Fallen Climate Superstar: The Fight for Democracy and Survival in the Maldives

by Mark Hertsgaard

This essay, presented in conjunction with the screening of The Island President at Film Society Cinema, is part of the Film Society's Global Threats Film Series, made possible with support from the San Francisco-based Skoll Global Threats Fund.

He's been called "the Mandela of the Maldives." And like anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, Mohammed Nasheed began public life as a courageous democracy activist who was jailed for years by a repressive regime he eventually helped to overthrow.  Also like Mandela, Nasheed was a stunningly handsome, charismatic candidate who went on to win the first free and fair elections in his country's history.  To the outside world, however, this 44 year old Liverpool John Moore's University graduate and father of two has been best known as a crusader against climate change, a reputation he acquired by holding the world's first underwater cabinet meeting, in 2009, to dramatize the threat that rising seas pose to the Maldives, a scattering of 1,200 low-lying islands off the southwest tip of India that boast some of the most beautiful beaches and high-end resorts on earth.

Nasheed solidified his hero's status at the otherwise discouraging Copenhagen climate summit later that year, where I saw his star power first hand.  Covering the summit for Vanity Fair and The Nation, I interviewed the Maldivian president hours after he had addressed a large gathering of climate activists in downtown Copenhagen. Introduced by Bill McKibben, the author and activist who founded the grassroots group 350.org, Nasheed thrilled the crowd by doing what no other head of government had done: endorsing the goal of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million.  The 350 ppm target was derided as impossible, even naïve, by most of the negotiators at Copenhagen; after all, the concentration was already 387 ppm and climbing as global population and fossil fuel burning increased.  Nevertheless, more and more science indicated that returning to 350 ppm was necessary if humanity was to preserve a climate similar to that under which civilization has developed over the past ten thousand years.  After leading the crowd in a chant of "350, 350, 350," Nasheed exited the stage to thunderous applause, passing a sign that read, "You Are Our Global President."

The next day, I hurried along beside the president as he rushed from one meeting to the next inside the Bella Center, the vast conventional hall where the official negotiations were held.  We looked quite a pair, I'm told.  Nasheed stands no more than five feet, six inches and has the copper colored skin of his Indian Ocean ancestors; I'm six feet two and as pale and thin as our Danish hosts.  I had to bend my head low to hear his words as Nasheed said that the 350 ppm target might look unrealistic to some, but it was essential to the survival of his low-lying country and numerous others.  Indeed, Nasheed wanted the final agreement at Copenhagen to enshrine a temperature cap of 1.5 C, not the 2 C usually regarded as the "red line" for dangerous climate change.  "The idea is that people will agree not to murder others," he told me.  "Anything above 1.5 C and we [in the Maldives] have had it."

And then it happened.  We emerged from the restricted area of the Bella Center into the public zone where activists and other members of civil society had their booths, conducted briefings and ate meals.  Seated on the floor, a gaggle of young people suddenly took notice of Nasheed heading toward them.  Instantly, their eyes widened, their faces took on a rapturous glow and they leaped to their feet, clapping and shouting, "Thank you, Mr. President."  Their cheers alerted others and in seconds Nasheed was surrounded by scores of adoring activists, whooping and hollering and snapping photos on their cell phones as the president smiled and continued towards his next meeting.  It was real rock star adulation, unlike what I saw any other government official receive at the Copenhagen summit.

Now, barely two years later—and just in time for the release of a fine new documentary about him, The Island President—Nasheed has been forcibly removed from office by a military coup.  Although initial news reports were confusing, it now seems clear that when Nasheed resigned as president of the Maldives on February 7, he did so under extreme duress, compelled by military officials and others loyal to the former dictatorship, who warned that Nasheed and many others would die if he did not step down immediately.

The plotters themselves have admitted as much.  "I said [to Nasheed], if you did not resign there were only two options," Umar Naseer, the vice president of the People's Progressive Party of Maldives, told a televised public rally in the capital city of Male' on February 12.  "Firstly, resign with bloodshed. Next, resign peacefully. And [I told him] one of these two would happen today."  (For more on the coup and its aftermath, watch this gripping account, featuring interviews with Naseer, Nasheed and other key figures and reported by Australian SBS One TV's Mark Davis.)

Mohammed Nasheed thus brings together two of the towering issues of our time:  human rights and climate change.  Indeed, his example shows that the two cannot be separated from one another.  "What is the point of winning our freedom, Nasheed has asked, "if we lose our country to climate change?"  After the coup that deposed him, one might add a corollary:  what are the odds of saving The Maldives and other nations from climate change if people are not free to assemble, speak out and pressure those in authority to do what is necessary?

Both sides of Nasheed's political activism—the fight for human rights and the crusade for planetary survival—are compellingly presented by director Jon Shenk in The Island President.  With the face of a model and the courage of a street fighter, Nasheed makes for a charismatic star of the film, and the documentary is unabashedly but not unprofessionally partial to his point of the view.  The portrayal of the Copenhagen Accord, the agreement eventually reached at the summit, is an especially rosy one, considering that the emissions reductions it prescribed were purely voluntary and the accord was not actually adopted by the assembled nations.

