The Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean could disappear by the end of the century. Global warming threatens to raise sea levels, submerging the low-lying archipelago. Newly-elected President Mohamed Nasheed has therefore set himself the task of holding back the tide of climate change.
The Maldivian president is 1.58 meters (5’2″) tall. Perhaps he was once a little taller, but his back was ruined in prison. He has forgiven the people who hurt him. He now has a very different problem on his hands. At its geographic peak, his country is not much higher above sea level than his actual height, and on average it is about a hand-width lower. Apart, that is, from the huge plastic-flecked mound of construction rubble behind the power plant in Male, the nation’s capital, although that doesn’t really count. What does count is the fact that the Indian Ocean could rise by half a meter by the end of the century. At the same time, a coral atoll is growing at a rate of up to a centimeter a year — provided the corals are left in peace, and waste isn’t simply tipped into the sea. Nothing is particularly simple anymore, and yet politics demands simple messages.
That’s how His Excellency Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Republic of Maldives, ended up in the crystal-clear waters of the lagoon around Girifushi Island, his nose just a few centimeters above sea level, for the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting. “Mr. President!” calls an Indian journalist from Star TV, holding out a telescopic microphone like a lifesaving pole. “What will happen if the countries at the climate conference in Copenhagen fail to agree on binding CO2 levels?” “We’ll all die!” the president replies.
It was Nasheed who had the idea to hold a cabinet meeting five meters below sea level to sign a declaration entitled “SOS from the Frontline” in the run-up to International Climate Action Day on Oct. 24. “Climate change is happening and it threatens the rights and security of everyone on Earth,” read the declaration. “We must unite in a global effort to halt further temperature rises by slashing carbon dioxide emissions to a safe level of 350 parts per million. Endorsed by the cabinet of the Republic of Maldives on Oct. 17, 2009.”
And he was the one who commissioned a TV commercial in which three men calmly chat about the weather as if they were sitting in a café rather than underwater. The advert was aired on state TV channel TVM on an hourly basis.
Speaking to reporters on the day of his underwater meeting, the president said, “If we can’t save the Maldives today, we do not feel that there is much of a chance for the rest of the world,” adding that London and Manhattan could one day experience the same problems the Maldives were facing today.
In recent months Nasheed has become something of a Dalai Lama figure for environmentalists. Al Gore refers to him when warning about the possibilities of forced migration as a result of climate change. Time magazine recently included Nasheed in its ‘Heroes of the Environment’ list. He’s even had an audience with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
But all that was before Sept. 24, 2009, the day of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Barack Obama had spoken, so too had Muammar Gaddafi. Then Nasheed stepped onto the podium, a slightly-built man with neatly-parted hair and unremarkable features.
“I am extremely pleased to be here,” his speech began, though it was more than a mere turn of phrase. “I have spent many of the past General Assembly sessions locked in a hot, humid, damp cell, with my hands shackled and my feet bound.”
No-one applauded — not out of ill will, but because UN delegates are rarely on the edge of their seat when a representative of the Maldives addresses them. It is usually a time to go for a coffee or to work on some files. Most of the seats were empty as Nasheed spoke.
“Every beach (could be) lost to rising seas, every house lost to storm surges, every reef lost to increasingly warm waters,” he said, his voice getting louder, and his articulation growing less clear. Nasheed said dwindling fish stocks threatened every job in the country, and every life was in danger of being lost to more extreme weather, making it harder and harder to govern the country “until the point is reached when we must consider abandoning our homeland.”
Nasheed urged world leaders to agree to climate goals at December’s summit in Copenhagen. “To do otherwise would be to sign a death warrant for the 300,000 Maldivians,” he said. And raising his voice a notch, he announced, “We are going to be the first country to go carbon-neutral in 10 years time.” Nasheed finished with the words, “If we want to save the world, I suggest that saving the Maldives is a very good starting point. Thank you, Mr. President.”
By the end of the century sea levels “could” rise by between 18 and 59 centimeters depending on the assumptions of the relevant model and your location on the planet.
It’s a mental game played in the subjunctive. Climate change skeptics and climate researchers, doomsayers and grumblers, malcontents, deniers, and doomsday hysterics are battling it out in the newspapers. Those on one side say the debate about greenhouse gases is being conducted like an ideological conflict that climate change has become a secular religion that is about “truth” rather than scientific probability.
Fair enough, the other side says. But with the polar icecaps melting, all those who insist on debating further rather than acting will have coming generations to answer to.
That’s also the position taken by Mohamed Nasheed. He says it’s like Blaise Pascal’s bet on God: “Even if you are skeptical about a sea level rise, in the case that it is true, it’s better to be secure.”
The Maldives have joined the Association of Small Island States, an alliance whose 43 members also include half- and quarter-islands like Belize. One if its demands is for preventative climatic asylum on the mainland. The south Pacific island states of Tuvalu and Kiribati have already filed the necessary applications in Australia and New Zealand. They will now be able to decide when their people should abandon their islands. When they do, the displaced islanders will be given work and residency permits in their new home.
At the end of last year Nasheed announced that the Maldives was setting up a fund to buy land in Australia as a kind of lifeline. Nasheed’s political adversaries call it scare-mongering — as do some of his allies.
Unfortunately there’s no money in the bank for such a plan, and Nasheed will need every dollar he can get if he’s to keep his other promises. The country is still relatively far from achieving carbon neutrality. Waste is still shipped to Thilafushi island, where it is burned, mostly at night.
Few islands have sewage treatment plants. Every half hour, the sewage and waste water produced on the main island is pumped out into the ocean, chemicals, radioactive waste, and all.
Bluepeace, a local environmental organization, says it has evidence this is starting to damage the coral banks around Male. That would be fatal. After all, the corals did more than any breakwater to protect the islands from the force of the tsunami that swept through Asia on December 26, 2004. These corals will continue growing — provided they’re left in peace, that is. This means halting the acidification of the oceans and preventing significant changes in temperature. Which again is linked to greenhouse gases. Local=global=local.
Nasheed is already thinking about his next moves. “We have an abundance of natural resources, for instance the sun, the wind, and the waves, the wind, ocean currents, and the sun. If we can harness them instead of using fuel we believe that this can happen, we believe that this is the intelligent way of doing things,” he said after his dive, wet but relieved. “The winners of the 21st century are those who are able to change and make technology jump.”
Source – Spiegel OnLine International
For the unabridged, unedited feature, visit Spiegel OnLine International – 31st October, 2009, at http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,658373,00.html