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Maldives: Politics Trumps Climate Change

Do you remember Mohamed Nasheed, the charismatic young president of the Maldives who dramatised the threat of rising sea levels to his low-lying island nation in the Indian Ocean by holding his first cabinet meeting underwater, with all the cabinet ministers in scuba gear?

“This is what will happen to the Maldives if climate change is not checked,” he told the cameras as the fish swam past him. (Well, not exactly “told”, because you can’t talk when you are underwater, but he held up a sign saying that.) Were you wondering where he is now that the great conference to curb global warming is getting underway in Paris?

Nasheed can’t be in Paris, unfortunately, because he was overthrown in a coup in 2012 and was then jailed for thirteen years last March for “terrorism”. And the promise he made to set an example for the world by achieving a carbon-neutral economy (zero net carbon-dioxide emissions) in the Maldives within ten years has been modified a bit by the new government.

The new rulers felt that a hundred-percent cut in emissions by 2020 was too ambitious, so they settled for a ten-percent cut by 2030. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that they are also encouraging drilling for oil in the country. But only a base cynic would suggest that it may also have to do with the riches that sometimes mysteriously accrue to those who allocate drilling licenses.

How did it come to this? Every country is different, but the the changes that brought the Maldives to this low point are a warning about what can happen to the promises countries make about reducing their emissions. Since the whole Paris negotiation is based on each country making voluntary commitments on emission cuts, there are 140 different ways that whatever they agree at Paris can be sabotaged afterwards.

The Maldives has a long record of taking the lead on climate change issues, because it is the most vulnerable country in the world to sea-level rise. Three-quarters of its land is no more than half a metre above sea level, and will be inundated by the end of the century if the mid-range prediction on sea-level rise proves correct. No part of its thousand-plus islands is more than 2.4 metres high.

Even Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the dictator who ruled the islands for 30 years before Nasheed replaced him in a free election in 2008, was a climate-change activist. Nasheed, then a young journalist, was arrested fifteen times under Gayoom’s rule and frequently tortured, but Gayoom was the first national leader to highlight the peril facing small island states in his “Death of a Nation” speech at the United Nations in 1987.

The Maldives was the first country to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement on combating climate change. Gayoom was also instrumental in founding the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), now 44 members strong, which campaigns internationally against global warming and is strongly represented at Paris.

So Nasheed, who holds a degree in Maritime Studies from what is now Liverpool John Moores University, was not really bringing the subject up for the first time when he held his famous underwater cabinet meeting. It’s hard to be Maldivian and not care about climate change. But it can be done, and the current president of the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, is living proof of it.

To be fair, he does care about it a bit; he just cares about power much more. After Nasheed was forced to resign at gunpoint in 2012, the old gang came back with a vengeance: Yameen is Gayoom’s half-brother, and his foreign minister is Gayoom’s daughter. And Nasheed is in prison.

Nasheed was making a political comeback in the 2013 presidential election – he won in the first round of voting – but his victory was annulled by the Supreme Court. After some further manipulation of the voting Yameen emerged as president, with third-placed Gasim Ibrahim as his coalition partner.

And when Ibrahim quit the coalition early this year and joined Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party, making him the favourite to win the next election, Yameen responded by having Nasheed arrested on the charge of illegally ordering the arrest of a senior judge while he was in office.

Although no evidence was offered at the trial that Nasheed had actually given such an order or even knew about it, the arrest was defined as “abduction”, which is a terrorist offence under Maldivian law. Nasheed was sentenced to thirteen years in prison, and joined the 1,700 other people (out of a population of 350,000) now detained on politically motivated charges.

The current government is trying to bolster its support by playing the Islamist card: for example, the death penalty has been reintroduced sixty years after it was abolished Now the thieves are quarrelling among themselves, with Yameen’s vice-president under arrest for allegedly plotting to kill the president, and climate change is very much on the back burner.

It’s not just a fledgling democracy that’s going under. In the somewhat longer term, it’s the whole country. But politics is usually a short-term game, and it can get quite nasty. Not all the promises that are being made in Paris will be kept.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“Nasheed…charges”)

Russia, the Maldives, and Short-term Thinking

20 October 2013

Russia, the Maldives, and Short-term Thinking

By Gwynne Dyer

Short term beats long term most of the time, even when people understand where their long-term self-interest really lies. Take, for example, that well-known pair, Russia and the Maldives.

