By NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE
One recent evening at the presidential palace in Malé, the capital of the Maldives, around 100 people showed up to watch a movie. Rows of overstuffed chairs in a gaudy combination of stripes and paisleys faced a projection screen hanging on the front wall of what seemed like a grand ballroom. At the back of the hall, journalists erected camera and microphone rigs: Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives’ 41-year-old president, was expected to make a major announcement after the film. And ever since Nasheed declared on the eve of his inauguration last November that, because of global warming, he would try to find a new homeland for Maldivians somewhere else in the world, on higher ground, local reporters didn’t miss the chance to see their unpredictable (“erratic” and “crazy” were other adjectives I heard used) president.
Nasheed appeared when a pair of French doors opened and a gust of conversation blew into the room. It was a humid night in March. Several dozen cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, parliamentarians, presidential advisers and other dignitaries trailed the young president, who wore navy slacks and a striped white shirt, open at the neck and sleeves rolled to the elbows. He took a seat in the front row, the lights dimmed and the British feature documentary “The Age of Stupid” began.
The movie opens with hypothetical scenes of environmental catastrophe: the Sydney Opera House in flames; ski lifts creaking above snowless mountainsides; raging seas in the once-frozen Arctic. Set in 2055, the film looks back to our present through a series of environmental-destruction subplots highlighting this era’s collective lack of interest in doing anything; one character concludes that we must be living in the “age of stupid.”
The Maldives is an archipelago of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean, with an average elevation of four feet. Even a slight rise in global sea levels, which many scientists predict will occur by the end of this century, could submerge most of the Maldives. Last November, when Nasheed proposed moving all 300,000 Maldivians to safer territory, he named India, Sri Lanka and Australia as possible destinations and described a plan that would use tourism revenues from the present to establish a sovereign wealth fund with which he could buy a new country — or at least part of one — in the future. “We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own, and so we have to buy land elsewhere,” Nasheed said in November.
When the movie ended, Nasheed approached a microphone stand in front of a giant house palm. He has a jockey’s physique, and the fronds of the palm arched over his shoulder. His wonder-boy demeanor might seem naïve, but he spent almost 20 years opposing a dictator and enduring torture; few doubt his fortitude. The audience in the ballroom listened closely when Nasheed declared that it was time to act. “What we need to do is nothing short of decarbonizing the entire global economy,” he said, his high voice cracking. “If man can walk on the moon, we can unite to defeat our common carbon enemy.” Nasheed didn’t use notes for his speech; aides say he never does. “And so today,” he continued, “I announce that the Maldives will become the first carbon-neutral country in the world.”
Twenty-two years ago, Nasheed’s predecessor traveled to New York with a mission. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, then only 9 years into his 30-year reign, stood before the United Nations and warned the world that rising sea levels would eventually erase his country from the map: “With a mere one-meter rise,” he said, “a storm surge would be catastrophic and possibly fatal to the nation.” At the U.N. Earth Summit in Brazil five years later, Gayoom introduced himself as “a representative of an endangered people.” When Gayoom wasn’t abroad predicting that Maldivians could become the first environmental refugees, however, he was crushing dissenters back home. His 30 years in office were punctuated by regular, uncontested elections that he won each time with at least 90 percent of the vote. One of those he jailed — at least 13 times, by the prisoner’s count — was a spunky journalist named Mohamed Nasheed.
Nasheed was born in Malé, the son of a prosperous businessman. He studied abroad — first in Sri Lanka, then in Britain — before returning to the Maldives in the late 1980s and helping found a magazine called Sangu. He wrote investigative reports implicating Gayoom’s regime in corruption and human rights abuses. After the fifth issue, the police raided the magazine’s office and arrested Nasheed. He was 23. He spent 18 months in in solitary confinement. “They wanted me to confess to trying to overthrow the state . . . and they wanted me to do this on TV,” Nasheed told me. “It was very Russian in style. They wanted me to confess for everything that I had done all my life, from my first cigarette to my first kiss.” In 1991, Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience.
