'The Island President': Mohamed Nasheed, Former Maldives Leader, Battles Climate Change

How One Man Led A (Literally) Drowning Nation

Maldives is going underwater. Literally.

Due to rising sea levels, studies suggest that the country, a chain of nearly 1,200 islands, could be uninhabitable by 2100. What's the leader of the lowest lying country on Earth to do?

If you're former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, you pull underwater publicity stunts, aim to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country and allow a documentary crew to follow your desperate attempts to salvage a nation.

Despite having recently been ousted from the presidency in an alleged "coup," Nasheed led a fervent fight against man-made climate change while in power. "The Island President," a documentary by filmmaker Jon Shenk, follows Nasheed's first year as president of the Maldives, culminating in the carbon emissions battle at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit.

Shenk described to The Huffington Post the “wonder of the world” that he found filming in the Maldives. And yet, “you go to the beaches and see that they have to use sandbags to stop the sand eroding. You go to the sea walls and see the water is coming over the walls. It’s a place where climate change is already having an impact.”

One challenge for Nasheed was how to communicate the problems currently apparent in the Maldives to countries where the impacts of climate change are not yet as drastic or visible. “Manhattan is an island," he said. "If the Maldives have difficulties, Manhattan will have difficulties.”

Research conducted for the nonprofit group Climate Central recently found that rising sea levels also pose a threat to coastal regions of the U.S., including New York. A study last year revealed that rising sea levels could threaten 180 U.S. cities by 2100.

A separate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently predicted an increase in extreme weather caused in part by climate change -- by 2030, rising seas and hurricanes could boost property damage to the coastal U.S. by 20 percent. The Associated Press highlighted a finding from the report that portions of Mumbai may become uninhabitable, while cities such as Miami and Shanghai are also at risk.

According to the World Health Organization, over one-third of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a seashore.

What will happen once other nations start to feel the pressure of rising sea levels? Nasheed cited climate refugees and strained water resources as two looming issues.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) writes on its website that “the consequences of climate change are enormous. Scarce natural resources such as drinking water are likely to become even more limited. Many crops and some livestock are unlikely to survive in certain locations if conditions become too hot and dry, or too cold and wet. Food security is an immediate concern in many parts of the world.”

“We must have policies to address [these issues]. You can’t win an election just on gasoline prices," Nasheed said. "You must be able to give a future to your people. To your children.”

In 2009, Nasheed declared his country would become carbon neutral within a decade. Beyond the environmental reasons for such a shift, he feels “it’s economically more viable. Fossil fuel is far, far more expensive than sun. All that you need are new technologies and capital investments to lay the panels. After that, it runs by itself.”

The “all that you need” portion is worth noting -- in 2009, an estimated $1.1 billion in investments would be required to shift the Maldives from dependence on diesel to solar in a decade.

PRI’s The World wrote earlier this year that the transition currently requires an investment of an estimated $3 to $5 billion. The World suggests that while economic benefits may be reaped in the long term, there are short term challenges. “Solar panels can corrode in salty marine environments like this. Space is at a premium on many of the country’s tiny islands. And in most of the country, the wind only blows a few months a year,” forcing the country to explore more innovative technologies.

Some argue (particularly in the U.S.) that because of the challenges and the upfront costs, now is not the time to invest in alternative energy. GOP candidates in the upcoming U.S. presidential election have criticized President Barack Obama's interest in renewables: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich deemed Obama "President Algae" for supporting biofuel research, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney suggested that Obama should fire "the gas-hike trio" -- the energy secretary, interior secretary and EPA head -- “on a mission to drive up the price of gasoline and all energy so that they can finally get their solar and their wind to be more price competitive."

In contrast, Nasheed argued that the current economic climate “means that we have to go into renewable energy. We have to come up with a new economy, we have to come up with another system, where we are able to deal with what is happening to the universe ... The technology that we have is obsolete. The ideas that we have are obsolete.”

“We have to start thinking outside the box. We have to be able to call a spade a spade. We have to find ways through which our public is made aware of the gravity of the issue," he added. "Reduction of carbon emissions and a decent life have so many links between them. We must be able to sell that to our people, and a good leader can.”

Both Nasheed and Shenk argue that change ultimately falls on the general public. “Leaders will only act when their people tell them to act. By themselves, they don’t want to do anything, they just want to sit around,” Nasheed said with a grin. “Please believe me, I am a politician.”

He emphasized the need for climate change to become an election issue, and for the public to demand change. After all, he said, “What happens to the Maldives today is going to happen to everyone else tomorrow.”

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