Five years ago, it was hard to find senior people in the universities and scientific institutes in Moscow who were even willing to discuss climate change. But the great heat-wave of 2010, which killed one-third of the Russian grain crop, seems to have changed all that.

It was Russia that insisted on putting a reference to geo-engineering, the highly controversial array of last-ditch measures to combat global warming, into the last paragraph of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report. The Russians get it now. And yet….

On 18 September the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise stopped near the drilling platform Prirazlomnaya, the first rig to drill for oil off Russia’s Arctic coast, and launched four inflatable boats. Their aim was to hang a banner on the platform denouncing Russian plans to exploit the oil and gas reserves of the environmentally sensitive Arctic, especially since burning all that extra oil and gas will speed up the warming process.

There were no weapons aboard the ship, and Greenpeace’s protests are always non-violent. None of the protesters tried to climb up the legs of the platform or damage it in any way. But armed Russian security forces abseiled down from helicopters and took them all prisoner. The ship and all its crew were arrested and taken to the nearest Russian port, Murmansk.

A month later, all thirty crew members, volunteers who come from Britain, France, Canada, Russia, Brazil, New Zealand and eleven other countries, are still in prison. Half of them have already been charged with “piracy”.

It sounds ridiculous, but piracy carries a prison sentence of ten to fifteen years, and the Russian state is deadly serious. The crew have all been refused bail, and it will probably be months before they even stand trial. The Russian state has a long tradition of reacting badly when it is challenged, and the platform belongs to Gazprom, a state-owned firm, but even so this is an extreme over-reaction.

Besides, knowing how hard climate change will hit Russia, why did Moscow let Gazprom start drilling in the Arctic seabed at all? Because Russia’s relative prosperity in the past decade has depended heavily on exports of oil and gas. Because President Vladimir Putin’s rule depends on the continuation of that fragile prosperity. And because Russia’s onshore reserves of oil and gas are in decline.

Russian scientists are well aware that the frozen seabed of the Arctic Ocean is already thawing and releasing huge plumes of methane gas that will accelerate warming further. President Putin is concerned enough about climate change to spend serious diplomatic capital on getting geo-engineering into the IPCC report. But warming is a long-term (or at least a medium-term) problem, and his political survival is short-term.

Short-term comes first, so drill away, and if people protest against it, charge them with piracy. And if you think this is as stupid as politics can get, consider the Maldives.

The Maldives are several hundred tiny islands in the Indian Ocean where most of the land is only about a metre (three or four feet) above sea level. As the sea level rises, most of the country will simply disappear beneath the waves.

You would think that the prospect of national extinction in two generations would concentrate anybody’s mind, and in the Maldives it did – for a while. In 2008 the long-ruling dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was ousted in the islands’ first free election by Mohamed Nasheed, a young politician who put great emphasis on fighting climate change.

Nasheed knew that his own country’s actions could have little direct effect on the outcome: China emits about 2,000 times as much carbon dioxide as the Maldives. But he also knew that the extreme vulnerability of the Maldives gives its decisions a high publicity value, so he pledged to make it the world’s first carbon-neutral country. He even held a cabinet meeting underwater, with all the ministers in scuba gear, to dramatise the country’s plight.

Then, early last year, Nasheed was overthrown in a coup by senior police officers closely linked to the old regime. International pressure forced fresh elections early last month and Nasheed came in well ahead of the other two candidates.

Various interventions by police and judges linked to the former dictator have complicated the issue, and the election will now be re-run early next month. Nasheed will doubtless recover the presidency in the end, but here’s the thing. In the whole election campaign, he didn’t mention climate change once. Neither did the other candidates.

This is a country full of people whose grandchildren are going to have to live somewhere else because the whole place is going underwater, and they STILL don’t want to hear about climate change. You can’t just blame the politicians for the neglect. It’s just too uncomfortable for people to stay focussed on the issue for long.