Ten years later, after several more stints in jail, Nasheed won a seat in Parliament. He stayed there a few months before being tried, once again, on trumped-up charges and incarcerated. After his release, Nasheed left for Sri Lanka to start the Maldivian Democratic Party. Ultimately, Gayoom’s henchmen found him. Over a span of two days in 2005, Nasheed survived a suspicious car accident and then caught people casing his home in Colombo. He fled to Britain, where, he said, “you could always talk to a Western government about democracy,” and he received political asylum. In 2005, Nasheed gave that up and returned to the Maldives for good.
Late last year, Gayoom agreed to hold the Maldives’ first multiparty presidential elections. On polling day, Gayoom ranked as Asia’s longest-serving president. Nasheed, the perennial inmate, ran against him. By the second round of voting, Nasheed secured support from a handful of smaller opposition parties and won. After three decades of strongman rule, the Maldives, a Sunni Muslim country with, at least officially, no religious minorities, exemplified how a peaceful, democratic transition of power might look in other parts of the Muslim world.
Then Nasheed proposed the mass exodus, an idea that called to mind other outlandish schemes, like one Saudi prince’s thought of supplying drinking water for the Arabian peninsula by towing icebergs from Antarctica. But in comparison, Nasheed has been taken seriously. Three months after his announcement, the president of Kiribati, an archipelagic nation in the Pacific, confessed that he, too, was searching for ways to relocate his countrymen. And in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Al Gore encouraged Congress to pass legislation reducing carbon emissions by citing Nasheed’s initiative as just one example of what could happen if they failed to act. Joe Romm, the author of the blog Climate Progress, told me: “There is no saving the Maldives. They are wise to find a new place.”
Not everyone has thought so. Paul Kench, a coastal geomorphologist at the University of Auckland, has made eight expeditions to the Maldives to research how islands form and evolve. Kench first traveled to Baa Atoll, north of Malé, in 1996, frustrated, he said, “with the perception that sea levels will go up and simply drown them. No one had established any real science.” He has discovered since then that both seasonal weather patterns and periodic wave events — like the tsunami in 2004 and, in late 2007, a highly unusual, 20-centimeter surge in sea level recorded throughout the Maldives — alter the surface, the beaches and the height of the islands in unforeseen ways. In particular, he found, “the notion that the Maldives are going to disappear is a gross overexaggeration. Both the tsunami and the sea-level rise lifted sand from the beach, spread it across the island surface and formed a natural buffer.”
Kench has followed news of Nasheed’s planned exodus with dismay. “It’s a political weapon they have,” he says. “It’s a little bit unfortunate, because they don’t know how to deal with the change. . . . If they withdrew from this notion that ‘We are going to have to jump on a plane and fly to northwest Australia’ and that kind of hyperbole, if they seriously confront the problem, they would get a lot more international assistance.” Talk of catastrophe, he continues, “hijacks all the serious work that needs to be done.” He sees it as a distraction from the careful scientific labor that could find ways to protect the islands.
Meanwhile, Nasheed’s political opponents claim that his proposition to move has cost the Maldives international respect. “We are a country so dependent on tourism,” Mohamed Hussain Shareef, Gayoom’s spokesman, told me. “The minute Nasheed says we are about to sink and that we’re moving, my phones started ringing off the hook with tour operators asking questions. We can’t go back to them and to investors now and say, ‘Everything is O.K.’ This man is so hellbent on hogging the media limelight that he is forgetting to do his job, which is to run a country.”
During the 1990s, his second decade in power, Gayoom oversaw the construction of the presidential palace. It occupies a sprawling piece of land in the middle of what ranks, in terms of people per square kilometer, as one of the world’s most crowded cities. Gayoom parked a fleet of luxury cars in the garage and equipped the master bathroom with a gold-plated toilet while, just beyond the white walls, scooters and pedestrians jostled for space on the tangled alleys that wind through Malé.
