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“We Are Not Prepared to Die”: Ex-Maldives President Warns of Catastrophic Climate Change

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“We are not prepared to die.” Those are the words that Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the low-lying island country of Maldives, delivered at the U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland, this week. In an impassioned plea for nations to overcome their differences, he urged world leaders to take decisive action to tackle climate change. Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed returned home to his island nation in November after two years in exile. Just a month later, Nasheed is now leading the Maldives delegation at the U.N. climate summit. We speak with him from the U.N. climate talks.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from the U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland. This marks the 10th U.N. climate summit Democracy Now! has reported from, beginning in Copenhagen. As we broadcast, hundreds of climate justice activists are staging a protest just behind us, right inside these U.N. talks—the convention center, by the way, that’s modeled after a coal mine. We turn now to our first segment.

“We are not prepared to die.” Those are the words of Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the low-lying island country of the Maldives, delivered here at the U.N. climate summit. On Thursday, Nasheed delivered an impassioned plea for nations to overcome their differences and take decisive action to tackle climate change.

MOHAMED NASHEED: We are not prepared to die. And the Maldives has no intention of dying. We are not going to become the first victims of the climate crisis. Instead, we are going to do everything in our power to keep our heads above the water. …

We are not winning the battle. Half of the problem is that we are still begging the big polluters to stop polluting on ethical grounds. But they are not listening to us. They never were. So, instead, rather than asking for cuts, perhaps we should be demanding an increase: an increase in investments in clean energy.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, recently returned home to his island nation after two years in exile. He came to power as the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives in 2008 and became recognized internationally for his leadership on climate change. Nasheed once held a Cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threat of global warming to the Maldives. He also pledged to make the Maldives the first carbon-neutral country, and installed solar panels on the roof of his presidential residence.

Nasheed’s presidency ended in 2012 in what many believe was a coup d’état orchestrated by the opposition and supported by the military. In 2015, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison, after being charged under Maldives’ anti-terrorism law in 2015, a charge that Amnesty International described as politically motivated. A year later, he was allowed to leave for Britain for medical treatment. In November, he returned to the Maldives after living in exile for two years. This came two months after his party returned to power. On November 26, Maldives’ top court vacated Nasheed’s sentence, saying he was wrongfully charged.

Internationally, Mohamed Nasheed is recognized as a climate champion. In 2012, director Jon Shenk released the film titled The Island President, on Mohamed Nasheed’s rise to power and his climate activism. This is an excerpt.

MOHAMED NASHEED: If we can’t stop the seas rising, if you allow for a 2-degree rise in temperature, you are actually agreeing to kill us.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, fast-forward to 2018, and Mohamed Nasheed is continuing his quest for climate justice. Just a month after returning from exile, Nasheed is now leading the Maldives delegation here at the climate summit. He’s joining us now.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Thank you very much, and thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, here we are, sitting in a convention center that’s shaped as a coal mine, on an old coal mine site, and, behind us, hundreds of climate activists in what was supposed to be this last day of the talks, though I think they’re expected to go until tomorrow. Talk about what has been achieved so far and why you’re so deeply concerned that these talks are failing.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, for small island nations and a number of low-lying countries, climate change is not something in the future. It is happening. And it’s happening in the Maldives. We have coastal erosion. We have issues with our water. We have food security issues. We have a number of climate impacts that are being felt right now. For us, it’s not in the future.

We have to have an understanding in this conference of the parties. This is the 24th conference of the parties. And the most importantly, from this conference, we expect delegates to give us a rulebook on how to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change. We also hope that countries would accept the IPCC report on—the scientific report on climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, of course, the IPCC is the Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientific panel of the U.N.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Yes, and they have been suggesting that anything above 1.5 degrees would be very detrimental to a number of people, especially to countries like the Maldives. We would lose our reefs. We would lose our clean water. We would have a dwindling fish catch. We would lose our livelihood, and it would be very difficult for us to survive in the Maldives. So, this summit is very important, mostly because it would give us a strategic action plan on how to implement the Paris Agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, there’s a lot of U.N. lingo that is hard to understand, but extremely important in what the world agrees. Can you explain what common but differentiated responsibility is all about and why you’re concerned about the U.S. role here?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, it means that we have a common responsibility, but it should be viewed differentially. Developing countries, countries such as the Maldives, we did not contribute to climate change, but we are the first to suffer from it. So, we have to differentiate our responsibility and a big emitting country such as the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your other concerns? And explain whether or not you think it makes a difference that President Trump is a climate change denier. I mean, the climate negotiators that you’re dealing with here—you’re head of the Maldives climate negotiation—are actually pretty much the same as under Obama, isn’t that right? They’re civil servants.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, they’re exactly the same people, and therefore we are able to have good conversations. But, of course, they have different briefs. Civil servants can be the same, but when their political masters change, their briefs change, and therefore the manner in which they engage changes. We want to see the United States agreeing to incorporate the scientific report that is suggesting that climate—the world temperature should not rise above 1.5 degrees.

