A Call for Climate Action from Former President of the Maldives

On Thursday March 29, 2012, President Mohammed Nasheed, the former head of the Maldives, was interviewed by Professor Michael Gerrard, head of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. The packed audience watched 3 videos to start the event: the first on the Underwater Cabinet Meeting of 2009, then the movie trailer for the newly released film, The Island President, and finally the inside story on the recent coupwhich forced President Nasheed to resign from office this past February.

Professor Gerrard began the discussion by asking President Nasheed about the coup and his forced resignation. Historically, the Maldives had their first democratic elections in 2008, after years of dictatorship. However, after 3 and one-half years of democracy, the coup was carefully staged and President Nasheed was forced to resign. Since the coup people have been rallying in favor of a democratic election, but a date hasn’t been scheduled until 2013. President Nasheed expressed concern that the more time passes, the playing field would be squandered and the current regime will become more entrenched. President Nasheed and his colleagues are trying to figure out how to have free and fair elections again, and he emphatically stated that he would not give up or relent. He added that he has been trying to advocate for a more liberal Maldives, and for a more tolerant version of Islam, which includes the freedom of expression and press. But because bigger democracies recognized the coup regime very quickly it caused an issue for President Nasheed and he questioned how on their own they are to get back on track to democracy.

Professor Gerrard then turned the discussion to climate change. Some facts about the Maldives: the average ground level of the Maldives is only 1.5M (4 ft, 11 inches about sea level and its highest point is 2.4M, or 7Ft, 10in). Currently 16 of the 1192 islands need to be relocated now because these islands are sinking due to the ocean rise from global warming. A number of the islands need embankments. President Nasheed emphasized that climate change is happening now, not in the future and we need to pressure the international commissions to address climate change now. He went on to state that the science is not ambiguous but unless there is a legally binding agreement among nations, climate change will cause a disaster for the world, not just the Maldives: “What happens to the Maldives today will happen to everyone tomorrow.” Further, when Professor Gerrard questioned President Nasheed on the topic of relocating people, he spoke of his conversation with an elderly woman. He said that she said: ‘you can move a population but where do the colors, sounds and butterflies go?’ He also went on to say “people don’t necessarily want to move and people wont move and do collective suicide. The vast majority will stay. One quarter of the world’s population live in low-lying areas. This will create all sorts of challenges.”

President Nasheed continued on ”…that the people of a country need to convince their governments to have better climate change policies, as politicians should do what they are told.” He feels that Americans are not telling their elected officials enough, because at this point, climate change is not a major issue in the upcoming Presidential election.

Professor Gerrard then stopped their conversation and took questions from the audience. The questions varied in range but all were connected to climate change or the current political situation in the Maldives. The noteworthy questions began with his thoughts on the UN climate negotiations and his assessment. The President felt that the UNFCCCprocess functions on the lowest comment denominator among nations. Meaning that if we have three countries, we dilute our position to accommodate the third country. He said there needs to be another negotiating process as not much substance is being produced and we cannot keep going without a result. The Copenhagen agreement depended on member country approval, meaning it needed each country’s legislative approval, and that came down to the people of the country.

Additionally, President Nasheed discussed the agreements in relation to the rise in the planet’s temperature, specifically the difference between the rise between 2°C and 1.5°C. If the world temperature rises more than 1.5°C, the sea level rise will mean that island nations will not survive. Copenhagen talked about a 1.5°C rise. Further, carbon emission totals need to be below 350 Parts Per Million (PPM), now we are at 385PPM and rising. He then went on to discuss greenhouse gases, and stated that this is an issue for all countries, but the idea of emissions being the same for larger emitting countries and smaller developing counts is ridiculous, we all won’t be around if we use this tact. We all must be responsible for protecting the environment, and it should not matter if a country is developed or developing.

Next someone asked about the fossil fuel industry, and various influences on governments. President Nasheed said that developing democracy in the Maldives is working against the odds (because of the coup) but he can’t and won’t relent. He continued to say that oil companies don’t want to reduce emissions but doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on it. People need to bring change. He went onto include his bigger theme – that if people of the planet decide to do something, it should happen, we can do it.

The next question asked about how do the island nations balance the debate on climate change. President Nasheed replied that what is happening will happen, the option is to brace ourselves with adaptation. He also said that countries need democracy, a proper legislation, government and a sustainable revenue stream – as adaptation is very expensive – and new technologies. Governments must be willing to invest in research because now people are just left to brace themselves for the impact (of climate change).

The next question addressed the UN process and the future path of the UN. President Nasheed felt that the UN is asking countries not to do something, but if you ask countries to do more instead of not, say open renewable energy plants, we can arrive at the destination in the same way using better energy. In Durban, countries were asked to reduce and also increase production of renewable energy. He stated that fossil fuel is obsolete, we must embrace the future and embrace new technology – embrace them to do things over not doing things.

The next and final few questions all went on to have answers with a very similar theme, and he kept reiterating his point over and over. Basically his call was for advocacy through direct action – by rallies, demonstrations and community work:‘ just go out into the streets and get into it’. He also said that this is not just an earth science issue but also an economic and human rights one as well. This theme kept being reiterated when being asked about Rio+20. He felt that conferences won’t work, that people action bring change, “Don’t expect anything from any UN conference – people need to take action.” He also does believe in market-based solutions that we need to reassess ourselves and come up with new economics. But even with that, he still went back to say that, “you can’t impress upon politicians enough to have them act. We must influence them.” For the upcoming U.S. election, he suggested using social media and getting organized. He acknowledged that its difficult but this is the only way to do it.


By Lauren Lavitt, Human Impacts Institute Climate Outreach Specialist

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