After the election, Nasheed opted not to move into the palace. He lives in the previous official residence, and he walks to and from work every day, trailed by a handful of guards wearing sunglasses and with black wires in their ears. Nasheed has talked about turning the mansion into a museum or public library. On rare occasions, such as the première of “The Age of Stupid,” he opens the doors.
The screening was followed by a reception in the garden. Dignitaries gathered under a veranda and leaned against white pillars covered with flowering vines. Nasheed meandered through the crowd, welcoming each guest, as tuxedo-clad waiters brushed past holding trays stacked with cups of orange juice. I noticed the minister of the environment deep in a discussion of water temperature and coral growth with one of his advisers. The minister and his colleague, neither much older than 40, were citing the names of scientists and journal articles at high speed.
“The question is whether coral growth can keep up with rising sea levels,” said the adviser. The Maldives consists of four reef platforms and 21 atolls, coral configurations that were produced over millenniums as dead volcanoes in the ocean receded, giving way to coral that grew vertically and formed ring-shaped reefs. The individual islands were formed as wave energy deposited shards of broken coral and shells.
“Really, the danger is an increase in temperature,” the minister countered, “because certain coral can only survive in certain temperatures.” In 1998, an El Niño influx of warm water “bleached” the coral in the Maldives, killing large portions of it. “Sea temperatures are the real culprit here.”
Though wonky, the conversation was hardly irrelevant: all islands and coastlines are formed differently, a fact sure to be explored more in years to come as planners develop more property in areas susceptible to rising sea levels. This is why Kench, the coastal geomorphologist, believes that the Maldives aren’t nearly as doomed as others think. He knew he was on to something big when he returned to the Maldives after the tsunami and found that the wave had actually raised the island surface as much as 30 centimeters, and did so as far as 60 meters inland. “This is actually building the islands vertically, building ridges that will buffer these islands from sea-level rises,” he says. “That sand is a permanent addition that is now draped among the coconut trees and is going to stay there.”
Even the idea of “sea level” as a fixed measure is somewhat flawed. Since sea levels vary around the world, sea-level rises are also likely to vary. “Intuition would tell you that sea-level rises are like a bathtub, but it’s a little more complicated than that,” William G. Thompson, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told me. “When it comes to measuring sea-level rises,” he adds, “there are different factors in different places.” Parts of South Asia are being lifted, owing to tectonic shifts in and around the Himalayas. In regions of the Caribbean, similar phenomena are lifting some islands, like Barbados, and sinking others, like the Bahamas.
Steve Nerem, a professor in the aerospace engineering sciences department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, measures sea levels. Since 1993, when he began mapping the oceans using satellite technology, sea levels have risen an average of 3.3 millimeters a year. But around the Maldives, they have risen an average of 2.2 millimeters. There is “all kinds of local variability” in the data, Nerem says. “The bottom line is that we can’t say with any kind of certainty what’s going to happen. But there’s lots of reasons to be concerned that it is going to be a big problem. The data doesn’t rule out a meter of sea-level rise” by 2100, he explains. “The data does rule out zero.”
In 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that by 2100, sea levels could rise by anywhere between 7 and 23 inches. The I.P.C.C. represents the closest thing the scientific community has to a consensus, but nearly every scientist I spoke with placed his or her estimates slightly higher. “Is this an underestimate?” Thompson says. “No real way to tell. It is a conservative estimate. When you are trying to provide guidance to global governments, you don’t want to be alarmist.” Since the I.P.C.C. study, the journals Science, Nature Geoscience and Nature have all published articles featuring estimates that exceed two feet, some saying that rises could be as much as five feet by the end of the century. “The rise to 2100 is just the beginning of a much higher sea-level rise,” says Stefan Rahmstorf, a professor of ocean physics at the University of Potsdam. “This is a real long-term effect that we are setting into motion. It will continue.” Rahmstorf says he believes the increase could be as great as 1.4 meters, or four and a half feet, by 2100.
