The Underwater Obama Maldives President Leads the Charge against Climate Change

The Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean could disappear by the end of the century. Global warming threatens to raise sea levels, submerging the low-lying archipelago. Newly-elected President Mohamed Nasheed has therefore set himself the task of holding back the tide of climate change.

The Maldivian president is 1.58 meters (5'2") tall. Perhaps he was once a little taller, but his back was ruined in prison.

He has forgiven the people who hurt him. He now has a very different problem on his hands. At its geographic peak, his country is not much higher above sea level than his actual height, and on average it is about a hand-width lower. Apart, that is, from the huge plastic-flecked mound of construction rubble behind the power plant in Male, the nation's capital, although that doesn't really count. What does count is the fact that the Indian Ocean could rise by half a meter by the end of the century. At the same time, a coral atoll is growing at a rate of up to a centimeter a year -- provided the corals are left in peace, and waste isn't simply tipped into the sea. Nothing is particularly simple anymore, and yet politics demands simple messages.

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Photo Gallery: Maldives President Battles Climate Change

Foto: HO / AFP

That's how His Excellency Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Republic of Maldives, ended up in the crystal-clear waters of the lagoon around Girifushi Island, his nose just a few centimeters above sea level, for the world's first underwater cabinet meeting. "Mr. President!" calls an Indian journalist from Star TV, holding out a telescopic microphone like a lifesaving pole. "What will happen if the countries at the climate conference in Copenhagen fail to agree on binding CO2 levels?" "We'll all die!" the president replies. Everyone laughs. Afterwards there's curry and fish.

A Country Made up of 1,192 Islands

Everyone laughed when, at the tender age of 17, Nasheed said he wanted to become the president of the Maldives. His father sent him to Britain, where he earned a bachelor's degree in maritime studies at the University of Liverpool. Nasheed's dissertation was a draft concept for a local public transport system for the Maldives; a country that is 99.75 percent water, its modest landmass spread across 26 atolls and a total of 1,192 islands.

Living in exile in Sri Lanka, the then 36-year-old Nasheed and other opposition supporters founded a political party in the hope of ousting the Maldivian leader, Maumoon Adbul Gayoom, Asia's longest-serving autocrat. Gayoom was not amused by Nasheed's political aspirations, and had the upstart incarcerated 12 times for a total of six years, including 18 months in solitary confinement, where he was allegedly beaten and tortured. Amnesty International took up Nasheed's case, adopting him as one of its prisoners of conscience. He also survived a strange car accident.

Today Nasheed is 42 years old, and the first democratically elected president of the Maldives. The outgoing leader congratulated him. And the islands now have their first public ferry service.

"Mr. President, what's your message for the children of the world?" An environmental activist with elaborately tattooed forearms has worked his way forward to Nasheed and holds his video camera in the president's face. He says he has interrupted his honeymoon especially to meet the country's leader.

In recent months Nasheed has become something of a Dalai Lama figure for environmentalists. Al Gore refers to him when warning about the possibilities of forced migration as a result of climate change. Time magazine recently included Nasheed in its 'Heroes of the Environment' list. He's even had an audience with Britain's Queen Elizabeth.

A Plea to the UN

But all that was before Sept. 24, 2009, the day of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Barack Obama had spoken, so too had Muammar Gaddafi. Then Nasheed stepped onto the podium, a slightly-built man with neatly-parted hair and unremarkable features.

"I am extremely pleased to be here," his speech began, though it was more than a mere turn of phrase. "I have spent many of the past General Assembly sessions locked in a hot, humid, damp cell, with my hands shackled and my feet bound."

No-one applauded -- not out of ill will, but because UN delegates are rarely on the edge of their seat when a representative of the Maldives addresses them. It is usually a time to go for a coffee or to work on some files. Most of the seats were empty as Nasheed spoke, giving the assembly hall a light blue hue.

The Maldivian president looked much younger than his years, he could have been mistaken for a 20-year-old. "I assure you the full support and cooperation of my delegation," he told the global community. His tone was not easy. He sounded tense, halting, and a little too high-pitched. When he said the word "excellencies," his voice cracked so much it sounded more like "excellenciiiieees."

He spoke without notes about the values of democracy, which he said had to be carved in stone, not written in the sand. You could tell he had watched many speeches by his US counterpart. The raised chin, the pauses, the swift glances from side to side, and the sweep of the head before the end of a sentence were all reminiscent of President Barack Obama.

"Every beach (could be) lost to rising seas, every house lost to storm surges, every reef lost to increasingly warm waters," he said, his voice getting louder, and his articulation growing less clear. Nasheed said dwindling fish stocks threatened every job in the country, and every life was in danger of being lost to more extreme weather, making it harder and harder to govern the country "until the point is reached when we must consider abandoning our homeland."

