The office of Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed, near the edge of the capitol island of Male’, sits less than six feet above sea level, one reason he, like many of his countrymen, is concerned about rising sea levels.
During nearly three years in office Nasheed has shown a backbone far stronger than his small frame might suggest (he’s not much more than 5 feet tall), earning him both praise as “The Green President” and criticism from climate change skeptics.
On a humid, blue-sky day on the island of Kunfunadhoo, 150 miles south of the crowded capitol island, the 43-year-old president spoke to a small group gathered for the third annual SLOWLIFE Symposium. He gave an update on his global campaign to light fires under other political leaders around the globe.
The first democratically elected president in his home country, Nasheed is a former journalist and human rights activist who was jailed by his predecessor, Maumoon Gayoom, an autocratic leader who held the presidency for 30 years. He is expected to run against Nasheed in 2013.
There is some concern that Nasheed’s globe-trotting presidency, the subject of a new documentary (“The Island President”) that recently won the best documentary award at the Toronto International Film Festival, may be distancing him from voters back home. Some think he may be more popular outside of his own country than inside, where the economy, jobs, crime and illegal drugs are growing problems.
I had the opportunity to ask him whether he thought most people in the Maldives understand the seriousness of climate change and its potential impact on them. “People living in Male’ and other urban areas are quite knowledgeable about the environment,” he said, “particularly young people. In more remote parts of the country, people see that erosion is increasingly. 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.”
For now he shrugs off concerns, at least publicly, that his global campaign may be turning off voters at home, preferring to keep the focus on mankind’s continued burning of fossil fuels, which he believes, is killing the planet. “We don’t have much time,” he says, “just a window of opportunity of about seven years. If our leaders are not able to sort it out by then they should stop calling themselves leaders and get out.”
He gets a rise from the 80-person crowd when he asks, “Do you know what politicians get the most applause for?”
“Cutting ribbons at new power plants.”
“Politicians, including me, love to hear clapping. Now we just need to find an equivalent of ribbon cutting for green power plants and renewable energy sources.”
He went on to say he doesn’t regard climate change as an “earth science, but an economic, development, security and safety issue.
“Too often we hear leaders who say capping carbon emissions would result in poverty, of course this is not true at all.” He cites Iceland, an island state that became a developed country through its emphasis on renewable energy, as a great model.
“But it’s an upside down world today. The richest country on the planet, the United States, is the one most in debt. And the leader of the poor countries, China, is now the biggest investor in the world.”
Nasheed is not against a good publicity stunt to draw attention to his rhetoric, like holding the first-ever underwater cabinet meeting in 2009.
“We estimate that over one billion people watched, heard or read about the underwater cabinet meeting,” he said when I asked if the underwater session was more than just a stunt. “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. “
Sonu Shivdasani, CEO of the Six Senses resorts, which hosted the symposium, asked the president if he was worried about getting re-elected. “All of your actions have been well received on the global stage,” said Shivdasani, “but what are you doing in the Maldives to get that message across, to get the Maldivians to vote for your green party ticket? Isn’t your legacy at risk if you don’t get re-elected?”
Predicting that he would get re-elected “handsomely,” the president insisted that going forward no matter who is president of the Maldives will have to keep the focus on the environment.
“We have always lived right next to the elements and the sea is everywhere around us, making it far easier for us Maldivians to understand that if the ocean is out of balance, things will go wrong. Since the tsunami (2004) I think Maldivians are much more concerned about the environment.”
My experience though is that protect what we love and sometimes it’s hard to know just how much Maldivians can truly love the aquamarine ocean that surrounds since so many of them never learn to swim. While a group of a dozen young “Ocean Rangers” dressed in matching blue shirts kneel in front of the stage to listen to the President, the reality is that many in the Maldives have never used a mask and fins to explore their own “backyard.”
But Nasheed is convinced young Maldivians in particular appreciate what’s at risk. “I am very clear with them that if they destroy the reefs, they are destroying their homes.”
The president’s outspokenness prompts actor and environmental activist Edward Norton to offer a few words of praise. “I can’t think of many leaders around the world talking with such clarity and vision. And while I’m pretty sure you’re going to have a long tenure here, you’re still a young man. When you’re finished in the Maldives could you come and consider being president of the United States, we could use some of that clarity and honesty.”
“Most political leaders will do what their people tell them to do,” replied the president. “In the Maldives and the United States people must galvanize themselves to political action. People who can embrace the future now — today — will be the winners.”