Natalie Chung in kayak in antartic surrounded by ice

Alumna Natalie Chung (MPhil 2021), founder of V'air Hong Kong, voyaged alongside accomplished deep ocean activist Dr Sylvia Earle to advocate for policies to protect nature's most important carbon sink - the Ocean.

Written by Aissa Dearing

While on a nine-day expedition to Antarctica, Natalie Chung, Climate Advocate for Asia, and Environmental Change and Management Alum (2021), sat down to write a heartfelt letter to her future self. But what sort of future would she find herself in?

Joined by accomplished oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle, 116 world-class conservationists, high-profile personalities, and ocean luminaries joined the expedition to draw attention to issues of anthropogenic environmental change seen in this extraordinary ecosystem.

Natalie, a young social entrepreneur, environmentalist, and sustainability leader from Hong Kong SAR, China, was selected to represent her country on the expedition. She was joined by other young people on the voyage, to express their climate optimism and expand their environmental imaginary by writing letters to future selves and loved ones, to be opened in 2050 and 2099. This helped Natalie to think about the world she intends to leave for her descendants, and she encourages others to be future-oriented in their solution-building too. The letter writing exercise served as a crucial reminder for everyone on board of what the current global climate movement often lacks — a sense of hope.

It was a crucial reminder for everyone on board of what the current global climate movement often lacks -- a sense of hope.

Dr Sylvia Earle, a role model for Natalie and a pioneer in the ocean conservation community, was another beacon of hope for all on board. As one of the first scientists to adventure into the deep ocean and the first to be recognized as the ‘'Hero of the Planet’ by Time Magazine, Dr Earle's (affectionately known as ‘Her Deepness’ to everyone on board) presence, leadership, and words of wisdom, inspired everyone. The voyage itself and the carbon-neutral ship held Dr Earle's namesake, recognizing her decades of commitment to protecting the ocean ecosystem.

During the expedition, Natalie experienced the cool waters of Antarctica through snorkeling, sightings of seals, whales, and penguins, and the powerful images captured by underwater photographers. Luckily, audiences worldwide will be able to experience the beauty of Antarctica from home — as a documentary on the expedition is expected to be released later this year.

Natalie is known for her passion for issues of justice and representation in ocean conservation activism. This year's expedition specifically prioritized centering communities that face the brunt of the climate crisis.

"Most people on board come from the Global North. And we need to ensure solutions are centered around the needs of indigenous people and the underprivileged communities in the Global South. Our discussion was more inclusive this year as there was an initiative to bring diverse perspectives on board.”

There was also a concerted effort to bring more young people into this work, with over 50 people under-30 on board. “This will be a great platform for many young people and older generations to come together to form intergenerational climate solutions. I think the youngest person on board was eleven, and the oldest was ninety,” said Natalie.

Sylvia and Natalie holding a pledge sign

Dr Sylvia Earle with Natalie Chung.

Natalie brought her MPhil in Environmental Change and Management experience to be systems-oriented in her thinking by identifying the nexus of sustainable, healthy, and socially-just solutions across temporalities. Together, experts from various cultures and backgrounds gathered to discuss and champion resolutions to accelerate carbon neutrality by 2035. On this expedition, field research (such as the collection of water samples, hydrophone sound recordings, and visual images) found that the effects of deep-sea mining, increased carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration, and microplastic pollution have even reached the farthest corners of our planet.

We still have the chance to transform tipping points into turning points through resolutions that will protect the blue heart of our planet in an inclusive and actionable manner.

We still have the chance to transform tipping points into turning points through resolutions that will protect the blue heart of our planet in an inclusive and actionable manner. With a limited window of opportunity until July 2023 to stop deep-sea mining — this expedition has catalyzed action to protect our oceans. So far, only twelve countries have committed to a total ban on deep-sea mining. Through her advocacy work post-expedition, Natalie is hoping to change this.

Back in Hong Kong, Natalie will work on localizing the resolutions from the expedition to a Chinese context and support the creation of climate action-plans for local and regional governments. Her calls-to-action include:

● a ban on deep sea mining from Asia-Pacific countries;

● the protection of kelp forests;

● banning certain microplastics,

● banning krill fishing.

Natalie spoke of the deception that mining companies have peddled regarding deep-sea mining. These companies often claim that the minerals needed for the renewable energy transition can only be extracted through deep-sea mining. This is a classic example of greenwashing. These minerals can be found on land elsewhere. Protecting blue carbon by maintaining kelp forests and banning krill fishing, keeps carbon stored in biomass and maintains the strength of ocean biodiversity. Banning certain microplastics found in the microfibers of fast fashion, specific fishing equipment, and cosmetic products with plastic microbeads — will also promote the health of marine life.

Natalie said: “The high seas are not owned by a single country, and the burden of proof to prevent the destruction of these precious ecosystems is next to none. With an international treaty governing the high seas, we can better regulate companies degrading nature's most vital carbon sink.”

Natalie's organization, V'air Hong Kong, which she founded as a first-year undergrad in 2015, is raising awareness of the importance of ocean research and conservation through the addition of marine-based ecotours to educate her community. V'air Hong Kong promotes low-carbon tourism to traditionally terrestrial areas of outstanding natural beauty across Hong Kong to combat carbon emissions from aviation.

Natalie said: “The average per capita, 20% of Hong Kong's greenhouse gas emissions, are from luxury aviation travel — since Hong Kong is situated so close to Japan, South Korea, and China, many people often weekend in those international tourist destinations.”

“Only thirty percent of Hong Kong is a built environment,” said Natalie. “The rest is natural landscape.” A fact that many are shocked by. She's working on expanding her ecotours by including routes that will exhibit the beauty of the marine ecosystem. V'air has just hired its first full-time staff member and is looking to expand into the venture capital space to fund start-up companies in eco-tourism and marine ecosystem solutions. Natalie has put out a call for project proposals from companies in need of investment in this space.

By showcasing the beauty of her home through ecotours, Natalie is not only cutting Hong Kong's carbon footprint, but showing long-time residents of Hong Kong that hope for the future can be found in the stunning rock formations, mountains, and wetlands that are in the city's backyard.

Aissa Dearing

Aissa Dearing (they/she) is a current Environmental Change and Management student from Durham, North Carolina, USA. Her research interests lie at the nexus of political theory, sustainable development, food systems transformation, and greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Aissa has a breadth of multi-sector experience, most notably working in the Biden-Harris White House, philanthropy, Durham-based non-profits, climate journalism, and environmental justice policy development. She will continue her research this year as a DPhil in Geography and the Environment with a Clarendon Scholarship.