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The Island President triumphs in making climate change personal

2012 April 4

Tonight, I went and saw The Island President, a new documentary by Jon Shenk (who previously made a film about the lost boys of Sudan). It follows the account of how President Nasheed came to power in the Maldives (through a democratic election after a 30 year dictatorship) and how he led the Maldives delegation in Copenhagen and tried to influence the deal brokered there. I definitely recommend this film.

Besides being an amazing and well-told story, it is beautifully shot and Radiohead provided a lot of their music for the film. The film opens with Kid A behind stunning shots of the Maldives; Idioteque is used as a backdrop as tensions rise at Copenhagen. When you see the shots of Male (the capital), you can’t really believe your eyes how low it is compared with sea level, but you do certainly believe Nasheed when he says that most of the country is just 1 or 2 meters above sea level. The movie does a great job of making it a personal story, showcasing Nasheed’s personal struggles as a civil rights activist (being arrested, tortured, put in solitary confinement) and his true passion for saving his country from the threat of climate change and rising sea levels which will wipe out the country. It is summed up well in one of his quotes in the movie: “How can I promote democracy, if there is no country to speak of?” (all quotes are not exact in this post, but should capture general idea)

The sad ending is of course that Nasheed has been removed from power in a coup d’etat (in early February) and the original dictator Gayoom is back in power, with control of military and police forces. Nasheed has been in the USA the past few weeks, promoting awareness about the movie and also appearing on Daily Show (skip to third segment) and Letterman to discuss both politics and climate change. Interestingly, in a Q&A with the movie director at the screening after the film tonight, Shenk said that Nasheed was unable to secure a meeting with the State Department to secure U.S. support for a Maldives election. Nasheed appeared on Letterman, and then was suddenly able to secure a meeting with the State Department the next morning, according to Shenk. He flew back to the Maldives today and may be arrested, but will continue to practice peaceful civil unrest until there is another democratic election. Luckily, he enjoys tremendous popular support (70% or higher) and mobs of supporters will likely welcome him at the airport. Gayoom has the military and police, however.

There are still showings left this week in NY, LA, SF, and Berkeley, and a showing on April 20 in DC, so I encourage my friends and readers to see this film if they’re in one of those places. Otherwise, you might have to wait for the DVD release. Here is the trailer:

Now, ahem, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a bit wonky on my analysis of the film and the new knowledge I learned from it, specifically about the role the Maldives played in the lead up to Copenhagen [spoiler alert]. First, I’ll address Mark Lynas’s role as one of lead advisers to Nasheed during Copenhagen. Lynas is perhaps most famous for his op-ed in the Guardian after Copenhagen: “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room”. In one exchange with Nasheed, Lynas lays out the fundamental difference between the position of the Maldives and the position of India: India’s position was “we have the right to develop our economy with high carbon energy just as developed countries did, and if we have to relinquish this right, then you will have to pay us enormous sums of money”; the Maldives position was “we have to do our part and commit to going carbon neutral, and all other countries must follow us with similar action.” This rift between Maldives very progressive position and India’s defensive position is further explored when they are in a bilateral meeting in Delhi a month before the Copenhagen conference. India tries to get Nasheed to agree on principles of equity (the right to develop in a carbon intensive pattern as developed countries did), but they agree on nothing in the meeting.

Later in Copenhagen, Nasheed recognizes the need to get an agreement and begins to show his willingness to compromise, saying “we should give on mitigation, but hold firm on [our demands for] adaptation”. Lynas cautions that giving up on a 350 ppm (and 1.5 Celsius) target is like signing the Maldives “suicide note” and that once they remove it from the text, there will never be a chance to put it back in. Experts on the UNFCCC processes know that references to 1.5 C are still in the depths of the text, but the target is next to impossible as current emissions commit us to 1.3 C even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow.

