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Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed on Climate Risk & Surviving Assassination Attempt

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We speak to Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the low-lying island nation of the Maldives, at the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow. Nasheed is one of the world’s leading climate advocates, who once held a cabinet meeting underwater to bring attention to the threat of global warming, pledged to make the Maldives the first carbon-neutral country and installed solar panels on the roof of his presidential residence. Now serving as speaker of parliament, Nasheed survived an assassination attempt earlier this year that required 16 hours of surgery. As a result of the sea level rising four millimeters a year in the Maldives, Nasheed says the country faces devastating consequences such as contaminated water, loss of biodiversity, inclement weather and coastal erosion. “We want to see countries agree that this is an emergency, and we want to see countries do things that they do in an emergency,” he says.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow as new data shows global carbon emissions have returned to near record levels after a short dip due to the COVID pandemic. Emissions from coal, gas and oil all rose over the past year.

We turn now to one of the world’s leading climate advocates, Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the low-lying island nation of the Maldives, which is located in the Indian Ocean. In 2008, he became the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives. He once held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threat of global warming and pledged to make the Maldives the first carbon-neutral country, installed solar panels on the roof of his presidential residence. Mohamed Nasheed’s story was told in the 2012 documentary The Island President.

PRESIDENT 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: While President Nasheed is recognized as a global climate champion abroad, at home his political fortunes have taken many turns. In 2012, he was overthrown in a coup; he was later imprisoned. But his political career didn’t end. After time in jail and exile, he returned to the Maldives, where he now serves as speaker of the parliament.

In May, he survived an assassination attempt when his home was bombed. He was left critically injured, needed 16 hours of surgery. Police arrested several militants linked to the Islamic State for the attack.

President Mohamed Nasheed joins us now in Glasgow, where he is taking part in the U.N. climate summit, again, speaker of the parliament of the Maldives.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! First I want to ask, since we haven’t spoken since the assassination attempt: How are you feeling? And talk about why you’re now back in Glasgow at the U.N. climate summit.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, thank you, Amy. Thank you very much for having me. I am much better. I have spent over five months getting better. I’m not on any medication. I can now do my exercises. I can run. But, of course, my left side is very scarred. There’s a lot of wounds or scars, and numbness on my fingers. But I can get around, and I can do my thing. Thank you very much, and it’s lovely to be on your show again.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. If you can talk about, then, why you are in Glasgow, what you want to see from this U.N. climate summit? You’ve been to a number of them. What makes this one different?

MOHAMED NASHEED: I now work as the ambassador for the Climate Vulnerable Forum. This is a forum of 48 countries. Currently, Prime Minister Hasina of Bangladesh chairs the forum.

We have four specific asks from the COP26. One is to see that global temperatures do not rise above 1.5 degrees. We now live on a planet that has already heated 1.2 degrees. And you can now see that the winds are stronger, the waves are higher, the summers are longer, there’s more rain, the coral reef is bleaching, we are losing our biodiversity, there’s rampant coastal erosion, and our water is contaminated. We are spending more than 30% of our budget on adaptation measures. We are challenged from all sides, and we come to COP to ask countries to maintain 1.5 degrees. That’s very important.

We also want to remind countries that in 2009 they pledged developing countries and climate-vulnerable countries to pay $100 billion a year. But that hasn’t realized, and we want to see that contribution again on track.

We’d also like to see countries submit their nationally determined contributions, NDCs, every year, instead of every five years. That is what countries think how much they would emit carbon in the next year. So, we would like to see countries do that every year.

The climate-vulnerable countries are also very debt-ridden. Most of our countries pay 20% of our budget for debt repayment. We would like to see a debt swap to climate-resilient projects and restructure our debt.

So, you know, we have these kind of very focused four things that we are asking, and I am hopeful that these issues would figure in the outcome of COP26 in the decisions that the countries make at the end of this conference.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Nasheed, what responsibility do you think developing countries, that are now among the biggest emitters, some of them, have with respect to cutting emissions? You’ve said the argument of historical emissions cannot be used as an excuse for developing countries to keep polluting. You said, quote, “It’s like saying that the West has brought us to the brink and the new big emitting countries have a right to push us off the cliff.” President Nasheed?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, that certainly is the case, but that is no reason why historical big emitters, countries that have emitted carbon for the last 500 years and have found a very prosperous living because of that, should not help other countries who are in need.

Now, for instance, let’s say, India’s ambition. Recently they have come out, and they have suggested that they would make 50% of their energy from renewable sources in 20 years. That’s a huge ambition. And I think developed countries must understand and see these gestures and these efforts of other countries and play a bigger role in it.

