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Maldives President Nasheed seeks a low-carbon path

Few countries in the world face as immediate a threat from climate change as the Republic of Maldives, a low-lying group of atolls in the Indian Ocean whose coastline is eroding and whose water supplies are now being infiltrated by saltwater from the sea. Unusually high ocean temperatures damaged the coral reefs off the Maldives' shores this year, signaling the start of a global bleaching event that now spans from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed has made climate change central to his nation's domestic and foreign policy agenda since being elected president in October 2008. He has argued that the world needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions drastically to protect countries such as his. As part of the Copenhagen Accord brokered in last year's U.N. climate talks, the Republic of Maldives has pledged to wean itself off fossil fuels altogether by 2020. And on Thursday Nasheed, a former carpenter, climbed the roof of his presidential residence to put the final touches on solar panels that will provide half the power it consumes on an annual basis.

President Nasheed Installs Solar on the Muleeaage from on Vimeo.

Nasheed answered questions by phone last week about his views on climate change.

Q: To what extent is your decision to install a solar system on your residence a symbolic act, or a substantive act?

A: It has both dimensions. For us, climate change is a very serious challenge. It's a present challenge, it's not a challenge in the future. We need to act now. I know the Maldives going carbon neutral is not going to change the world. It will save us a whole lot of foreign currency [which we spend buying fossil fuels from other countries.] ... We believe it is possible to find a low-carbon development strategy that can be mapped in a way to other developing countries. It is not too late to mend our ways.

What are the ways the Maldives is experiencing the effects of global warming right now?

We are experiencing coastal erosion: Right now we have to relocate 16 islands. We are facing salt intrusion into the water table, and, as a result, we have to install very expensive desalination plants ... [When it comes to tuna fishing], we fish only by one pole and line. If they don't surface, we don't fish them. Ocean temperatures are warmer, and they tend to remain deeper. Our fishermen tell me that the fish are remaining below and not coming to the surface. We are under stress in three different ways.

In light of the climate bill's failure in the United States, some people are arguing that we need to move away from a cap-and-trade system that puts mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions and focus all of our energy and money into the research and development of clean energy. What do you think of that argument?

Right now the [U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] framework talks about the negative idea: You need to cut down on things, reduce things. That's difficult to sell. I believe in the good life. You can still have the good life with renewable energy.

Does that mean you would be fine with the idea of not putting a price on carbon or setting limits on greenhouse gases?

You have to be costing things fully according to market mechanisms. What you're paying is not the cost if you don't talk about the climate. Of course, there has to be a level field. Here in the Maldives, it's changing to solar energy.

You've been a vocal proponent of a binding international climate agreement that would significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions. Given the lack of legislation action here in the United States, what do you think negotiators will be able to achieve in the next round of talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancun this December?

Without the United States, it's quite impossible to have a meaningful agreement. We have on our side the Europeans, and on the other side, the BASIC countries [Brazil, South Africa, India and China] and the United States. I do not see much happening in Cancun. ... We don't seem able to talk about emissions. Let's talk about what's possible [such as international funding for adaptation and preservation of tropical forests].

By Juliet Eilperin  | October 11, 2010; 11:38 AM ET
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