If there is a ground zero for observing the impacts of a changing global climate the Maldives are definitely a front-runner.
It is a place many have heard of but few could easily pick out on a map. Comprised of twelve hundred islands and atolls, most pancake flat, the highest reaches no more than five feet above sea level … making the Maldives the lowest country on earth. Only two hundred of the islands are inhabited, by roughly 320,000 people. It is an always hot, exceedingly beautiful, Muslim country stretching about 600 miles from north to south in the heart of the Indian Ocean off the tip of Sri Lanka.
I have been visiting the islands since 2005, when I first went to assess the damages wreaked by the massive tsunami that rolled from Indonesia to Somalia. The Maldives were largely spared; its coral reefs absorbed the brunt of the wave. In the years since, as rising sea levels and warming sea surface temperatures have gained more and more headlines, so has this tiny island nation.
Today erosion is a big problem on many of the islands and most of its coral is badly bleached.
In the past few days an invested crowd of thinkers and doers, including the Maldives’ President Mohammed Nasheed and several members of his cabinet, gathered on the small island of Kunfunadhoo, for the third annual S.L.O.W.L.I.F.E Symposium.
Organized by the owners of the resort company Six Senses, Eva and Sonu Shivdasani, the barefoot conference brought together environmentalists from the United Kingdom including Jonathan Porritt, Tim Smits and Jeremy Leggett, National Geographic Emerging Explorer Mark Lynas (author of “Six Degrees” and the new “God Species”), renewable energy and island nation leaders from as far away as Reunion and Bali, ocean mariners including Fabien Cousteau and some incredibly dedicated headline-makers (Richard Branson and the actors Edward Norton and Daryl Hannah).
The subject of three days of talks was, What can be done fast to slow climate change, before it’s too late.
Topics ranged from how small island nations can become energy independent, how to engage local communities in ambitious carbon reduction plans and the challenge of adapting transportation in a low-carbon economy.
It’s clear there are no easy answers. Soon after arriving by float plane President Nasheed delivered a harsh message. “Carbon dioxide emissions are going to kill us,” he said. “Here in the Maldives our goal of becoming carbon neutral is not to scare the world, but simply to make a step in the right direction.”
While Nasheed leads an effort to make the Maldives the first carbon neutral country on the planet, by 2020, there are some good things to brag about here on the Laccadive Sea. Last year the country banned all shark fishing and any tuna in the Maldives are caught only by pole. Recently the Baa Atoll was declared a UNESCO Biosphere.
While the Maldives, with few natural resources but a growing population and energy demands, is on the forefront of nations attempting to take themselves off the grid it’s clear the problems are not a lack of knowledge and information. But the Maldivian government officials reiterated what stands in their way is not lack of knowledge but of money. It’s one thing to have great ideas and access to information; paying for progress is something else, especially in a country with a fledgling democracy and a history of high debt and bad credit.
But it is trying. By 2020 the Maldives hopes to generate 60 percent of its electricity from solar, without raising the cost of power to its consumers. It has introduced a new import regime by the Transport Ministry to ensure that in the future electric cars will be a third of the price of conventional gasoline cars. And it has pledged to spend two percent of its national income on renewable energy deployment in the country. If that figure were matched worldwide, we would be collectively be spending $1.25 trillion a year rather than the $260 billion we spend today on renewable energy sources.
Worrying to all island nations of course is that CO2 in the world’s atmosphere is not declining but growing, as development and growth continue to mount globally. The goal of reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million — what scientists regard as the safe limit for humans — may fast becoming an unreachable goal, since it has already risen to above 392 ppm.
One industry that prospers in the Maldives of course is tourism. Nearly 1 million visitors a year, including increasing numbers from China and India, fly into the capital city of Male each year and jump out to various island resorts by float plane or small boat. Taxes on resort development — and potentially new tariffs on visitors to support renewable energy projects — are the lifeblood of the Maldivian economy.