“I hope the Maldives can help avert a climate catastrophe”

Mohamed Nasheed

The Maldives, a long chain of hundreds of low-lying coral islands in the Indian Ocean, faces an increasingly real threat from rising sea levels, but the government hopes that it can put its perilous situation to good use by serving as the world’s climate change laboratory. In this exclusive interview with Global, President Mohamed Nasheed spells out his government’s thinking and strategy. 

Global: When you held a cabinet meeting underwater in 2009, you successfully drew the world’s attention, at least for a little while, to the plight of the small island nations threatened by climate change, particularly by sea level rises. Did that staged event have any measurable impact or do you think there should simply be more such actions around the world until there is more widespread awareness? 

President Mohamed Nasheed: The government estimates that close to a billion people watched, listened to or read about the underwater cabinet meeting. In fact people still talk about it today. As PR stunts go, this was a good one. The Maldives is just a small country with 350,000 people and we have modest means. We don’t have the resources to hire expensive PR firms and we are not big enough to command the world’s attention unless we do something out of the box and a bit radical. This is what we aimed to do with the underwater cabinet meeting and we were pleased with the result. 

The event certainly raised awareness of the acute climate vulnerabilities low-lying small island states face. Whether simply raising awareness is enough to tackle the climate crisis remains to be seen.

The Maldives believes that if we can make a radical shift from oil to a renewable energy-based economy, we can lead by example and other countries will follow. I hope that our carbon neutral plans will show that a radical energy transformation is possible and desirable.

If we can achieve carbon neutrality, along with some of the awareness-raising things we do, I hope the Maldives can make a real difference to help avert a climate catastrophe. 

Do you see the Maldives serving as a kind of global scientific observatory in which critical changes in sea levels, ocean pollution, damage to coral reefs etc, are monitored? 

We have always said that we want to position the Maldives as the world’s climate change laboratory. This involves creating centres of excellence where companies can come and test out the very latest solar, wind and wave technologies. But we also want to become a laboratory for examining our unique atoll ecosystem and, in particular, the impact climate change might have on it. Earlier this year, the government inaugurated an outpost of the University of Milan-Bicocca in Faafu Atoll, Magoodhoo. This research lab will study coral formation and the potential impact of warming and acidifying seas, which is caused by climate change, on coral reefs. 

The waters around the Maldives are extremely rich in fish. Some species face rapid depletion. Can a small island nation exploit the size of its large exclusive economic zone to bring about more rational and sustainable management of the oceans’ fish resources? 

In the Maldives, we fish one by one, with pole and line. We do not use purse seine or large nets. According to Greenpeace, the Maldives has one of the world’s most sustainable fisheries. Anybody who comes to the Maldives will testify that our waters are teeming with marine life. The problem is that other countries are sending large purse seine fleets to the Indian Ocean, which is having a dramatic impact on migratory fish such as tuna. Even though we fish sustainably within our territorial waters, when another country acts irresponsibly in the Indian Ocean, it still affects us. 

Across the world, many fish stocks have crashed because of overfishing. Overfishing is allowed because politicians tend to prioritise short-term business interests over the long-term survival of their fishing industries. I hope that countries start to see sense on this issue before we face the unprecedented depletion of global fish stocks. 

If sea levels rise as predicted by many experts, the entire population of the Maldives may have to be relocated, some say by the year 2100. Does your government have preliminary preparations underway for such an eventuality? 

There is no greater threat to the Maldives than that posed by the climate crisis. The best available science predicts that sea levels will rise by 0.5 to 2 metres by the end of the 21st century, assuming global warming increases average temperatures by 4 degrees Celsius.

Our islands are on average just 1.5 metres above the ocean, so even a 0.5-metre rise in sea level will be catastrophic. If sea levels rise by 2 metres, we will have to abandon the Maldives and find a new home on higher land abroad. 

The government has floated the idea of creating a special fund in which we can save for a rainy day – to pay for any potential evacuation of the Maldives. It is designed to be an insurance policy in case the worst happens. We hope we will never have to draw upon it. 

How do you and other small island nations feel about the outcome of COP15 and COP16? Is the apparent continuing stalemate between the positions of the US and China causing the rest of the world to slide back into apathy? Or is it now more a case of encouraging more widespread citizen-based action on the environment, regardless of the treaty obligations between the big nations? 

We worked very hard to get an agreement in Copenhagen, and at Cancun we were pleased that the modest successes of the Copenhagen Accord were firmly anchored in the UNFCCC process. We hope that in South Africa later this year, countries will have the foresight and common sense to agree on a global treaty to rapidly decarbonise the world economy. 

“We have always said that we want to position the Maldives as the world’s climate change laboratory. This involves creating centres of excellence where companies can come and test out the very latest solar, wind and wave technologies.

And we hope to test the impact of warming on our coral reefs”

However, politicians rarely act unless their people act first. Citizens organising campaigns, protests and pressure, particularly in countries such as the United States, are very important to try and get the government to implement sensible climate policies. Likewise, it is important that we expose the lies, smear tactics and disinformation that is put forward by climate deniers, many of whom are paid by the fossil fuel industry. 

People power is important but alone is unlikely to create the change we need to slash carbon dioxide emissions. This is why I think the example the Maldives can set with its 2020 carbon neutral target is important. If we can show that low carbon development is both possible and profitable, then I suspect many other countries will sit up and realise that moving away from fossil fuels makes economic, security and environmental sense.

About the author:

Mohamed Nasheed is the first democratically elected President in the history of the Republic of the Maldives.


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