Almost exactly one year ago, I sat with President Nasheed of the Maldives in the shade of coconut palms on the blue lagoon island of Soneva Fushi, where the sustainable tourism resort group Six Senses was founded in 1995. I listened intently as he explained his vision of the Maldives becoming the world’s first fossil fuel free country. I returned to the Maldives last week to join a handful of sustainability leaders and visionaries, including President Nasheed himself, for the SLOWLIFE symposium, hosted by Six Senses
The soft spoken and handsome 44-year-old Nasheed has risen onto the world stage by calling for urgent global action to address climate change through bold moves to embrace renewable energy–now. If he succeeds in making the Maldives a carbon-neutral country by 2020, as he has declared, this tiny island nation and its big thinking leader (who was jailed and banished to a remote island by the previous autocratic ruler for leading a democracy campaign) may go down in history as the country that signaled the turning point when the world finally began to move away from a near total dependence on pumping crude for energy.
Perhaps it is fitting that Nasheed–subject of the upcoming documentary The Island President–comes from one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The Maldives consists of more than 1,000 postage stamp-sized islands spread across a stunning blue marine-scape in the middle of the tropical Indian Ocean. Beneath the waves lies an underwater Serengeti of coral and fish species, including whale sharks, giant manta rays, and pods of dolphins that number in the hundreds at a time (some of the finest surf breaks are also found here). Surrounded by this natural bounty, it is no surprise that Nasheed sees an oil-addicted resource-hungry world and climate change as serious threats to his country’s future–the Maldives’ economy depends heavily on tourism. Already the Maldives are experiencing the salination of very limited fresh water sources on some islands, attributed to an increase in sea level linked to global warming.
As I sit with President Nasheed on Soneva Fushi just a few feet from a sheltered lagoon, I count nearly a dozen young black tip reef sharks, where I saw none a year before–the population appears to be on the rebound (he banned shark-finning after taking office). I ask him about the progress he has made in the last 12 months toward his ambitious goal of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral country within eight years, and how he feels about being called the planet’s first “Green President.”
“If you measure the Maldives’ coral reefs in terms of surface area, we have more reefs combined than the entire Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Climate change is now threatening our reef ecosystems through coral bleaching and ocean acidification. The science is clear. There is no point in countries bickering about who is to blame for climate change. That is not the issue. Whether developed countries or developing countries, we must all reduce our carbon emissions into the atmosphere or life on Earth as we know it will perish,” he said.
In the past year, Nasheed has managed to galvanize international momentum to support the creation of a “carbon neutral club” of countries. He’s also launched a community-based renewable energy “feed in tariff” program in the Maldives where his government will pay a profit to villagers to generate solar energy while providing them with support for making the switch and he’s promoting the introduction of electric cars through a government import incentive program that makes them one third of the price of conventional gas-powered cars.
“What we really need are many green presidents to lead the world into a renewable energy future. If we cannot reach an international agreement to take action fast to reduce our global carbon footprint, one idea I would like to propose is the establishment of an international environmental court, similar to how the International Court of the Hague addresses humanitarian crisis issues. In this case, countries could be taken to court if they refuse to stop emitting large-scale carbon into the atmosphere. Renewable energy is financially and economically viable for us, and even if we are only a small country, if the Maldives can be a sustainable country, we can make a contribution to the world,” Nasheed added.
Mark Lynas, President Nasheed’s special advisor on climate change and author of the new book, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, put it in more stark terms: “When slavery was abolished, we did not measure progress in yearly percentages of reduction (i.e., there was no ‘let’s start by having 20 percent less slavery in the first year’). Rather, the aim was to end slavery as an economic model altogether. We need to completely get rid of the fossil fuel-based economy that is destroying the planet.”
As I leave the Maldives and the SLOWLIFE Symposium, I find myself energized and feeling positive from the discussions that took place over three days among business, conservation, and political leaders gathered on Soneva Fushi to address climate change, sustainability, and travel, while charting a path of action ahead. Does getting rid of the fossil-fuel based global economy sound too idealistic? Maybe living by our ideals–as President Nasheed is doing–is something we can all try to do.
Editor at large Costas Christ writes about sustainability and tourism issues for National Geographic Traveler magazine.