Where Local Politics are Global

Nasheed urged world leaders to agree to climate goals at December's summit in Copenhagen. "To do otherwise would be to sign a death warrant for the 300,000 Maldivians," he said. And raising his voice a notch, he announced, "We are going to be the first country to go carbon-neutral in 10 years time." Nasheed finished with the words, "If we want to save the world, I suggest that saving the Maldives is a very good starting point. Thank you, Mr. President."

There are few places on Earth where local politics are as global as they are in the Maldives. The country does not rise up out of the Indian Ocean, but rather lies on the waves like a water lily. The islands are no more than coral outcrops lining the tips of the craters of extinct and sunken underwater volcanoes, covered by sand and later coconut palms, and first visited by humans as recently as 4,000 years ago -- although back then they weren't wearing beach towels or carrying cocktails.

The Maldivians aren't responsible for climate change, but it is their problem. That is why President Nasheed has set himself the task of solving this problem. Just like his idea to set up a public transport system to ferry people between the various atolls that make up his country.

Nasheed isn't a liberal. His political sentiments are more akin to those of Britain's Conservative Party. And yet he is a new kind of politician; as passionate as he is environmentally aware, conservative but in favor of a liberal market, and socially minded where necessary. Aware of his power, yet with a high regard for the masses. Nasheed has much in common with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Czech President Vaclav Havel, perhaps also with the current US president.

The Underwater Get-Together

That's first and foremost because he has understood that modern politics needs images, ideally universally comprehensible images that can send a message in 15 seconds, images conveyed clearly and unmistakably rather than clouded by whipped-up coral sand. "That was our greatest worry," says Major Ahmed Ghiyaz, the army officer responsible for the somewhat unusual get-together. "Although all the ministers have had diving lessons, they aren't experienced divers, and could wave their flippers around unnecessarily. That would ruin everything."

It was Nasheed who had the idea to hold a cabinet meeting five meters below sea level to sign a declaration entitled "SOS from the Frontline" in the run-up to International Climate Action Day on Oct. 24. And he was the one who commissioned a TV commercial in which three men calmly chat about the weather as if they were sitting in a café rather than underwater. The advert was aired on state TV channel TVM on an hourly basis.

Speaking to reporters on the day of his underwater meeting, the president said, "If we can't save the Maldives today, we do not feel that there is much of a chance for the rest of the world," adding that London and Manhattan could one day experience the same problems the Maldives were facing today.

The remarkable cabinet meeting was held not off the capital, Male, but in the lagoon surrounding Girifushi, the island that serves as a training ground by the Maldivian armed forces. Annoying sharks could therefore be chased out of the lagoon. There was also a first aid station on the island -- just in case.

School desks complete with nameplates were set up in a horseshoe formation around a block of coral, two national flags were rammed into the sand on either side of the president's place, and a camera was set up between the corals.

'Climate Change Threatens the Security of Everyone on Earth'

The ministers took their places behind the desks, each held still by a diving instructor to ensure they didn't whirl up the sand. The scene looked like a screensaver. Parrot fish swam slowly past the camera, big white air bubbles headed for the surface, and a stingray was briefly visible behind the aviation minister's shoulder.

"Climate change is happening and it threatens the rights and security of everyone on Earth," read the declaration. "We must unite in a global effort to halt further temperature rises by slashing carbon dioxide emissions to a safe level of 350 parts per million. Endorsed by the cabinet of the Republic of Maldives on Oct. 17, 2009."

The message was out. That evening, all the major news networks showed a man in a wetsuit signing something on a white plastic board. And perhaps the delegates in Copenhagen will now find it a little easier to nudge the world's main CO2 producers into donating some money.

Nasheed is already thinking about his next moves.

"We have an abundance of natural resources, for instance the wind, and the waves, the wind, ocean currents, and the sun. If we can harness them instead of using fuel we believe that this can happen, we believe that this is the intelligent way of doing things," he said after his dive, wet but relieved. "The winners of the 21st century are those who are able to change and make technology jump."

So he says, with flooding ahead of him and sharks behind him -- the kind you can't chase off, because they are attracted by the smell of power and vested interests. One among the group of ministers paddling so apparently harmlessly around Nasheed could easily be biding his or her time for the right moment to strike and draw blood, delivering the blow that would sink the president.

Nasheed's party does not have a majority in parliament. He owes his position to an impossible coalition of Islamists, human rights activists, and liberals; an alliance forged to topple the old regime, a kaleidoscope of political interests that could fall apart with the smallest tremor.