Nasheed says to his advisers, “If we walk, will we get what we want? Of course not!” indicating that there needs to be room for compromise rather than just making a public demand for 350ppm and storming out of the room. He wanted to inspire action and hope (shown through his speech at a 350.org event) and showed his support for the text (which included a 2 C target) on the floor of the meeting (the movie showed clips of other countries speaking, Ethiopia for instance backed the text, while Venezuala completely rejected it). Decidedly absent from the movie were any discussions with U.S. negotiators. Apparently, Nasheed did not meet with U.S. negotiators while in Copenhagen (for fans of Deputy Envoy Jonathan Pershing, there is a few seconds of footage of him), instead focusing his sphere of influence on China, India, and the group of small island nations. Interestingly, the Maldives seemingly saw the U.S. as playing a constructive role in Copenhagen. Two years and a dumped climate bill later, I’m not so sure Lynas is so convinced of this anymore, as evidenced by an exchange I had with him on Twitter in November 2011.

After the Copenhagen deal was done, Nasheed focused on the small victory that now the U.S., China, and India had made commitments to reduce carbon emissions. However weak the commitments might be, they did not even exist before. Yet, Nasheed acknowledges some futility of effort: “We got an agreement, but you come back to Maldives and realize how impossible it is. We take money from healthcare and education and put it into cement and sea walls.” Throughout the movie, Nasheed alludes to the fact the Maldives and other small island nations need not be the only ones worried about this; parts of Manhattan will also be submerged with the same levels of sea rise that will obliterate the Maldives.

Shenk succeeded in making this movie a personal story about Nasheed. He said in the Q&A that his funders did not want just another climate movie; “it had to be personal”. I kept thinking throughout the movie how “An Inconvenient Truth” really stumbled in this regard (a cobbled attempt to make it personal by recounting his childhood on the farm and the tough loss of his mother to cigarettes and cancer), although its review of the data and science was where the true impact for viewers was. For The Island President, the audience is much more engaged with the main character and is truly cheering for Nasheed by the end. He is a hero for the movement, and it motivates the audience to want to get up and be a hero as well. As he says in the movie, “I fought for democracy because I did not want my children to be subject to solitary confinement. I also don’t want them to become environmental refugees.” It’s hard not to admire this kind of hero.

Capturing this personal story was an interesting journey for Shenk… He followed Nasheed for a couple years, saying that Nasheed didn’t think the filmmakers would stick around as long as they did, but that Nasheed liked the idea of transparency so he was very willing to cooperate in the project. For the Copenhagen meeting, Shenk and others actually got “party” badges so they could be official Maldives delegates and get into more meetings that way, as opposed to media badges which would have restricted their filming much more among the mobs of cameras and reporters there in December 2009. Shenk said it was difficult to get Nasheed to open up about his periods of solitary confinement, but that there was some information about it on his application for exile to the UK in 2003.

Since the dictatorship is now back in power, the Maldives pledge to become carbon neutral by 2020 is in limbo, since it was Nasheed’s government which had pledged the effort. It may be difficult for the Maldives to go carbon neutral, but the moral weight the pledge bears if they are able to complete it is incredibly significant. For the people of the Maldives will almost certainly have to relocate at least some, if not all, of their population (footage of the tsunami in 2004 makes sea walls and adaptation seem ludicrous and pointless to me). The fate of the world does not lie with their action, but with what the bulk of the biggest emitters do (U.S., EU, China, India, Brazil, etc), yet their example could inspire many individuals and governments around the world to action.

Now, being the nerd I am, and having just watched a lecture today on the feasibility of renewable energy given the energy use density of certain populations… I decided to perform some back of the envelope calculations as to whether solar/wind deployment could realistically account for the current energy needs of the Maldives. I found a number from the World Bank that says Maldives residents use about 1 ton of oil equivalent (toe) per year per capita (most of this likely goes to support tourism operations). With about 325,000 residents, that means a total energy consumption of 0.3 million toe per year. This is equivalent to 400 megawatts in electricity equivalence (stay with me here). With a land mass of 298 square kilometers, this works out to an energy density of 1.34 watts per square meter. Energy expert David Mackay notes in his latest TED lecture that wind resources are about 2.5 watts per square meter and solar at about 5 watts per square meter, so it is technically doable (Ok, now I’ve lost you). The movie shows some solar panels (apparently donated by Sungevity) being tacked on to the Presidential Palace in Male — a good start. A realistic shift in all of their energy would likely require huge amounts of energy storage (batteries) and a refit of their transportation fleet, since I’m assuming this is a huge portion of their energy consumption. The movie showed just about everyone getting around by boats with motors. Sailboats anyone? Here is the lecture if you’re interested.

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