Forty-two-year-old President Mohammed Nasheed is the first democratically elected president in the island nation of the Maldives, home to 375,000 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. I interviewed him for our new book OCEANS, The Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do To Turn the Tide.
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 affects 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 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.
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.