“When we talk about climate change . . . you aren’t talking about gradual things, sea-level rises of a millimeter a year,” Nasheed said to me, using storm surges, strong winds and tsunamis as examples of the kind of cataclysms he expects. “You are talking about the force of things that can go wrong.”
At the reception following “The Age of Stupid,” I asked Nasheed how he planned to follow up on the two blockbuster initiatives so early in his term. He had to be thinking about the practicalities, right? How would he actually implement carbon neutrality or mass exodus? What came next?
“We need to go into direct action now,” Nasheed replied, matter-of-factly. His brown eyes channeled intensity. “We haven’t seen this generation — you know, those who are 18 to 30 years old — go into action yet. It is time.” He added, “I believe change is on the horizon.”
He didn’t give details. Maybe details didn’t matter. Perhaps the symbolism of Nasheed’s pronouncements was enough, and cultivating the image of the mad-scientist president was a strategy. “We are going to attract anyone with a mad idea and an investment plan,” Nasheed told me later in his office. “They can test their things here.” Whether or not the Maldives becomes carbon neutral almost seemed beside the point. If Nasheed’s antics could goad Western countries into more aggressive policies toward curbing carbon emissions, then his mission would be accomplished.
As we stood under the veranda, I asked Nasheed: Is all this a P.R. gimmick to shame the industrial countries into action?
“Sure,” he said. “This is to tell them: ‘No. Not at this cost.’ ”
Nasheed’s plans to move and to become carbon neutral are, in many ways, contradictory. One epitomizes resignation, while the other is more optimistic. But their timing — one in November and the second in March — is not by accident and hews closely to changes in Washington. While the Bush administration’s response to climate change was markedly ambivalent, President Obama has pledged action, declaring that his team “will not deny facts; we will be guided by them.” In December, the United States will participate in the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Expectations are high that the conference may produce a global accord to supersede the Kyoto Protocol and curtail greenhouse-gas emissions.
Obama has, moreover, made climate change a national-security issue. Just days after taking office, he described the long-term threat of climate change as one that “if left unchecked, could result in violent conflict, terrible storms, shrinking coastlines and irreversible catastrophe.” This was highly contentious in the past. When the intelligence community went to Capitol Hill last year to request resources to look closer at climate change, one Republican lawmaker exclaimed incredulously, “We are going to take analysts away from looking for Osama bin Laden, and we are going to put them on the ‘March of the Penguins’!”
Nasheed admitted to learning some things from Obama. Connecting with crowds, for instance. He told me that he considered Obama’s election “one of the most impressive things” Americans have done, up there with “the Revolution, democracy, the office of the presidency and ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ ” But he seems to have learned something else from his American counterpart that he never articulated: fatalism doesn’t sell quite like hope. “We cannot change the world,” Nasheed pronounced on the night of the screening, as he stood in the palace built by the man who once tormented him. “But we can begin the process. And if we are ahead of the game, we will win.”
The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 resulted in more than 80 deaths in the Maldives. On the remote island of Dhiggaru, less than 100 miles south of Malé, a powerful wave washed away dozens of homes and killed one child. The destroyed homes were later rebuilt by an American relief mission headed by former presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, along with the United Nations and the New Zealand government. Construction teams outfitted the new homes with tall brick barriers facing the shoreline.
On the day I visited Dhiggaru, I met a woman named Fatima along the footpath that separated her house from a seawall — and then the ocean. The makeshift wall consisted of concrete chunks, coconut shells and scraps of rusted corrugated metal. When I asked if the water had broken through the coconut shells, Fatima gestured at the levy. “Just last week, the sea was splashing against the walls of the house,” she said. On that night, huddled inside and wondering whether the water would continue to rise, Fatima chose not to leave the house.
