LONDON - Do you remember Mohamed Nasheed, the charismatic young president of the Maldives who dramatized the threat of rising sea levels to his low-lying island nation in the Indian Ocean by holding his first Cabinet meeting underwater, with all the ministers in scuba gear?
“This is what will happen to the Maldives if climate change is not checked,” he told the cameras as the fish swam past him. (Well, not exactly “told,” because you can’t talk when you are underwater, but he held up a sign saying that.) Were you wondering where he is now that the great conference to curb global warming is getting under way in Paris?
Nasheed can’t be in Paris, unfortunately, because he was overthrown in a coup in 2012 and was then jailed for 13 years last March for “terrorism.” And the promise he made to set an example for the world by achieving a carbon-neutral economy (zero net carbon-dioxide emissions) in the Maldives within 10 years has been modified a bit by the new government.
The new rulers felt that a 100 percent cut in emissions by 2020 was too ambitious, so they settled for a 10 percent cut by 2030. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that they are also encouraging drilling for oil in the country. But only a base cynic would suggest that it may also have to do with the riches that sometimes mysteriously accrue to those who allocate drilling licenses.
How did it come to this? Every country is different, but the changes that brought the Maldives to this low point are a warning about what can happen to the promises countries make about reducing their emissions. Since the whole Paris negotiation is based on each country making voluntary commitments on emission cuts, there are 140 different ways that whatever they agree at Paris can be sabotaged afterward.
The Maldives has a long record of taking the lead on climate-change issues, because it is the most vulnerable country in the world to sea-level rise. Three-quarters of its land is no more than half a meter above sea level, and will be inundated by the end of the century if the midrange prediction on sea-level rise proves correct. No part of its thousand-plus islands is more than 2.4 meters high.
Even Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the dictator who ruled the islands for 30 years before Nasheed replaced him in a free election in 2008, was a climate-change activist. Nasheed, then a young journalist, was arrested 15 times under Gayoom’s rule and frequently tortured, but Gayoom was the first national leader to highlight the peril facing small island states in his “Death of a Nation” speech at the United Nations in 1987.
The Maldives was the first country to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement on combating climate change. Gayoom was also instrumental in founding the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), now 44 members strong, which campaigns internationally against global warming and is strongly represented at Paris.
So Nasheed, who holds a degree in maritime studies from what is now Liverpool John Moores University, was not really bringing the subject up for the first time when he held his famous underwater Cabinet meeting. It’s hard to be Maldivian and not care about climate change. But it can be done, and the current president of the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, is living proof of it.
To be fair, he does care about it a bit; he just cares about power much more. After Nasheed was forced to resign at gunpoint in 2012, the old gang came back with a vengeance: Yameen is Gayoom’s half-brother, and his foreign minister is Gayoom’s daughter.
And Nasheed is in prison.
Nasheed was making a political comeback in the 2013 presidential election — he won in the first round of voting — but his victory was annulled by the Supreme Court. After some further manipulation of the voting, Yameen emerged as president, with third-placed Gasim Ibrahim as his coalition partner.
And when Ibrahim quit the coalition early this year and joined Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party, making him the favorite to win the next election, Yameen responded by having Nasheed arrested on the charge of illegally ordering the arrest of a senior judge while he was in office.
Although no evidence was offered at the trial that Nasheed had actually given such an order or even knew about it, the arrest was defined as “abduction,” which is a terrorist offense under Maldivian law. Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison, and joined the 1,700 other people (out of a population of 350,000) now detained on politically motivated charges.
The current government is trying to bolster its support by playing the Islamist card: for example, the death penalty has been reintroduced 60 years after it was abolished Now the thieves are quarreling among themselves, with Yameen’s vice president under arrest for allegedly plotting to kill the president, and climate change is very much on the back burner.
It’s not just a fledgling democracy that’s going under. In the somewhat longer term, it’s the whole country. But politics is usually a short-term game, and it can get quite nasty. Not all the promises that are being made in Paris will be kept.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and military historian whose articles are published in 45 countries.