As news of the Maldives’ so-called coup d’état grows stale on the international palate, the release of documentary film ‘The Island President’ in New York last week has refreshed the Maldives’ image as a key victim of rising seas. It has also renewed former president Mohamed Nasheed’s image as a climate change activist, who is now pushing democracy as a core ingredient to the climate change movement.
‘The Island President’, produced by Richard Berg and directed by Jon Shenk, chronicles Nasheed’s tumultuous rise to power under former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and his fight against global warming. Nasheed was ousted from the presidency last month in a “seriously staged coup” engineered by Gayoom, who he claims has effectively returned to power.
“What I would like to do initially is have democracy back in the Maldives,” Nasheed informed an audience of approximately 200 climate change academics, activists and journalists at Columbia University’s Low Library in New York City on Thursday evening. He stressed that all change is people-based.
“Even UN legislation happens because the people want it, and have the ability to voice their concerns,” he said.
Jointly addressing the topic of climate legislation and the US’ rapid recognition of the Maldives’ new government, Nasheed also encouraged the public to “ask bigger countries not to be so hasty in always defending the status quo.”
Adding that the Maldives’ current government has not addressed climate change – “they only just came to power” – Nasheed expressed concern that without a strong platform on the issue the Maldives would disappear from international awareness.
Climate change has become a pressing item on many diplomatic agendas. Yet few have clearly stated that the matter can only be addressed in a democratic environment.
“I think there is widespread understanding of the close linkage between climate change and politics,” wrote the Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice and Director of Columbia’s Center for Climate Change Law, Michael B Gerrard, in an email to Minivan News. “However, in few places other than the Maldives is there such a close linkage between climate change and democracy itself.”
Gerrard organised and moderated Thursday’s event.
During his tour in the US, Nasheed has claimed that talking about climate change is a matter of human rights – “the minute you start talking about it people start pulling skeletons out of your closet.”
The People’s Politics
“Politicians only do things they are told by the people. I am afraid American’s don’t tell enough.”
Nasheed challenged his audience to make the environment a key platform in the US’s current presidential campaign. “Now, you cannot win an election in Germany without having proper environmental legislation and preparation. I can’t see why it can’t be like that here. It’s really up to the people in the US.”
Gerrard separately stated that American public opinion on climate change has fluctuated amidst economic instability and contentious scientific reports. “There is little prospect for aggressive US action on climate change until the pendulum of public opinion swings back. With an improving economy and growing evidence of the perils of climate change, the political situation may be improving, but things are still in flux,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, several audience members rose to Nasheed’s challenge and asked for further specifics on “the average person’s” role.
“I think we are all average, so all of us should be advocating,” he told one individual, expressing firm belief in street demonstrations and community action.
While channeling the spirits of revolution and humanity sat well with many, other audience members retorted with America’s more prevalent campaign season sentiment – cynicism.
Citing her own allegedly futile efforts to reach state politicians through demonstrations and correspondence, one frustrated activist asked for new approaches. “I don’t know. I have no new advice,” Nasheed admitted. “So, it’s bodies in the streets, basically?” the woman asked, deflated. “I don’t think there is any other, easier way,” he explained, reiterating his support of public demonstrations and community action.
Extreme measures and new economics
If world powers do not reach a legally binding agreement on carbon emissions in the next seven years then the next Maldivian generation will have little country to claim, Nasheed believes.
Reminding the audience that approximately 40 percent of the world population currently lives within 100 kilometres of a coastline, he added, “It’s an issue for all countries, rich or poor, big or small.” He further urged developing countries such as India and China to move away from the “not my fault” discourse that surrounded the Durban talks in December 2011.
While island states such as Kiribisi are reportedly weighing options for relocation, such as the construction of floating islands, Nasheed observed, “You can always relocate a person, but to relocate a culture and a civilisation, is impossible.” Quoting a Maldivian grandmother for whom her place was synonymous with her self, he believed “a vast majority of people [in the Maldives] will stay.”
Shifting the dialogue from sentimental to proactive, Nasheed admitted that constructing islands and relocating communities struck him as “extreme…but we must be thinking about extreme ideas.”
His position on economics was similarly revolutionary.
“The existing economics in which air is a free good is false,” he explained in answer to a question about market-based mechanisms and the Kyoto Protocol. “We need a new economics that will address the issue.”
Focusing on adaptation, Nasheed recommended reversing the language of climate change diplomacy. Stating his feeling that “the UN process exists simply for the sake of process,” he suggested asking countries to take new actions on renewable energy rather than to cut back on existing energy use. “I believe we may be able to arrive at the same destination with renewable energy,” he said.
“So, do it!”
The current political situation in the Maldives was a central talking point with the audience. Questions addressed the arrest of Judge Abdullah Mohamed, the international community’s response to the new government, and even Nasheed’s coping techniques.
One audience member said she had seen the Island President film and was dubious about Nasheed’s genuine nature – suggesting that he was enjoying the celebrity – but said his manner during the discussion and response to questions at Colobmia was reassuring of his uniquely genuine interest and manner.
Overriding the Gerrard’s cut-off of queued audience members at five minutes before the scheduled end of the discussion, Nasheed found himself face to face with a young woman who had “a question or suggestion”—that he and his team make their views more accessible to the climate change-curious public by expanding their use of social media. Taking in her observation, Nasheed tipped his head and affirmed that it was possible.
“So, do it!” she said.