Keeping Head above Water Politically

The Islamic affairs minister, Abdul Majeed Abdul Baaree, cares little for the president's global initiatives. Many of Baaree's supporters see the December 2004 tsunami as Allah's punishment for all the Buddhas and bare-breasted idols in Male's Thai restaurants. A day after the underwater media stunt, the minister threatened to quit the coalition because Nasheed had expressed cautious skepticism about whether limb amputation really was effective in lowering crime rates. It has been the dilemma of many presidents who have had global fame but have been brought down locally by the people and their everyday lives. In this case, all Mohamed Nasheed's plans could come to naught simply because he wants to permit the new Holiday Inn in Male to serve alcohol, a practice forbidden under Islam.

Most of the tourists who come to the Maldives are picked up at the airport and whisked off to their resort island before they've even set foot in Male. That's a shame. Male is one of the most densely-populated cities in the world. Every inch of the island is covered by tall administrative buildings, palaces, computer stores and tailor's shops, and its 130,000 inhabitants race through the hot air on noisy Honda mopeds or transport yellow-fin tuna from the market in minivans. The streets are lined by wide-leaved tropical trees, you can hear hammering, drilling, and the babble of southern Indians, Bengalis, Thais, Bangladeshis, Chinese, Filipinos, and of course Maldivians.

It is within this jumble of cultures that Nasheed must keep his head above water politically. He has torn down the torture cells and launched a campaign against drug dealers. But his predecessor saddled him with a budget deficit amounting to 30 percent of GDP. The state coffers are so empty that no-one can currently be paid out more than $300 in foreign currency. That doesn't exactly endear the governing coalition with businessmen.

'Everything's Going Down'

The district around the harbor and behind the oil tanks of Male's diesel power plant is dubbed "Bosnia." You won't find it in any guidebook on the Maldives. But you wouldn't describe it as an insider's tip either. The area is controlled by a drug gang calling itself Tsunami Aftermath. It is also the site of the archipelago's highest point; the 15-meter mountain of construction rubble and plastic trash that will survive any flood and any tsunami.

Bosnia is also home to Farud, a man who says he's involved in the IT industry. "Everything's going down," Farud says. By that he doesn't mean the economy or moral values. "I won't grow old here," he says. "The water's rising. Everyone round here is really worried about it." Farud looks across the breakwater and out to sea. "It's good what the new president is doing. Britain and the US will have to help us. They're the ones who are polluting the most." Nasheed's message has obviously reached Bosnia.

A year after his election victory, the president still appears to be popular there. Poor people are pleased he didn't move into the swanky, gold-laden palace of the former president, but handed it over to the country's supreme court instead. The new president, his wife and their two daughters live more modestly in a villa the last sultan built for his son. People also like the fact that the presidential motorcade now consists of only two cars, and stops at every red light. And that Nasheed has set up an anti-corruption commission. And that he's appeared on CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera.

"It brings us more tourists," Farud says. "People can see how beautiful the Maldives are, and that they will soon be submerged if nothing's done about it." Farud's foot rests gently on the chrome running-board of a lovingly souped up Mazda 6 to which his brother fixes a hood lip under the watchful eye of several youths. It's a black-and-yellow racing machine with grotesque extensions and no doubt similarly jaw-dropping emission levels.

What's the point of getting a 200-horsepower car with a front spoiler if you live on a completely flat island through whose alleys you can barely drive at 30 kilometers per hour. "That's the problem with this island," Farud explains. "There's no highway on Male. But a few islands further on there's a 25 kilometer-long track." That's where he wants to ship the car to.

Giddens' Paradox

It's called Giddens' Paradox: The inability to change one's everyday behavior because the consequences of climate change aren't tangible yet. After all, a disaster isn't disastrous until it occurs. Farud is no different to anyone else on the planet just because he parks his car 50 centimeters above sea level.

It's the old dilemma about global and local problems, proximity and distance. Between certainty and uncertainty.

Not all climate experts approve of Nasheed's actions. Even the term "sea level" has less to do with our daily experiences in the bathtub than with geotectonics. Some parts of southern Asia and also the Caribbean are rising, while others areas are sinking. Nothing is simple. Every prediction is only a calculation based on a model and projected into the future. It makes every statement about climate change open to debate, and pockmarks every report on the issue with qualifiers.

The IPCC is a multinational committee of experts charged with researching climate change on behalf of the UN. It is the oracle that pilgrims seek out for prophetic proclamations. The IPCC says "there is high confidence" that mean sea levels rose by about 1.7 millimeters a year between the mid-19th and mid-20th century, and that the rise appears to be speeding up. The world's oceans rose by an annual 1.8 millimeters between 1961 and 2003, and by almost twice that rate (3.1 millimeters per year) ever since.