And by the way, opinion polls reveal that a majority of Russians approve of the piracy charges laid against the Greenpeace crew.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“Russian…short-term”; and “Nasheed…plight”)

 

No Progress at Cancun

5 December 2010

No Progress at Cancun

By Gwynne Dyer

The UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico is nearing its end, and while the ending will not be as rancorous as last year’s train-wreck in Copenhagen, there will be no global deal on cutting greenhouse gas emissions this year either. However, there is some hope for the longer run.

Mohamed Nasheed is the president of the Maldives, a group of low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean that will be among the first to vanish as the sea-level rises in a warming world. That’s why he is so outspoken in challenging the current negotiating position of the developing countries.

“When I started hearing about this climate change issue, I started hearing developing countries say ‘we have a right to emit carbon because we have to develop’,” he told the BBC recently. “It is true, we need to develop; but equating development to carbon emissions I thought was quite silly.”

That is heresy, for the standard position of the group of developing countries (G77) is that since the rich countries caused the problem, they must make the emissions cuts that would stop it. And they really did cause the problem: it was 200 years of burning fossil fuels that made them rich, and they are responsible for 80 percent of the greenhouse gases of
human origin that are now in the atmosphere.

But if only the rich countries cut their emissions, while the rapidly developing countries (which have three times as many people) let their emissions grow at the current rate, the planet will probably topple into runaway warming by mid-century.

The numbers are brutally simple. Since the industrial revolution began around 1800, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 390 ppm. The point of no return is 450 ppm. After some delay, that will raise the average global temperature by 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit).

We only have 60 ppm to go, and the newly industrialising countries are growing so fast that we are collectively adding between 2 and 3 ppm per year. At that rate, we’ll reach the point of no return in twenty to thirty years.

What happens then is that the warming we have already caused triggers natural processes, like the melting of the permafrost and the warming of the oceans, that dump even more carbon dioxide into the air, causing even faster warming. Even if we later cut our own emissions to zero, the permafrost will go on melting, the oceans will continue to warm – and we may be into runaway warming.

Almost every government on Earth has formally committed to holding the warming below two degrees C. They have not, however, committed to any process that will actually achieve that goal – which is why they keep coming back to the conference table despite all the past failures.

Why don’t all the governments act? Because the developing countries refuse to accept limits on their emissions for fear that they wouldn’t be able to go on growing their economies. They also resent the fact that the past emissions of the rich countries have brought us all so close to 450 ppm. Whereas the rich countries ignore the history and demand similar cuts from all countries, rich and poor.

Mohamed Naseed is abandoning the old common front of all developing countries because it may serve the short-term interest of the rapidly industrialising countries in the G77, but it isn’t in the interest of poorer, slower-growing countries like the Maldives at all.

At least thirty countries in the G77 privately share Naseed’s view: the impending split was already visible even at last year’s Copenhagen conference. Moreover, he argues, the current negotiating position of the G77 is silly even for the bigger, richer members of the group.

“There is new technology,” Naseed argues. “Fossil fuel is obsolete, it’s yesterday’s technology; so we [aim to] come up with a development strategy that’s low carbon.” If China, India, Brazil and the other big, fast-developing countries believed that they could go on growing their economies without growing their emissions, he says, then they’d also be willing to sign up to binding limits on emissions.

“They have to rapidly increase their investments in renewable energy,” he says, “and I think they are doing that. Once they’ve done it, they’re going to say ‘right, we need a legally-binding agreement’.” It’s fast becoming true: China is already the world’s largest exporter of solar panels, and India is the leading exporter of wind turbines. But there is one remaining problem.

Wind turbines, solar panels and the like tend to be more expensive than cheap and dirty coal-fired power stations. If the developing countries choose the more expensive option, who pays the difference? The old rich countries who landed them in this dilemma, of course.

People in the rich countries don’t even understand that history, so they are still a long way from accepting that deal. It won’t happen at Cancun, and it may be years before it does. Maybe too many years.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 9 and 12. (“We only…years”; “Almost…failures”; and “At least…group”)

The conference ends on 10 December.

Small Is Not Always Beautiful

25 September 2003

Small Is Not Always Beautiful

By Gwynne Dyer

It was romantics like Paul Gauguin who seduced the world into believing that tropical islands are palm-fringed paradises where people are nicer and more innocent than elsewhere, but they did have help from the ‘small is beautiful’ crowd. Surely, they murmured, much of the ugliness and cruelty of mass societies comes from their sheer scale. So let us consider a few small islands.