Before parsing that argument, however, it's important to say that The Island President is far from a political tract.  Having apparently been granted all but total access, the filmmakers offer an extraordinarily intimate look at Nasheed the man, one of the most intimate visual portraits I have encountered of a sitting head of government.  We see Nasheed, for example, return to his hotel room after a long day of urging negotiators in Copenhagen to be bold, watch him lie down on his bed, remove his socks and fall asleep.  We see his wife, speaking to camera, recalling the difficult days when Nasheed was leading mass civil disobedience rallies against the dictatorship of former president Maumoon Gayoom, activity which led him to be jailed repeatedly and tortured twice.  His wife feared for the family's safety as well but felt powerless to curb her husband's non-violent activism.  "I suppose I could have left him," she says, "but he would have done it anyway." 

Above all, The Island President reveals how much of a head of state's time is consumed by empty ceremonial activities and how motivated many of Nasheed's counterparts appear to be by ego and small-minded concerns.  At a meeting of the world's small island states where Nasheed was urging a united, and tougher, stance in the upcoming Copenhagen negotiations, we see one fellow head of state gush through an interpreter that he appreciated Nasheed's "beautiful words," then turn brusquely away when Nasheed sought to engage him in further conversation.  At a luncheon meeting with the Environment Minister of India, the region's big power and a rising source of greenhouse gas emissions, Nasheed is repeatedly interrupted and lectured by the minister for his "unhelpful" suggestions that India—and not just the rich industrial nations—should limit its emissions.  In a nice bit of editing, the filmmakers cut back and forth from the minister's bullying to the bovine faces of his aides, stuffing their mouths with food as the fate of the Maldives (and other nations immediately threatened by climate change impacts) is discarded.

The documentary also eavesdrops on Nasheed's discussion with aides and thereby reveals, among other things, that all of them are astute enough to realize that, as a tiny nation of no particular geopolitical significance, their best hope for influencing the larger world's response to the climate crisis is to take the moral high road and to be creative, even outlandish, in publicizing their predicament.  Hence the underwater cabinet meeting Nasheed convened six weeks before Copenhagen, which generated positive media coverage the world over.  Hence as well Nasheed's announcement two weeks later that The Maldives would become "climate neutral" by 2010, the first nation in the world to do so.  (Thus we see Nasheed climb atop the roof of the presidential house to help install solar panels—one means of shifting the nation from oil to solar power.  Plans called for off-setting remaining fossil fuel consumption by subsidizing an equivalent amount of tree-planting and other climate friendly actions at home and abroad.)  Nor was Nasheed shy about pricking the conscience of the outside world.  "We know that the Maldives going carbon neutral will not save us from annihilation," Nasheed says during a pre-Copenhagen trip to London to urge British politicians and voters to take more aggressive action against climate change.  "But at least we will die having done the right thing."

What's remarkable, and in retrospect poignant, is that Nasheed appears to have harbored genuine hope that the Copenhagen climate summit would produce a real breakthrough.  Truth is, a lot of us felt that way, and not just for sentimental reasons.  The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States the year before had removed one colossal obstacle:  the George W. Bush administration, which had been actively hostile to mandatory emissions reductions during its eight years in power.  By contrast, Obama had singled out "a planet in peril" during his victory speech on Election Night 2008 as one of the three major crises he would confront in the White House.  A few weeks later, his inclusion of billions of dollars for energy efficiency and renewable energy in his economic stimulus package indicated he intended to follow through on that pledge.  What's more, it appeared that the US and China, the world's two climate change superpowers, might at last be transcending their stand-off over who should cut emissions first and by how much. As I reported in Vanity Fair a month before Copenhagen, Obama had sanctioned months of back-channel negotiations with top Chinese officials that now had culminated in an agreement that both nations would reduce emissions. 

Of course, it didn't work out that way in Copenhagen. Obama arrived at the end of the summit and, clearly suffering from jet lag, gave one of the worst speeches of his career.  His tone was flat and bordered on lecturing, while his content was almost insulting to an international audience.  For while Obama declared that the US would promise to cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020, international observers recognized that this number was based on blatantly moving the goalposts. For decades, the international community had measured emissions reductions from a baseline of 1990. By that standard, the US was really offering a mere 4 percent reduction; only by substituting a baseline of 2005 could the Obama administration arrive at its 17 percent figure. It was like promising to kick a 50 yard field goal from the 20 yard line.

None of this is mentioned in The Island President, which instead lays the blame for Copenhagen's shortcomings mainly on China.  Not without reason, it must be said.  China dragged its feet throughout the summit, resisting calls to accept even long-term limits to its emissions and pressuring poor nations to toe its diplomatic line or risk the loss of development aid. Ed Milliband, the climate secretary of Great Britain, later wrote in The Guardian that China had sabotaged the summit.  In a late night meeting in the summit's final hours attended by the heads of government or state from the world's biggest polluters, Milliband wrote, China had refused to accept what Obama and European leaders saw as a grand compromise:  the rich industrial nations would cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050 while the world as a whole—including China and other emerging economies—would cut emissions by 50 percent by 2050. The problem was, this formula would have imposed larger per capita emissions cuts on China, India and other developing nations than it imposed on the rich industrial nations whose past emissions had caused global warming in the first place.  This, China would never accept.

