Maldives – home of rising sea levels and the green elite's new meeting place

As environmentalists head for Cancun, the President pioneers a new type of eco-symposium

During lunch on the beach with a bunch of barefoot businessmen, Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldives, quietly lets slip that he had that morning received a letter from the British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Aged 43 and the only one wearing shoes, the president was first noticed by the wider world last year when he held an underwater cabinet meeting to draw attention to the dangers of rising sea levels threatening the Maldives. He has just been nominated as a hero for climate change by Time magazine.

Nasheed refuses to divulge the contents of the Cameron letter. It's a clever intervention that stops the long argument between himself and a British businessman about the Maldives' eco policy which has been dominating the lunch.

The young President, who I learn later was helped by Britain's Conservatives during his election campaign, has committed his country to becoming carbon neutral by 2020 – the first country to do so.

Soneva Fushi, the Six Senses resort where this eco symposium is being held, is aiming to be the Maldives' first carbon neutral island. So Sonu Shivdasani (below, with his wife Eva) the founder chief executive and chairman of the group that owns Soneva Fushi, and the president are natural allies.

In Nasheed's keynote speech, the Liverpool University graduate showed us a glimpse of the steel that enabled him to overcome the obstacles to become the first democratically elected President of the Maldives. He was tortured and imprisoned several times for his political activities.

He explained to his green elite audience that evacuations have already taken place on 16 islands across the Maldives as rising sea levels force residents from their homes.

"I remember one woman," he said, "who was being forced to leave her home telling me, 'What about the butterflies? What about the colours and sounds? Where will they go?'"

He adds: "We should aim for a summer of protest. In the US, it must be possible to galvanise people. Mass direct action must happen. The politicians do not do anything unless told to do so by the people. This battle must be fought on the street."

In the audience were Lounette Dyer, the founder and chief executive of Soledeo Energy; Jeremy Leggett, the founder and chairman of Solarcentury, the UK's fastest growing private energy company; Eric Scotto, the chief executive of Akuo Energy Group; and Anthony Michaels, the co-founder and managing director of Proteus Environmental Technologies. All of them gave presentations on existing and future technologies which could reduce the global carbon footprint. Mike Mason, the founder of Climate Care, a market leader in the development of projects to reduce gas emissions, focused his presentation on the economics of low carbon frequency.

Even when there was disagreement on the exact way forward, there was no disagreement about the amount of enthusiasm and investment capital available right now for green business models, especially in Silicon Valley.

British Airways' head of environment Jonathan Counsell chose this occasion to announce the company's new plans to use fish from sustainable farms in its in-flight meals, introduce an on-board recycling scheme and a new entertainment channel which would have a special emphasis on the environment.

It is clear that with the failure of events such as the Copenhagen summit, it is at these smaller, more informal gatherings that the green A-listers meet to exchange ideas and formulate strategies.

The calibre of the Six Senses symposium delegates was due in part to the efforts and connections of Mark Lynas, the young British author of the best-selling book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet who is now the climate change adviser to President Nasheed. As a partner in Oxford Climate Associates, which specialises in managing carbon neutrality plans for national governments, he was well placed to attract some of the top business people and leading thinkers.

One of the bravest contributions came from Jonathon Porritt, founding director of Forum for the Future, who told the audience it was time to face up to the fact that the environmental movement had largely failed in its mission of advocacy for the cause – and urged them to consider why.

"Maybe it's because of the language we've been using. We should also ask ourselves why the spiritual aspect of the environmental debate has been lost," he said. "Why does the issue of sustainability find so little resonance among our religious leaders? Perhaps because we have been secularising this cause without noticing it.

"I think the language we have chosen to use is at the heart of the matter. We have to find a way of reconnecting with people or else we risk being condemned to being part of some self-selecting elite and being written off by the rest of the population as living in some kind of eco la la land."

It's a thesis with which the conference host Sonu Shivdasani agrees. "In the absence of real political leadership it is religious leaders who people look to for guidance. We don't have that problem in the Maldives because we have President Nasheed, but it's a problem elsewhere in the world."

Shivdasani, an old Etonian and Oxford contemporary of David Cameron, funded the symposium and the carbon offsetting for all the flights involved because he and his Danish wife Eva are evangelical about the environment. Their resort already has a state-of-the-art desalination plant and recycling depot; if their plans to be carbon neutral work out, they plan to roll out their model on a commercial basis to other resort groups.

Shivdasani is a slightly unorthodox chief exec who admits to using and believing in feng shui and astrology. He always wears two magnets in his baseball cap when flying to offset the effects of jet-lag. But he is pretty hard-headed when it comes to business.

"It isn't realistic to expect people who have got used to luxury to give up their Armani suits for horsehair shirts, particularly those from the emerging nations where people have worked hard for their money – not inherited it. You won't change that mindset so what we are trying to do is provide the luxury but in a way that really limits the effect on the environment. It has come to be what our customers expect," he says, adding: "One reason for holding this symposium is that we hope other resort operators will start to think in the same way. It is the best way forward for us all."

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