Fatima said that she had heard the news of Nasheed talking about moving, but that she would only go “if there was no other choice.” Besides, tsunamis and high tides were freak occurrences. Rising sea levels were another, one that she couldn’t quite conceptualize. Fatima didn’t think inching oceans posed a serious risk. At least not in her lifetime.
“What about in theirs?” I asked, pointing to two toddlers leaning against her.
“Maybe,” she said.
The plight of the Maldives poses an eschatological question as much as an environmental one. When will the world end? How can we prepare for it? In that respect, we are all Maldivians. The islanders just happen to be among the first groups to contemplate these questions seriously. But that’s not to say each and every Maldivian spends his or her day preoccupied with sea levels. Ahmed Abbas, one of Nasheed’s longtime friends and the political cartoonist for the magazine Sangu, told me that Nasheed was overreacting. “We have been here for 3,000 years,” Abbas said as we drank espressos and ate ice cream one afternoon at a cafe in Malé. “Coral is our base. If one millimeter of water comes up, then one millimeter of coral goes up, too. So don’t worry.” His response was downright flippant when the conversation turned to a looming exodus: “Why don’t we all just board a barge? Anni” — Nasheed’s nickname — “can be the captain!” Nonetheless, Abbas was flying the next day to Sri Lanka, where he said he hoped to scout a tract of hillside property for himself.
Nasheed takes the thought of migration seriously and says he is already thinking about the logistics. “No politician has rejected the idea,” he told me when we met in his offices the day after the movie première. We were sitting in a boardroom, at the end of a long, glossy conference table. “The Sri Lanka president is quite happy that the cousins can come back,” he added, referring to the fact that Dhivehi, the language of the Maldives, and Sinhala, the dominant language in Sri Lanka, are very similar. The most publicized — and surprising — response came from the mayor of Pyrenees Shire, a small Australian town. “Our community’s a very welcoming community,” Lester Harris, then the mayor, declared in a broadcast. “We’ve got relatively cheap land compared to the major cities or even to regional cities, and I’m sure that we’ve got the type of climate that would make life very agreeable for these people.” I called Pyrenees Shire in March to see if the offer still stood. Harris had left office. The new mayor declined to comment.
I heard countless Maldivians express concern that in a relocation, they would be treated as second-class citizens. Ali Rilwan, the executive director of Bluepeace, an environmental NGO in Malé, says he hopes that international laws could be amended to protect environmental refugees in the same way they protect political ones. If not, he wasn’t optimistic. “In Sri Lanka, it would be easy, because we are the same color . . . but I was once on the beach at the Sheraton in Fiji,” a country where, Rilwan said, most Indians were descended from indentured laborers. “I was with some American friends. Security guards came and pulled me to their post. They thought I was a local Indian disturbing the Americans. . . . And one day, one of the black Fijians, the natives, hit me over the head with a corncob and demanded a dollar.”
“They would rather die here,” Nasheed said when I asked how he would persuade people to leave their homes. “You can’t ask them to leave. This is almost an impossible task, unless and until you have doomsday on them. . . . Moving would have to be the very bottom line. If you think about it, in certain eventualities, there wouldn’t be a place to move. Everyone would be running around. I mean, you mention a country that wouldn’t have all sorts of problems — even India or Sri Lanka, all of these countries would have millions of people moving from place to place. We would be lost. Three hundred thousand Maldivians? Who would care about them?”
Moreover, how would they care for themselves? Putting aside for a moment the overwhelming logistical burdens of exile, what about the emotional ones? Would the loss of the country spell the loss of the nation? The Maldives are specks of dry land in the middle of the ocean, stretching over a distance equal to that from New York City to Raleigh; total landmass is less than twice the size of Washington’s. Yet Maldivians speak the same language and call the Maldives home. Would a sense of community disappear in exile? Could Maldivians survive without the Maldives?
I asked Nasheed what his own experiences living in exile told him about how Maldivians would fare in another country.