Yes, none of these people should be emitting carbon and poisoning the atmosphere. They must find new development strategies, and these strategies are available. So, the developed countries must contribute to the developing countries in both mitigation and adaptation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, President Nasheed, do you think it’s significant that Russia and China have not sent representatives to the COP? Does that have a huge effect? And do you think it says anything about their commitments with respect to reducing emissions?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, it is very, very sad that China and Russia is not here. And it is again also very worrying if countries think that they can use the UNFCCC, the climate negotiations, as strategic leverage on their other disagreements and differences. I would like countries to set climate differences to be climate differences, and not to mix them with their other strategic differences. China must come, Russia must come to the table. They cannot not come here and maintain business as usual. That has a very big impact on other countries. It is very worrying that they are not here. I hope that they will still send their good envoys and that they would make a contribution that would maintain global temperatures below 1.5 degrees. Russia and China must do that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to October 2009, over a decade ago, when you held that cabinet meeting underwater, when you were president, to bring attention to the dire consequences of climate change. You and 11 government ministers wore scuba gear, 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: Wouldn’t this be amazing if this were the image that we saw of the world leaders, like the prime minister of India, the president of Brazil, Russia, China, the president of the United States, all in scuba gear having a meeting? But since that time, President Nasheed, you have been tortured, you’ve been detained, you’ve been imprisoned, and now there was an attempt to assassinate you. Is this latest attempt, do you think, because of your climate activism? Have they captured the people who were involved with it?

MOHAMED NASHEED: They have. The prosecutor general has charged 12 people, and the police think that these people are linked to extremist ideology. But they have not found who paid for it and who schemed it. Unless a proper investigation is done and these perpetrators are found, it is very worrying and difficult for me to live a normal life. Now, who tried to murder me? Why did they try to murder me? That would, I think, depend on a bigger and a more in-depth investigation and when that is done. We still haven’t got that.

I will continue my work. I cannot stop it. And I will not stop it. I refuse to relent. We have won against the odds before. And I want to win against the odds even now. We came to this COP with global temperatures projected to rise to 2.9 degrees, given the submissions that countries had done before they came to the COP. But now with the new submissions from India and the understanding on methane and the forest agreement, it is looking like the temperatures can be around 1.7 degrees, 1.9 degrees. So I feel that 1.5 is doable. And we have to advocate for it and work for it. We will not stop.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Nasheed, could you say — in 2009, you held that meeting underwater, which received a lot of attention. What has happened since then? And what would have happened, what would you have liked to see happen at all of the negotiations that have happened since, in the last 12 years?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, sea level has been rising four millimeters a year in the Maldives. Our water is now contaminated, and we have to desalinate water. And that is very, very expensive.

We would like to see countries clearly agreeing to 1.5 degrees. The coral reef is bleached, and therefore, we are losing its biodiversity. When we lose that, there is more coastal erosion. And when the weather is bad all the time, it’s very difficult to travel from one island to the other, as well. Our livelihood is disrupted.

And we want to see countries agree that this is an emergency, and we want to see countries do things that they do in an emergency. When the COVID pandemic came, and when countries decided that it was an emergency, they found a vaccine for it within a year. And it took 70 years to find a vaccine for malaria. This probably is because malaria is more rampant in Africa and Asia. Richer countries, who have the science and who have the knowledge and money, don’t have these diseases. And the minute that it has an impact on them, there are solutions. Now, with the climate, I suspect the same thing would happen.

But it’s very sad. You know, there’s 200 people died in Germany of flash floods, the same in Belgium. Poland is burning. Greece is burning. Serbia is burning. There is fires in tundra. There’s water everywhere. There’s high winds everywhere. The planet is losing its balance. We must understand this, and we must get a grip on the situation. You can’t be burying your head under the sand thinking that it is not happening. It is happening, and it is happening now, and it is happening to you.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, President Nasheed, as you head back from Glasgow to the Maldives, have you ever considered simply not heading back? I mean, you almost lost your life several times there. The danger is so incredibly high. Tomorrow we’re going to be talking about endangered environmental activists around the world. Why do you return? And what message do you have for the world leaders, particular President Biden, who’s just left there?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, I have a job to do, and I have a purpose in my life. There must be a reason why I survived. And God has a purpose. This is God’s creation. We are all here by the grace of God, and you can’t destroy it. You can’t destroy the planet. Neither should you be killing other people.

I will go back. I can’t — I do not want to live elsewhere. I like my country, and I want to live in the Maldives. A fish can’t survive out of water. And I know it’s tough, and I know it’s dangerous, and I know it’s difficult, but I want to live there, and I want to continue doing what I do, which is advocate for climate change action, advocate for human rights, advocate for democracy, to see that our people have a better living, to see that our rights are defended. I will go back.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives and climate justice champion, recently survived and recovered from an assassination attempt in May. He’s now speaker of the parliament of the Maldives. And as he talks to us from Glasgow, there is a large, slowly rotating globe that is suspended over the U.N. climate hall.

Coming up, we speak to the prominent British climate lawyer Farhana Yamin, who helped negotiate the Paris climate accord, was later arrested for gluing both her hands to the ground outside Shell’s London headquarters as part of an Extinction Rebellion protest. Stay with us.

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