AMY GOODMAN: Two-point-seven degrees Fahrenheit.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Two-point-seven degrees Fahrenheit. So, that is what we are requesting and asking from the United States is that to agree to the scientific findings that the world temperatures should not go beyond this critical limit.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, isn’t there a push to say not only won’t they hit 2 degrees Celsius, but 3 degrees, when the IPCC report said we are facing a climate catastrophe if we don’t change our practices within 12 years?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, if we have business as usual, we are going to—the Maldives is just not going to be there, if we have business as usual. And not just the Maldives, a large number of low-lying areas in the world. A quarter of the world’s population lived on these low-lying areas. And with the Maldives, Manhattan will also sink. So, it’s just not the Maldives that we are talking about. In our case, we do not have dry land to go to. In Manhattan, they can probably go to dry land.

AMY GOODMAN: So, from the Maldives to Manhattan, do you think these climate talks are failing? The U.N. secretary-general, Guterres, said it’s suicidal if they do.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, I’ve just come out from a conversation with the secretary-general. The secretary-general has assured us, small island nations, that he will do whatever he can to see that the IPCC report, the scientific report, will be incorporated into the final outcome of this conference. So, again, I have a little bit of hope that the secretary-general will be able to do that. I understand that the secretary-general will be in conversation with the president of the United States and also other countries who are not agreeing to include the scientific findings of the U.N.

AMY GOODMAN: In October 2009, our guest, Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, held a Cabinet meeting underwater in an attempt to bring attention to the dire consequences of climate change. Nasheed and 11 of his government ministers wore scuba gear and plunged nearly 20 feet into the Indian Ocean.

PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: We are actually trying to send our message, let the world know what is happening and what might—what will happen to the Maldives if climate change is not checked. This is a challenging situation. And we want to see that everyone else is also occupied as much as we are, and would like to see that people actually do something about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives and climate champion, yes, you were president at the time that you held this underwater Cabinet meeting?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, we had to impress upon the international community the gravity of the issue. If we proceed business as usual, the Maldives is just simply not going to survive. We do not want to die, and we refuse to give up hope. We have to see that we survive. And to do that, we have been working with every single person possible so that we will survive.

Now, in many senses, what we see from the United States is encouraging. California, being the fifth largest economy in the world, is going to become carbon-neutral. The United States’ emission has come down. The federal government, of course, has different views, but the people of the United States, I believe, do understand the gravity of the issue, and therefore they want to embrace the future. You know, renewable energy is now financially more feasible, economically more viable, than the old technology. So, we think that these new technologies will be embraced by the people of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re hearing a lot of discussion, especially from the developing world, about extreme transparency and the problems people have with that. You know, the world hears “transparency,” you think, “Good.” What’s wrong with it?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, we do not know how much—different countries commit different amounts of assistance and different levels of assistance to countries in stress, to vulnerable countries. What small islands and the least developed countries are asking is transparency and clarity on what we will be receiving, how you will be tackling these issues. That is why this so-called rulebook becomes important.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the rulebook, very briefly. Again, a lot of jargon, and yet it means so much.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, it means, to implement the Paris Agreement, you have to have a strategic action plan. You have to have modalities on how we would be able to come out with the outcomes of the Paris Agreement. So, to do that, we have to have rules to say country X would be doing that, country Y would be doing that, person Z would be doing this. So, it’s a whole lot of bylaws that would allow us to implement the Paris Agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the United States trying to water down the Paris Agreement and then, regardless, leave, as Trump promised? He would pull the U.S. out; it’ll just take a few more years.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, I think, listening to U.S. negotiators, what they’re trying to do is to leave a window open for them to be able to come back. And I am sure that the United States, the good people of the United States, would want to come back into the international fora, and they would want the planet intact. And I am quite confident that the United States will be in the Paris Agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we’re talking, people are chanting, they’re singing, they’re giving speeches right behind us. Among the things they are saying is—you know, they are chanting “people power.” Can you talk about the significance—I mean, you are a government official now, once again, though you’ve been detained, what, something like 14 times—what civil society action like this means?

MOHAMED NASHEED: It means a lot. Politicians only do what their people want done. Politicians cannot do anything other than what they’ve pledged to their people. So, political minds change when there is action and when the people talk. I believe that this is very important. And I think people all over the world should rise up and ask their politicians to act.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in fact, that’s exactly what they’re singing behind us: “We will rise up.” Would you say these talks are failing?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, when I—you know, when I left very late last night from the conference, it was looking like that it might go into difficulties. But now, after having discussions with the secretary-general, I am very hopeful that there will be an understanding.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I thank you so much for being with us, as people are chanting and cheering behind us here at the U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland. We’ve been speaking with the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, detained 14 times. He’s been tortured and held in the Maldives. Now he is the U.N. climate negotiator for the Maldives here in Poland.

When we come back, you’ll learn what Extinction Rebellion is. But first we’ll speak with one of the protesters who was just involved with what’s happening behind us. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Winter Green and Summer Blue” by Nancy Wilson, the legendary jazz singer and song stylist who died Thursday at her home in California. She was 81 years old. And blue and green are the theme of this year’s U.N. climate summit.

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