For the past week, a striking photo exhibition has lined one of the walls inside DGI-Byen, where the people’s climate conference (Klimaforum09) is taking place alongside the official UN meetings. While many of the displays at Klimaforum09 document the difficulties in the Global South, few draw such important attention as the BluePeace photography display aptly titled ‘Vulnerable’. Depicting scenes from life in the Maldives, a nation precariously close to sea level, the pictures document island erosion, protective sea walls, and houses forced onto stilts due to rising water levels. Captions below each photo explore ideas that fisheries will be run out of business — or worse, that an entire nation of people will be displaced in the coming years, climate refugees from one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The small island nation in the Indian Ocean is home to over 300,000 people spread across 200 inhabited islands out of 1,192 that make up the country. One of the most widely geographically disparate countries in the world, the Maldives is also the nation closest to sea level. While often described as a tropical vacation paradise in tourism brochures, the islands hit the headlines in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. A total of six Maldivian islands were lost in the disaster, and nearly 60 others were evacuated.
In a low sea level climate prone to monsoons and erosion, problems with extreme weather have forced many communities onto higher ground. The nation’s coral reefs, which serve as natural sea walls and protect against floods and tidal waves, have been slowly dying off as water temperatures continue to rise and pH levels in the ocean shift. Fish that rely on the reefs for a home have also perished, leaving the people that depend on the fishing industry scrambling to make ends meet.
But among Maldivian people, even in the face of such adversity, hope has been on the rise. This week, their optimism spread all the way to Copenhagen and excitement reached a fever pitch at Klimaforum09 on Monday when it was announced that President Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives’ first democratically elected leader, would address his country’s commitment to becoming carbon-neutral in an effort to thwart the effects of global warming. Sitting with well-known American writer and activist Bill McKibben, President Nasheed spoke to a crowd he addressed as ‘fellow environmentalists’.
Nasheed’s own history is as complicated as that of his home. A former political prisoner in his own country for his outspoken criticism of the government, Nasheed has been recognized as an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience since 1991 and lived as a political refugee outside his home country between 2003 and 2005. On a number of occasions before his self-imposed exile, he was imprisoned for his statements against the government. It has been reported that during his prison sentences, he was placed in solitary confinement and tortured.
While in exile Nasheed helped found the first political party in the Maldives, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), through which he rose to power last year. The MDP, a liberal party committed to human rights and democracy, has had an impressive first year under Nasheed. In addition to Nasheed’s pledge to turn the country carbon-neutral through the use of solar and wind power; in cooperation with Bill McKibben’s 350.org campaign, President Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting in October to draw attention to the threat of climate change to low-lying island nations around the world.
In his speech on Monday afternoon, President Nasheed explained that after overcoming personal battles in the name of democracy, his country now stands to test the international community with the task of standing up for small island nations. In a speech given alongside McKibben, Nasheed made references to his own time as a political prisoner as he demanded a reversal in climate change patterns. “Four years later and a continent away, we meet here to confront another seemingly impossible task” Nasheed said, referring to his 2005 return to the Maldives. “We are here to save our planet from the silent, patient and invisible enemy that is climate change.”
Echoing Klimaforum09 themes from the previous week — that smaller nations can set an example for the world’s superpowers, and that indigenous activists are leading the fight against global warming — President Nasheed expressed his hope that the Maldives will set a precedent for other countries. “We believe that if the Maldives can become carbon neutral; richer, larger countries can follow”, he stated. “But if there is one thing I know about politicians, it’s that they won’t act until their electorates act first”. Asking citizens to become more involved, Nasheed stated, “This is where you come in.”
Like other speakers at the people’s climate summit who have advocated non-violent resistance, Nasheed asked the assembled crowd to consider action in the streets. “History shows us the power of peaceful protest. From the civil rights movement, to Gandhi’s Quit India campaign; non-violent protest can create change”. Nasheed added hopefully, “Protest worked in the struggle for democracy in the Maldives”. His presence in the Copenhagen auditorium proved that much.
Throughout his speech, Nasheed repeated the figure ‘350’, referring to the safe upper limit of CO2 in parts per million in the atmosphere. “I am not a scientist, but I know that one of the laws of physics is that you cannot negotiate with the laws of physics”, Nasheed stated. “Three – Five – Oh”, he spelled out, “is a law of atmospheric physics. You cannot cut a deal with Mother Nature. And we don’t intend to try”.
While deeply inspiring for the auditorium packed full of activists, scientists and journalists, it is still uncertain whether the needs of island nations like the Maldives will be considered and respected as the official UN talks wrap up this week. With some nations threatening to walk out and others absent for parts of this week, it remains to be seen if President Nasheed’s concerns will be taken on board — or whether it will truly be a movement of the people that saves countries like the Maldives.