Last year, ocean explorer Jon Bowermaster interviewed President Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives for his book ‘OCEANS, The Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide (Public Affairs)‘, which accompanied the Jacques Perrin ‘OCEANS‘ film. Below is an extract from this interview.
Forty-four-year-old President Mohamed Nasheed is the first democratically elected president in the island nation of the Maldives, home to 400,000 people in the Indian Ocean off the tip of Sri Lanka. A former human rights activist and journalist, he was jailed and tortured by his predecessor. Today he is one of the most outspoken politicians in the world on the impact of climate change and its impact on all coastal areas, especially the Maldives.
Jon Bowermaster: How immediate is the problem of climate change and rising seas in the Maldives today? What evidence are you seeing?
President Nasheed: Climate change is not a distant or abstract phenomenon in the Maldives. The effects of climate change are being felt today. One third of inhabited islands in the Maldives are suffering from coastal erosion, which is exacerbated by climate change. Fishermen are complaining that weather patterns have become unpredictable and warmer and more acidic seas threaten our coral reefs. If the world fails to curb carbon dioxide emissions and global temperatures continue to soar, these problems will worsen over the coming decades.
JB: Have sea levels risen already?
PN: The Environment Ministry calculates that sea levels in the Maldives are rising by 0.7 mm per year, which is around the global average. The big fear, however, is that this rise in sea level accelerates as climate change starts to rise even more towards the end of this century. This is a concern not just to the Maldives, but all low-lying areas around the world.
A one-meter rise in sea levels, which some climate scientists warn will happen if nothing is done to reduce carbon pollution, would be devastating for the Maldives. Such a rise would also inundate other low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands and seriously threaten many of the world’s coastal cities. We must not allow this to happen.
JB: Soon after your election you announced plans to look for higher ground to move your people to. Where are you looking and how is the search going?
PN: Nobody in the Maldives wants to leave home. The government is doing everything we possibly can to remain here. We are improving sea defenses, such as sea walls, revetments and embankments. We are working to improve the coral reefs and coastal vegetation, which are our islands’ natural defense mechanisms. And we are exploring new building designs, such as building houses on stilts so they withstand storm surges and floods.
The bottom line, however, is dry land and if the world allows the climate crisis to turn into a catastrophe, then future generations of Maldivians will have no choice but to seek new homes on higher ground. I believe it is right to have this conversation today so we can start to plan for the problems tomorrow may bring.
Last year, I suggested we should start saving a portion of our tourism revenues in a Sovereign Wealth Fund, to help future generations cope with climate change. Ultimately, this fund could be used to help people leave. Again, I stress that this is not a problem unique to the Maldives. We are merely the first people who are talking out loud about these issues. If we ignore the warning signs and continue blindly down a ‘business as usual’ polluting path, then it will not just be Maldivians looking for a new home but also the good people of London, New York and Hong Kong.
JB: In your travels around the Maldives do you find that most people understand the seriousness of climate change and its potential impact on them?
PN: People living in Male’ and other urban areas are quite knowledgeable about the environment, particularly young people. In more remote parts of the country, people see that erosion is increasing. They know that the fish catch is more irregular and they understand that coral reefs are stressed. Maldivians know there are environment problems which affect their daily lives and that these problems are linked to global climate change.
JB: You’ve also proposed that the Maldives will become the first carbon neutral country in the planet. How is that going and have you set a timeline?
PN: We have a plan to make the Maldives carbon neutral in ten years. At the heart of this plan lies a commitment to renewable energy. 155 1.5MW wind turbines, coupled with half a square kilometer of solar panels and a back-up biomass plant would produce enough green energy to power the country. Aviation is trickier. Until airlines can switch to biofuels, there is little the Maldives can do other than offset the pollution caused by international tourist flights, by investing in carbon reduction schemes elsewhere.
Our carbon neutral plan is on track. This year, the government has started working with a number of international energy companies to build wind farms, which we hope will provide the bulk of our electricity. We are also working with the Government of Japan on a $10 million solar project, to install photovoltaic panels on schools and government buildings in and around the capital.
JB: You recently convened an underwater meeting of your entire cabinet. Whose idea was that? Some in the press called it a ‘stunt’ – which is not always a bad thing, when you’re trying to draw attention to important issues.
