

CYL: I think most Hong Kong people have some idea of climate change and environmental pollution such as plastics from media reports. Most are also aware of issues like garbage and air pollution, but probably find ideas like biodiversity rather remote. Basically, it is because people don’t see imminent, tangible damage on their lives.

GQ: As argued by many environmental and climate activists in the city, including many youth student leaders, the Hong Kong government has done little to curb carbon emissions, pollution and waste issues. Do you agree with this? What can the government do better to tackle these issues?

CYL: I think that the government has a track record in reducing local emission of pollutants in Hong Kong. But I also contend that people should not rely completely on the government to solve all environmental problems. Climate change is caused by numerous people each doing their own things in some undesirable way. So this means the solution lies in the same number of people each doing the right things. The government’s role is to deliver policy frameworks and major infrastructure, to motivate people to do the right things and to protect the population from climate change-induced damage.

GQ: Given the scientifically proven impact that meat and dairy consumption has on our planet – water and air pollution, intensive resource usage and greenhouse gas emissions – should Hong Kong be prioritising promoting plant-based dietary habits?

CYL: Plant-based dietary habits may be promoted as one of the many things that individuals could choose to do to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and therefore climate change. Generally speaking, we should reduce meat and dairy consumption.

GQ: If you had to choose one action that all individuals in the world would take for a cause, what would it be?

CYL: Buy less and buy better. Reducing the magnitude of industrial production will contribute very significantly to the reduction of energy consumption, and therefore carbon dioxide emissions.

GQ: What inspires you and motivates you behind all of your work?

CYL: Birds are my friends; so are all living things. I think that I have an obligation to tell fellow human beings that we must learn to live alongside other life forms.  

GQ: Finally, a fun question that we ask everyone we interview at Green Queen: if you had to pick between rice or noodles, what would it be?

CYL: Rice, it has a high energy content per unit weight.


Lead image courtesy of HK01.


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