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What America Can Learn From the Maldives About Tackling Climate Change

Former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed is trying to tell the rest of the world, "Look, it is possible to get off fossil fuels."

When Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, saw The Island President, a documentary about his first year in office, the first thing that struck him were the aerial shots of his island nation. “I thought very spectacular the beauty of the Maldives,” he says. “And also how fragile and delicate the whole country is. Especially the aerial views give you a glimpse of the delicacy of it, the fragility, the vulnerability of it.”

A system of atolls in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives' existence is threatened by climate change, and the movie traces Nasheed’s efforts to convince the international community to tackle the problem head-on at the Copenhagen climate conference. In the two years since that conference, the country’s democratic institution has proved similarly fragile: In February, a coup forced Nasheed to step down from the presidency, and he is now pushing the current government to hold elections. The Island President came out in theaters yesterday, and GOOD talked to Nasheed about climate change, democracy, and adaptation.

GOOD: What do you think you were able to accomplish on climate issues that’s going to stand, even despite the political turmoil now? And what projects are you worried might get swept away?

MOHAMED NASHEED: We did a carbon audit, and we have done an investment plan that would make us carbon neutral. The investment plan has been broken down into projects. And funding mechanisms for all the projects are also in line. I think it will go on. It can’t stop, because all these things are in line, and all the contracts are there. It’s going to be difficult to stop them.

This is in mitigation. But the bulk of the work required right now is adaptation. And for adaptation you need money. We didn’t have income tax before; we didn’t have corporate tax before; we didn’t even have goods and services tax. Government revenue was always one-off revenue. So we were able to come up with the tax system, that would pay for the adaptation work.

I hope that this money would be used responsibly, and it would be divided responsibly between health, education and adaptation work. I hope the money wouldn’t be wasted on the military and police. But right now, that’s what’s happening.

GOOD: So you’ve been dealing with mitigation and adaption. What can other countries, this one included, learn from the work you have already done to approach dealing with climate change?

NASHEED: To switch from this old technology, fossil fuel... it’s a very, very old technology. I mean, you know, come on. It’s as old as the 1800s, and it’s such a surprise that the United States would think this is technology that is viable now. We are hoping we found a development pattern that is less carbon-intensive. In our minds, one of the things we were trying to do is show carbon emissions aren’t equal to development. Or carbon emissions doesn’t necessarily equal to a good life, you know, all the electricity, all the niceties, and so on.

You can have alternative technologies. California is doing it. Iceland is a country that’s done it. And you can still have a good life without all these fossil fuels emissions.

We would hope you would also do a carbon audit. You would also do an investment plan. You would also do the projects. And you would make your country carbon neutral.

Unless you are willing to embrace the future, how in God’s name can you remain as the leaders? I think the good American people must come around, and will come around, to the idea that the oil companies and all that, you cannot be taken hostage by them, however much money they have. You must be able to break away from them and start thinking rationally.

I think what Maldives is trying to tell the rest of the world is, look, it’s possible to do this. You don’t have to be burning all the fossil fuels.

GOOD: The filmmakers of The Island President said they wanted to tell a human story about climate change, instead of a scientific story. Who, for you, is the human face of these problems?

NASHEED: The old woman in my country who told me, President, I could go wherever you want. But where would the butterflies, where would the sounds, and where would the colors go? The Maldives have been in the middle of the Indian Ocean for the last 5,000 years. We have written history that goes back 2,000 years. We cannot relocate. I think her story is so important, because it’s her ancestors that we are going to uproot. It’s her life that we’re going to destroy.

I think for climate change, another important track is human rights and democracy. Without proper democratic institutions and structures, you won’t be able to make the decisions you have to make to have this planet for the future generations. You might argue that the United States is very democratic, but they’re not going for it. But because of the fact that the film can be shown here, that you can have a movement that can push for better policies on this, I believe one fine morning you’re going to have these policies. Maybe not today. But because you have a good governance structure here, finally, you'll come out with it. For me, democracy is the most important adaptation measure.

Photo courtesy of Lincoln Else/Samuel Goldwyn Films

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