President Mohamed Nasheed claims threat is the “21st century’s greatest human rights and security issue”
For centuries the Maldives islands have had to contend with the havoc that nature can wreak – from monsoon gales and tidal waves to the ravages of the 2004 Asian tsunami. Spread across a 90,000 sq km stretch of the Indian Ocean, they, and their people, have always stood their ground.
Yet today, with climate change, they face potentially their greatest challenge.
This week the Government of Maldives convenes its first-ever underwater cabinet meeting. This inauspicious gathering, which sees ministers don wetsuits and descend into the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, is intended to highlight the threat faced by this island nation from rising sea levels.
President Mohamed Nasheed, speaking exclusively to Commonwealth News ahead of the meeting, explains why he believes international action is needed so urgently:
Inundating the islands
“The impacts of climate change can already be felt,” remarks Mr Nasheed. “One-third of our inhabited islands are suffering from coastal erosion, in part attributed to climate change. This erosion threatens people’s property and saltwater intrusion contaminates drinking water and degrades farmland.”
But worse is set to come, says Mr Nasheed, the 42-year-old former journalist who came to power in October 2008 following elections monitored by Commonwealth election observers.
“If atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are not quickly reduced and temperatures brought under control,” he explains, “rising seas could submerge my country.”
‘A front-line state’
But climate change is not just a problem for low lying countries such as Maldives, which is, at its highest point, just 2.3 metres above sea level. The phenomenon, claims Mr Nasheed, “is the 21st century’s greatest human rights and security issue”.
“Future generations of Maldivians face a potentially bleak future – a displaced people with no international legal protection,” he says. “But it won’t just be Maldivians who suffer. Climate change threatens to submerge the homes of tens of millions of Bangladeshis and could devastate large swathes of Africa this century.
“The Maldives may well be a front-line state, but climate change threatens us all. What happens to the Maldives today, happens to the rest of the world tomorrow.”
Going carbon neutral
Intending to lead by example, Mr Nasheed has pledged that his country – and its 300,000 citizens – aims to become the world’s first carbon neutral nation by 2020, a change propelled by switching from oil to renewable energy production.
“Going carbon neutral is not only the right thing to do – it is also sound economic policy,” he asserts.
“Electricity prices in the Maldives are already very high, which makes renewables cost-effective today. But there is also a long-term benefit. We achieve energy security and decouple our economy from the unpredictable price of foreign oil.
“If the Maldives can make these sorts of emissions cuts, other nations can, too.”
Human rights resolution
In March 2009, Mr Nasheed helped secure the adoption of a landmark United Nations Human Rights Council declaration on the relationship between human rights and climate change. The statement, ‘Resolution 10/4’, recognised for the first time that global warming fundamentally undermines the lives and rights of millions of people and vulnerable communities around the world.
Negotiated in New York, the resolution was a major milestone in gaining international recognition for the human and legal rights of those affected by climate change. But President Nasheed doesn’t want to stop with the United Nations. He believes that the Commonwealth, too, can play an important role in the fight against climate change, helping small nations such as his be heard at vital negotiations.
Looking to Copenhagen
“With so much at stake, it is crucial that world leaders sign up to a tough, binding agreement at Copenhagen to slash greenhouse gas emissions,” he explains.
“The Commonwealth can assist member states make the transition towards a low-carbon future. It can also help ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable people are not drowned out in the global climate change debate.”
In the run-up to the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, where the world’s nations will gather to agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, Mr Nasheed believes this has never been truer.
“To reach an effective international agreement, it is imperative for negotiators to see global warming not as an abstract phenomenon,” he says, “but as an immediate threat to millions of people’s lives, livelihoods, security and human rights.”