“Maldivians are fairly cosmopolitan in outlook, and we would probably adapt better, and more easily, than others would,” he said. “But leaving home is a different phenomenon. In Salman Rushdie’s ‘Imaginary Homelands,’ he says you can imagine your home, but then you imagine with words that you know. So, basically, you would always be imagining the beach, imagining the palm tree, imagining the horizon. You can’t be doing that in the middle of Rajasthan.” His voice wavered like that of a man on the verge of tears, and the normally upbeat president looked grief-stricken. “Believe me, we don’t want to go there. We are fine here. Moving will never be easy for anyone.”
Early one morning, I joined Nasheed aboard his yacht for a two-day tour of eight islands in the central Maldives. We left Malé shortly after sunrise while the cargo ships and cruise liners were still quiet in the harbor. We motored across the sea for hours before reaching the first island. A 75-foot, gunmetal gray coast-guard cutter followed in our wake.
The presidential yacht stretched 65 feet. Red, green and white stripes ran above the gunwale, and tinted windows enclosed the cabin. Inside, Nasheed huddled around a table with a handful of advisers who briefed him on the coming islands. An atlas of the Maldives lay within easy reach.
We visited the island of Magoodhoo, the third of the day, because Nasheed had recently signed a deal with the University of Milan-Bicocca that would bring Italian scientists there to study coral growth. Nasheed wanted to thank the residents in advance for their hospitality and cooperation. If there was any tension between science and Maldivians’ conservative religious values, Nasheed said he hoped to dampen it before the Italians arrived. “For your average fisherman, who feels very insignificant in front of God, they are finding it difficult to understand the connection between climate change and human activity,” he told me. “When people say changes in weather patterns are because of nature and not because of man, you really have to connect that: if humans can become carbon-neutral, then God could act in a different set of ways. But God has to be there in the conversation somewhere.”
After the 2004 tsunami, some reactionary clerics described the waves as a curse. One called the tsunami “a sign to the people brought by Allah for people to take lessons from it and correct their way of life.” Urbanites claim that the influence of archconservative Islam has grown in recent years, especially on the smaller islands. Some point to the increased number of women wearing head scarves. Others cite the bomb blast in September 2007 that injured 12 tourists. Or the incident in January 2008, when a potential assassin charged at Gayoom holding a knife and yelling, “Allahu akbar!” A teenage Boy Scout grabbed the knife and prevented the assassin from fulfilling his mission.
On Magoodhoo, hundreds of islanders were standing in the shade of palm trees, and they applauded when Nasheed stepped onto the red carpet that had been unrolled on the pier. Nasheed toured the island, took special note of the dead coral clumped along the beach and then prayed at the mosque. Next door, schoolgirls filed into the Magoodhoo social center wearing white uniforms and matching head scarves, with red and blue sashes draped over their shoulders that identified them as school captain, vice president of the Dhivehi club or members of the Islam Club. After his prayers, Nasheed followed them inside.
About 100 people assembled under the powder blue ceiling of the social center. Air fresheners emitted a faint aroma of lemongrass, and A.C. units pumped frigid air throughout the room. A young man in a prayer cap and a necktie stood at a lectern draped with sunflowers and recited a passage from the Koran. Nasheed was introduced after that. “I can see that you all are feeling sleepy after that lunch,” he said with a smile. “But you know us politicians can’t leave a mike if we see one.” Everyone chuckled.
After a few minutes describing his government’s plans to improve life in Magoodhoo, Nasheed informed residents that the team of Italian researchers was on its way to study the coral. “The safety of these islands depends on the coral,” he said. “We need to learn more about what’s happening with the earth. The world might not be that safe. We might not survive. We don’t know exactly what will happen. So we have to understand nature. It is God’s will.” Nasheed pushed his hair off his forehead and looked out across the crowd. “If these scientists are not able to save the Maldives,” he said, “then they won’t be able to save the world.”