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'The Island President': a fight against climate change

14 september 2011, 17:22
Elected president of the Maldives Mohammed Nasheed. ©Reuters
Elected president of the Maldives Mohammed Nasheed. ©Reuters
Elected president of the Maldives after spending 20 years leading a pro-democracy movement against a cruel dictatorship, Mohammed Nasheed believes it will have all been for naught if his nation of 1,200 islands is swallowed up by the ocean, AFP reports.

His campaign to enlist world powers to fight global warming is the focus of Briton Jon Shenk's new documentary "The Island President," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend.

The two men came to Canada's largest metropolis together to present the film, seeing an opportunity to bring much-needed attention to the plight of Nasheed's tiny island nation off the coast of India.

"Given the gravity of the situation and how important it is for us to bring the message across," as well as due to his government's modest means, the documentary seemed like a good idea, Nasheed said Sunday, three months before the next UN climate change conference in Durban.

For Shenk, who won acclaim for his 2003 documentary "The Lost Boys of Sudan," the film is as much about the arrival of democracy in an entirely Muslim country as it is about climate change.

But for Nasheed it is a fight for survival.

Imprisoned and tortured before becoming president at age 41, Nasheed suddenly found himself facing a new crisis in 2008: the extinction of his country by 2050 -- a modern Atlantis -- and the apathy of the world's largest polluters.

The film gains access to Nasheed's first year in office as he sets out to influence the world's superpowers, culminating at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit.

He must not only convince the United States and Europe to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming, but also emerging economies China, India and Brazil.

Shenk's camera follows him everywhere, all the way to the UN headquarters in New York where he tries to convince his peers to seize a historic opportunity to act when they meet in the Danish capital.

He even holds a cabinet meeting under water to make his point, becoming a poster boy for environmentalists.

In Copenhagen, 120 heads of state meet but their negotiations stall amid a showdown between the Americans and the Chinese over emissions reduction targets.

At the end of a long night, after 48 hours without sleep, Nasheed, with the support of other island nations anxious they might be going home empty-handed, capitulates and agrees to a lesser accord.

Still it is something.

The film exposes the selling out, weariness, false hopes and bad faith that marked Nasheed's journey, the meetings and strategies involved in negotiations, a struggle of David versus the Goliaths of the world.

Two years after Copenhagen, Nasheed has no regrets. "If we hadn't gotten an agreement, I think that the whole UN system would have been questioned."

"We don't have high expectations for Durban," he added.

"But I think there are some possibilities if we can change the negotiating tracks and ask countries to invest in renewable energy instead of asking countries to cut emitting carbon."

"It's difficult to ask them to stop opening power plants but it's possible to ask that they spend more on renewable energies, and that will lead to the same effect: the level of carbon (emissions) will be reduced."

Nasheed notes that the global economic crisis has sidelined the climate change discussions. But ever hopeful, he adds: "Even in a crisis, you have to understand that there is a bigger picture."

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