Thursday, January 08, 2009

Losing paradise

From International Herald Tribune

By Mohamed Nasheed

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

MALÉ, Maldive Islands:

Any sensible head of state will tell you that the priority of high office is the defense of the realm. When I was elected president of the Maldives last month, my advisers gave me similar counsel. Like any other nation state, at any point in history, the Maldives must protect itself from the menace of foreign invasion, terrorism and espionage. Still, to be honest, I really don't see any one wanting to invade or attack us.

For the first time in the country's history, however, the Maldives face a new threat. This new danger is of apocalyptic, existential proportions, and it looms silently, invisibly and menacingly over our azure horizon. I am talking about climate change and rising sea levels.

Looking out from my office window, it is difficult to believe that this view may someday disappear. And what a vista it is: Crusoe islands of swaying palms and snow-soft sand, encircled by turquoise lagoons and coral reefs teeming with all the exuberance of life. I can't help but be reminded of the words of the great Mughal Emperor Jahangir: "If there is a Paradise on earth; it is this, it is this, it is this."

I assume that it is a series of ecological accidents that creates such wondrous beauty. The nature of our ecosystem, however, makes us particularly vulnerable to climate change. The average height of our islands is just 1.5 meters above sea level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that sea levels could rise over half a meter by the end of the 21st century, unless urgent steps are taken to halt greenhouse gas emissions. Less optimistic scientists, however, predict sea rises of nearly two meters. Low-lying island states such as the Maldives are living on borrowed time.

Some people shrug their shoulders at climate change. The cost of taking urgent action, they say, is too great. If the world has to lose the odd low-lying island state for the sake of unrestrained economic growth, so be it.

Such an attitude is as delusional as it is disingenuous. Scientists at the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Poznan suggested likely global temperatures rises of two-to-three degrees, unless the world makes rapid and deep cuts in CO² emissions.

This sort of warming will inundate the Maldives. But it also brings us to a potential tipping point, after which climate change moves beyond man's control.

If we are unable to save countries like the Maldives, it might be too late to save the rest of the world from the apocalyptic effects of self-reinforcing, runaway global warming. The Maldives is the canary in the world's carbon coal mine.

As the West's unforgiving winter starts to bite, you might be forgiven for thinking that a warmer world sounds rather nice. You would be mistaken. Any climate skeptic should read Mark Lynas' book "Six Degrees."

Like Virgil leading Dante through the circles of hell, each one more appalling than the next, Lynas guides us through a warming world, one degree at a time. By six degrees, the inferno of global warming truly roars. Vast swathes of the globe are uninhabitable, as higher temperatures fuel super-hurricanes and widespread winter flooding, while severe summer droughts spark raging wildfires and famine. Temperate northern Europe is on the receiving end of climate refugees in their hundreds of millions.

Last month, the international press reported the previously unthinkable measures the Maldives is taking to insure itself from catastrophic climate change. In the next couple of years I hope to start investing the proceeds of tourism in a sovereign wealth fund. This trust fund will act as a national insurance policy to help pay for a new homeland, should future presidents have to evacuate a country disappearing under the waves.

For the sake of the Maldives and the rest of the world, I hope this fund never needs to be used for its ultimate purpose. I hope instead, that it will pay for future mitigation measures such as reinforcing seawalls and boosting coral reef protection, in a world that has stabilized temperatures to tolerable levels.

But time is running out. The IPCC suggests the world has one, possibly two, decades to stabilize and then drastically cut emissions if we are to avoid runaway climate change. The task will not be easy - particularly if countries fall into a self-defeating game of refusing to cutback first.

But I remain optimistic. If man can walk on the moon, we can take the arduous but surmountable steps needed to decarbonize the world economy. Not to do so would be collective suicide of lemming-like proportions. The time for action is now. For from these paradise islands, I foresee the gates of hell.

Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and political prisoner, was elected president of the Republic of Maldives last month.