That's partly because water expands as it warms up, and partly because glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland are melting.

By the end of the century sea levels "could" rise by between 18 and 59 centimeters depending on the assumptions of the relevant model and your location on the planet.

Those Who Deny Climate Change Must Answer to Coming Generations

It's a mental game played in the subjunctive. Climate change skeptics and climate researchers, doomsayers and grumblers, malcontents, deniers, and doomsday hysterics are battling it out in the newspapers. Those on one side say the debate about greenhouse gases is being conducted like an ideological conflict, that climate change has become a secular religion that is about "truth" rather than scientific probability.

Fair enough, the other side says. But with the polar icecaps melting, all those who insist on debating further rather than acting will have coming generations to answer to.

That's also the position taken by Mohamed Nasheed. He says it's like Blaise Pascal's bet on God: "Even if you are skeptical about a sea level rise, in the case that it is true, it's better to be secure."

The Maldives have joined the Association of Small Island States, an alliance whose 43 members also include half- and quarter-islands like Belize. One if its demands is for preventative climatic asylum on the mainland. The south Pacific island states of Tuvalu and Kiribati have already filed the necessary applications in Australia and New Zealand. They will now be able to decide when their people should abandon their islands. When they do, the displaced islanders will be given work and residency permits in their new home.

At the end of last year Nasheed announced that the Maldives was setting up a fund to buy land in Australia as a kind of lifeline. Nasheed's political adversaries call it scare-mongering -- as do some of his allies.

Unfortunately there's no money in the bank for such a plan, and Nasheed will need every dollar he can get if he's to keep his other promises. The country is still relatively far from achieving carbon neutrality. Waste is still shipped to Thilafushi island, where it is burned, mostly at night.

Few islands have sewage treatment plants. Every half hour, the sewage and waste water produced on the main island is pumped out into the ocean, chemicals, radioactive waste, and all. Bluepeace, a local environmental organization, says it has evidence this is starting to damage the coral banks around Male. That would be fatal. After all, the corals did more than any breakwater to protect the islands from the force of the tsunami that swept through Asia on December 26, 2004. These corals will continue growing -- provided they're left in peace, that is. This means halting the acidification of the oceans and preventing significant changes in temperature. Which again is linked to greenhouse gases. Local=global=local.

The 'Rising and Falling Country'

Fishermen in the Maldives dubbed their archipelago the "rising and falling country" because currents constantly move entire coral beaches from one end of a cove to another. Sand washed up by tsunamis now provides some atolls with better protection than before. It is scientifically impossible to predict what the Maldives will look like in the year 2100. Nor whether they will be above or below the waterline.

Mohamed Nasheed wouldn't argue with that. He knows his diving stunt hasn't solved any problems, either local or global. But he has sent out a clear message. Since Oct. 17, the Maldives are no longer seen as simply a cool place to spend your honeymoon.

While two national flags continue to sway slowly in the milky light of Girifushi lagoon, and no-one but the parrot fish pay any attention to the signs on the submerged cabinet desks, several thousand schoolchildren gather on a sports ground behind Bosnia. In recent weeks they have been taught the meaning of "Copenhagen," what "greenhouse gases" are and what they have to do with their island.

Some 4,000 children squat on the floor, the girls in black headscarves on the edges. From the high-rise surrounding buildings it is clear to see that they are spelling out a number: 350. As in 350 parts per million; the figure climatologists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

'Three-Five-Zero'

"That's the goal. Otherwise we're in for a disaster." Those were the words of 10-year-old Fathmah Nahula, a pupil at Ishandar School. She may not be informed about the latest developments in the high-level debate, and has probably never even heard of "parts per million" or model algorithms, but Fathmah Nahula knows that "350" is harmless -- and that we've already hit 390.

The children chant, one block at a time. "Three," shout the pupils in the three group. "Five," shout the fives. "Zero," cry the remaining students.

"We have tried to explain to them what global warming means. It was difficult at first. Some of the boys were pleased they'd soon be able to swim to school," recalls Ramziya Unsman, a teacher at Thaajuddeen School.

"Three ... five ... zero!"

"Of course I'm scared. We can see the difference already. Fish has become more expensive. Apparently that's a consequence of global warming. We eat more vegetables. And I plant trees. No, not in the garden: In flower pots," says pupil Mariyam Zaki.

"Three ... five ... zero!"

This may only be another of Nasheed's symbolic gestures. After all, 350 is just a number, not a policy. Global climate change is more complex than a single value, but the generation assembled on the sports ground in Male will have a sense of just how fragile their islands are. The children have understood the message, and when they grow up, they'll be ready. Because they will grow -- and faster than waters will rise.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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