PN: It was a cabinet decision to conduct the underwater meeting. We estimate that over one billion people watched, heard or read about the underwater cabinet meeting. While it was a bit of fun, it underscored a serious message. I hope the meeting raised people’s awareness about the dangers climate change poses to the Maldives and the rest of the world. I hope that some of those people go on to ask their own politicians what they are doing to help solve the climate crisis. It is only when people start holding leaders to account, when politicians start losing elections over environmental issues, that they will treat climate change with the seriousness it deserves.
JB: How many feet above sea level is your bedroom? Office?
PN: The President’s office is about six feet above sea level.
JB: What can bigger nations do to help lessen contributions to climate change, which will adversely impact island nations first?
PN: To save the Maldives – and the rest of the world – we need to halt climate change. It is as simple, and as complicated, as that. And to halt climate change, we must listen to the advice of those who know best. Not politicians, but climate scientists.
Scientists used to be concerned about climate change. But after the massive loss of polar ice two years ago, that concern turned to alarm. Scientists realized that global warming was happening more quickly and on a larger scale than they had anticipated. Wherever scientists’ looked — high-altitude glaciers, hydrological cycles, and the spread of mosquitoes — they found change happening decades ahead of schedule. Average global temperatures have risen by about two degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution but this has been enough to tilt the world’s climate off balance.
In January 2008, James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climatologists, published a series of papers showing that the safe limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at most 350 parts per million. Anything higher than that limit, warns Hansen, could seed “irreversible, catastrophic effects” on a global scale. At the moment, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 387 ppm and rising. Reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to 350 is our best chance of preventing global temperatures from rising even further.
Sadly, most politicians have chosen to ignore these warnings and still talk about limiting temperature rises to four degrees Fahrenheit. But a four-degree temperature rise would not stop climate change. Rather, four degrees will sink the Maldives, melt Greenland and devastate the Amazon rainforest. Four degrees would also turn most of the Mediterranean into desert. We must not allow that to happen.
We all need to stop polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, which we know are poisoning our world. And we need to start using the renewable resources we all have in abundance to power the planet, namely, the sun, the sea and the wind.
JB: Many of the things causing climate change are created far from the shores of the Maldives. Do you hold the big industrial nations responsible for a problem now dramatically facing your country?
PM: Blaming others for causing the climate crisis is not necessarily the best way to solve it. What’s done is done. We want to focus on the future, not on the past. The industrialized nations have the greatest changes to make, in terms of transforming their economies towards carbon neutrality. But developing nations also have responsibilities. If we want to reduce carbon pollution in the atmosphere, developing nations cannot pursue the same, dirty development path that the West did. We must embrace renewable energy and green growth. Developing countries are relatively poor, however. To my mind, it makes sense that Western nations, that have the money and technical resources, should help poorer, developing nations go green. It is in everyone’s interest that richer countries play this leadership role, while also transforming their own economies.
JB: In the face of the growing consensus that our seas will rise, perhaps more quickly than we now expect, how do you maintain your apparent sense of optimism?
PN: I believe in humanity and human ingenuity. I do not believe that humans are suicidal or that the path ahead is insurmountable. I believe that the winners of the 21st Century will be those countries that jettison dirty fossil fuels for renewable energy and green technologies. These pioneering countries will free themselves from the unpredictable price of foreign oil. They will corner the market in the green industries of the future. These countries will also have greater moral authority and political clout on the world stage. The Maldives has committed to carbon neutrality but our efforts alone will not stop climate change. We need other nations to come on board and commit to carbon neutrality. Politicians rarely act unless their electorates push them to do so. In that regard, I would invite everyone living in a country that has not signed up to carbon neutrality to ask their elected representatives why they are dragging their feet on the most important issue in human history.
President Mohamed Nasheed will provide the keynote address at the SLOW LIFE Symposium on Saturday 8th October. Mike Mason, Energy Advisor to the President, will unveil the government’s Renewable Energy Investment Framework, which will set out the course to carbon neutrality by 2020.
Jon Bowermaster will join Fabien Cousteau and Chris Gorell Barnes in a discussion on Preserving Ocean Biodiversity.