The Maldives man with a plan to save the world

First he must stop his own nation sinking. But the Pacific president and eco-activist won't stop there, he tells Oliver Wright

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The Independent Online

By conventional standards Mohamed Nasheed should already have achieved his lifetime's ambition.

Click HERE for graphic: Rising Tides (454.95kB)

After six years of jail, torture and exile, the former investigative journalist became his country's first democratically elected President, peacefully overturning a 30-year dictatorship to make the Maldives one of the first Islamic countries in the world to embrace multi-party politics.

But winning the presidency three years ago has just been the start of Mr Nasheed's problems. The Maldives – a chain of 1,191 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean – is being swallowed by the sea. It may be a tropical paradise for the thousands of British tourists who visit it each year but it is also the lowest country on earth. Its highest point is just 2.5 metres above sea level and 80 per cent of the land is less than a metre above water.

Scientists predict that even if sustained action is taken against global warming, parts of the country will be under water in as little as 40 years. That will end not only tourism but also the livelihoods of its 400,000 inhabitants. So Mr Nasheed, 44, has turned himself from a democracy campaigner into a climate change campaigner – using some unusual statecraft and ruffling a number of diplomatic feathers along the way.

At climate change talks in Copenhagen he accredited a film crew as part of the official Maldivian delegation so they could get into private parts of the meetings and relay to the world what was going on behind closed doors. He held the world's first underwater cabinet meeting, using sign language to draw attention to what would happen to his country if sea levels continued to rise. And last year he pledged to make his country the first in the world to be carbon neutral, with a target date of 2020.

Yesterday Mr Nasheed was in London en route to the Toronto Film Festival for tonight's premier of a documentary about his first year in office and the climate change campaign. He hopes the film – The Island President – will raise awareness of what is going on in his country, particularly in the US, where it opens this year.

A small, dapper man who rarely stays still, Mr Nasheed unashamedly compares his previous struggle for democracy in the Maldives with the fight against climate change. His rise to power and its aftermath is a remarkable tale: instead of sending his predecessor, Maumoon Gayoom, to prison or exile, Mr Nasheed allowed him to stay and become leader of the opposition. Last year Mr Nasheed was named by Newsweek as one of the world's 10 best leaders. He says he wants to use the international interest in his story as a spur to highlight the effect of climate change.

"When I first thought about fighting climate change it was so against the odds it was a hard thing to do. You think 'I can't take the whole world on. I can't change things to the extent that is necessary.'

"But then I was told that bringing democracy in the Maldives and trying to change the dictatorship was also impossible – you can't achieve it all [but] we did.

"If you start thinking in global big pictures climate change is difficult, but if you do your thing consistently and every day without losing focus I think finally it works out. So we decided we [would] first have to fend for ourselves and go carbon neutral."

That has not come without cost at home. Even with the threat to the Maldives many people there are angry that taxes have risen to pay for new green technologies at a time of general economic hardship. In May thousands of people took to the streets in protest at steep rises in prices and the economic reforms instituted by the government.

"Of course it's unpopular," he says. "But that's what we have to do. We can't use all our money for education and health and transport and all those other things. We have to set that aside for climate change adaptation, and adaptation is very expensive."

But the domestic challenges are nothing compared with the frustrations he faces from other countries. When he came to power, India, China and other major developing countries were insisting that they would not take action to curb their own emissions until Western powers had substantially cut theirs.

Speaking of the time he came to power, he says: "One of things that we found about the climate change negotiations was that you had the so-called G77 countries just shouting at the developed countries. There was this huge in-fight going on.

"The developing countries were talking about the historical responsibility of the developed world. But when you looked at it – it doesn't matter. If the whole of the West shut down today and if we in the developing countries carried on as usual we would still die. In my mind there was no good to be had in pointing fingers. We had to try and find a solution."

So President Nasheed courted the leaders of his much larger neighbour India, as well as the Chinese authorities, in an attempt to persuade them that it was in their interests, too, to show leadership on climate change – both multilaterally and unilaterally.

"We started talking to developing countries saying – you have to cap as well. We have all got to agree on cutting emissions. I have found the Chinese and the Indians have been very, very responsive to that.

"We are so small but they give us so much attention. The Chinese Premier visits the Maldives, the Indian Prime Minister visits the Maldives. We have regular consultations on climate change issues and they are willing to listen to us.

"I think we have been able to really soften the Indian and the Chinese stance. If you have a look at how they were positioned in 2009 [at the time of Copenhagen] and how they are positioned now – they have changed a lot."

But he realises it will be an uphill struggle. Climate change negotiations are slow and tortuous, and time is not on his side. "We're trying to send our message, let the world know what is happening, and what will happen to the Maldives if climate change is not checked," he says. "If the Maldives cannot be saved today I don't think there is much chance for the rest of the world."