Start with the Maldives: 1,190 low-lying coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, with about 300,000 people scattered around 200 inhabited islands. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has been in power for 25 years, wants another term, but young Maldivians have decided they’ve had enough. In two nights of violence last weekend (20-21 Sept), mobs of youths burned the Election Commission’s office, the High Court, and several police stations in Male, the capital.

“Most of the people in the mob were people with serious police records,” claimed Gayoom, but someone using the name ‘Rosa’ e-mailed a very different account to the BBC website. “I have seen many people being hauled in off the streets in Male by the police….The police had cameras during the riots and there were cameras in the buildings that were attacked. My friends last night saw two men being hauled out of their shops and thrown into police vans just before curfew started. I have also seen many young men being arrested, not hardened criminals as the government claims.”

Gayoom has done a good job of raising living standards in the Maldives: ten percent annual growth for the past twenty years. An average income now nearing $2,000 a year is not bad for a chain of barren atolls which live exclusively off tourism, fishing and trade. The price, however, has been arbitrary arrests and long jail sentences for government critics. So the younger generation, having benefited from the education their parents could never afford, has turned against the all-powerful patriarch who has outlived his usefulness. Just like anywhere else.

Gayoom will win next month’s referendum and get his sixth term: this is just the first outburst of resistance in the Maldives. Things have gone much further in the Solomon Islands, 4,000 miles (6,000 km) to the east, where a five-year civil war between the Isatabu, the dominant population of the main island, Guadalcanal, and immigrants from the neighbouring island of Malaita has already devastated the country. Hundreds of people have been killed in fighting between rival militias, schools are shut, there is little water or electricity, and export earnings have fallen 80 percent in five years.

A multinational force led by Australian troops arrived in the Solomons in late July, but it has not yet managed to disarm the militias. Last week the shaky truce was threatened when Selwyn Sake, commander of the Isatabu militia for the capital, Honiara, was found dead and mutilated in his car. The 465,000 people of the Solomons speak 70 different languages, and the prospects for a lasting peace deal must be reckoned as slim.

Go north-east just a few hundred miles (kilometres) to the tiny, lonely island of Nauru, and the ethnic complexity diminishes: most of Nauru’s 12,000 inhabitants at least speak the same language. But after European traders introduced guns and alcohol in the 19th century, there was a ten-year war between the island’s twelve major clans — and the clans are still at war, in a way, though these days they play the game out through more or less democratic politics. The resulting chaos is so great that Nauru is now on its fifth president since January.

If oil is the curse of the Arab world and diamonds have been the nemesis of Sierra Leone, then fertiliser has been the downfall of Nauru. In 1899 prospectors realised that the whole interior of the 8-square-mile (21 sq. km) island was practically solid phosphate, and strip-miners began to transform the island into a moonscape. Eventually the local people got their hands on the revenues, and became for a time the richest people of the Third World — but now the phosphate is nearly gone, their investments have melted away through bad management, and they are at each other’s throats.

Many Nauruans have been paid only sporadically since last year. The island’s one regular link with the outside world, Air Nauru, may be grounded any day because of its unpaid debts. Some Nauruans believed the answer was to become a major money-laundering centre, and regulations grew so lax that at one point over 400 offshore banks were registered to the same mailbox. But a US government decision to take financial countermeasures against Nauru scared others into seeking a change of strategy, and unleashed this year’s political game of musical chairs.

In January, President Rene Harris was unseated by Bernard Dowiyogo, who tried to curb the money-laundering industry but died on a US visit in February. Parliament chose Derog Gioura as president in March, but he was replaced by Ludwig Scotty after an election in May. Scotty closed Nauru’s US embassy and seemed set to go back into the tax haven business, but was replaced in another parliamentary revolt in August by Rene Harris. Nobody knows how long he will last either.

It’s all a long way from paradise, but it’s not surprising. Small island countries aren’t nicer than other places; they’re just smaller. The people are the same, too, except that there’s no way to get away from them. As another Frenchman remarked — Jean-Paul Sartre, this time — hell is other people.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Most…claims”; and”Many…chairs”)