The Island President does not show this pivotal meeting, presumably because Nasheed—the filmmakers' ticket inside—was not invited to attend it.  But Nasheed did support the proposal.  Indeed, so desperate was he for some kind of deal that he also endorsed the much weaker alternative the big powers subsequently settled on.  This, the briefly ballyhooed Copenhagen Accord, was a far cry from what science said was needed to save civilization, much less to save The Maldives.  Contrary to early news reports, the accord did not pledge to limit temperature rise to 2 C over pre-industrial levels; it merely "recognize[d] the scientific view" that the increase should be kept to 2 C.  Nor did the accord do much to bring this result about.  It neither enumerated nor prescribed binding limits on emissions; it only committed both developed and developing nations to "take action" to "achiev[e] the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible…."  Adding insult to injury, the big powers presented the accord to the rest of the governments in Copenhagen in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion.  No surprise, then, that the full summit explicitly declined to approve the Copenhagen Accord, voting instead merely to "take note" of it.

Nevertheless, near the end of The Island President we see Nasheed smiling as he telephones his mother while being driven to the airport to return home.  In the translation at the bottom of the screen, he tells her with evident pleasure that the meeting has yielded an agreement.  Fair enough.  He was exhausted, and most boys, even grown ones, like to impress their mothers with their accomplishments.  But neither science nor politics has been kind to Nasheed's upbeat assessment in the years since. 

The world's greenhouse gas emissions rose to record levels in 2010, despite the overhang of widespread economic stagnation.  Ice sheets continued melting. Record floods left 14 million people homeless in Pakistan and record heat in Russia led the government to halt grain exports, spooking global markets and giving rise to price spikes that helped provoke food riots in a dozen countries.  The year 2011 brought even more extreme weather, with Texas suffering the worst one-year drought in its history and the hottest summer in the entire nation's history, even as Governor Rick Perry, like all Republican presidential candidates, continued to insist there was no such thing as man-made global warming. 

And in an ominous foreshadowing of the Maldives' potential fate, in March 2012 the government of Kiribati announced it was planning to evacuate its inhabitants before rising seas completely inundated the island nation.  Like the Maldives, Kiribati is a string of low-lying tropical islands, but located in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. Anote Tong, the president of Kirabati, told the (London) Telegraph he was attempting to buy 5,000 acres of land on Fiji where his countrymen could resettle, adding that the international community should provide financial aid to deal with "the needs of countries like Kiribati."

Meanwhile, the two international climate negotiations that followed the Copenhagen summit—in 2010 in Cancun, Mexico, and in 2011 in Durban, South Africa—made little more progress than Copenhagen had, and for the same basic reason:  neither the US nor China was willing to reduce its emissions anytime soon.  Astonishingly, the agreement reached in Durban—no country would be obliged to cut emissions until 2020—will, if left unchanged, guarantee the world will fail to limit temperature rise to 2 C, the level even the Copenhagen Accord acknowledged would cause "dangerous" climate change.

And so, for the sake of humanity and especially the two billion people around the world under the age of 30 who will spend their lives coping with climate change, the Durban agreement must not stand.  It must be superseded by an agreement that respects science and the planet that makes our civilization possible. As I wrote in The Nation at the time,

The disaster in Durban makes it clearer than ever that politicians will not save us from the fast-approaching train wreck of irreversible climate change. Salvation must come instead from the bottom up: from extending the victories citizen activism has already won, including the defeat of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and the de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in the United States. If people of good will want to halt this train before it’s too late, we can’t leave it to the engineers. More and more of us will have to invade the engineer’s compartment, take over the controls of the train ourselves and steer a path back to life.

Few have been more steadfast and creative in the fight against climate change than Mohammed Nasheed.  Which makes the brutal coup that deposed him all the more deplorable.  All of us, not just the citizens of The Maldives, need leaders like Nasheed on the global scene, pushing the limits of what is supposedly realistic, taking risks and above all inspiring people to rise up and demand real change before it is too late.  Despair is a constant temptation in the climate fight, but Nasheed, like Mandela before him, has no patience for such self-defeatism.  As he affirms at the end of The Island President, referring directly to the Maldives' struggle against sea level rise but more broadly to all humanity's challenge, "We can't just disappear.  We have to survive.  And we have to do whatever it takes to make that real."


The Island President
screening and this essay are presented as part of the Film Society’s Global Threats Film Series, made possible with support from the San Francisco–based Skoll Global Threats Fund.

Mark Hertsgaard has covered climate change since 1989 for outlets ranging from The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Time to NPR, L'espresso and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent.  A Fellow of the New America Foundation, he is the author of six books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including, HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, released in paperback this month.


© 2012 Mark Hertsgaard