One exchange in that incisive Canadian TV series says it all. When her veterinarian flame tells Alexis Rose (the spoiled diva who turns cool) he has a research grant to the Galapagos, she asks: “Can’t we go someplace less spooky and scary, like the Maldives?”
The Galapagos aren’t scary. Neither is Maldives if you pay resort costs — up to $30,000 a night. But the hyper-spooky string of Indian Ocean atolls exports more jihadists per capita than the Mideast or Afghanistan. And it is likely to be the first state lost under rising seas.
Ignorance is hardly bliss. Only informed public pressure can force governments to think beyond short-term political survival and take urgent joint action. Yet too many Alexis Roses tune out what they can’t wear, eat, bed or talk about with friends.
Maldives illustrates why so much has gone wrong since 2009 when President Mohamed Nasheed nearly united world leaders to avert climate collapse, confront Islamist extremism and nudge despots toward democracy. It is a long story; first some background.
COP-26 in Glasgow is the latest “conference of the parties” to a U.N. framework set up in the 1990s. I covered the last big one here in Paris in 2015 and labeled it COPout-21. Most delegates’ pledges dissipated not long after the exhaust clouds from jets that flew them home.
Planned fossil fuel use through 2030, largely in China and India, is twice the level agreed in Paris to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Since then, heat is up by 1.1 degrees. At 2 degrees, scientists say, floods, fires and storms will overwhelm our ecosystem.
Climate is only part of it. Fresh U.S. intelligence and defense estimates warn of massive migration, financial breakdown and armed conflicts over territory, food supply and water. Major powers already face showdowns over resources as ice melts in the Arctic and Antarctic.
All this was unimaginable when I visited Maldives in 1972.
Nasheed was five when Queen Elizabeth’s yacht docked at the main wharf in water so clear you could see angelfish on the seafloor. Reporters flew to Gan, Britain’s base to the south, then in a small plane to Malé. The alternative was six weeks on a Sri Lankan freighter.
The only hotel had no can opener. It was on Malé, as was the lone fire truck, useless to the airstrip on another island. Muezzins wailed from white-washed mosques on the 3.2-square mile islet, inches above the ocean. Veil-draped wives walked behind husbands. The lash punished minor crime. We roamed narrow streets with no hint of danger.
“Paradise” did not begin to describe 1,191 outer islands, jewels flung north to south for 540 miles. We barely needed snorkels, let alone scubas, to explore pristine reefs ablaze in color. Tourism portended fortunes, even if that meant bikinis, daiquiris and sex on the beach.
In 1978, a corrupt tyrant began a 30-year reign. Developers dynamited coral to build lavish playgrounds. Nasheed, a young politician, spent six years in jail, 18 months in solitary. Torture wrecked his back. Amnesty International called him a prisoner of conscience. Then, in 2008, a civil uprising made him president.
To emphasize the threat of rising seas, he held an underwater cabinet meeting. A reporter asked what would happen if the Copenhagen summit could not agree on binding CO2 levels. “We’ll all die,” he replied. Everyone laughed.
But he was dead serious among 113 heads of government and 40,000 others in Denmark. Speaking after Barack Obama, he declared: “I am not a scientist, but I know that one of the laws of physics is that you cannot negotiate…You cannot cut a deal with Mother Nature. And we don’t intend to try.”
Bill McKibben, a New Yorker regular whose books and articles on climate span four decades, called Nasheed one of the only true world leaders in the fight to save the planet. Al Gore and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed. In the corridors, as summitry works, he enlisted allies and forged coalition working groups.
Nasheed went beyond climate. With diplomacy and targeted aid, he said, democratic leaders could curb authoritarian excesses. And if they addressed perceived injustices at the root of Islamist fundamentalism, they could sharply reduce terrorism.
“The Island President,” a hit feature film after the conference, made him a momentary star. “You have to have a planet to have a democracy,” he told reporters. “And you have to have democracy to have a planet. It goes both ways.”
But the old guard deposed him in 2012. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison on bogus terrorism charges but instead went to London for spinal treatment. New leaders doubled down on paving paradise. Without his efforts to find common ground, rich and poor countries alike cranked up the heat like there was no tomorrow.
Today, Maldives is two-tiered: a miserable, teeming Malé and an infidel heaven beyond. Foreign workers, many undocumented South Asians, are a third of the population. They suffer wage theft, passport confiscation and long hours in unsafe conditions. Covid-19 left many jobless and stranded.
From the start of the boom, profits were banked abroad after a cut for local officials. Terrorist recruiters signed up disaffected young men, forbidden alcohol but zonked on cheaper heroin. A U.S. State Department study traces the past flow into Iraq and Syria, adding, “Some of these fighters are now returning to the islands, where there are few laws or structures to deal with the threat they may pose.”
Italian correspondent Francesca Borri is among the few journalists to probe Malé’s seething slums. In 2017, she traveled the archipelago with the Maldivians who barely scrape by in a country where the tourist boom raised per capita annual income to $10,000.
One-time Amazon “reviewers” slammed her book, “Destination Paradise,” disputing her firsthand accounts of political killings, gruesome torture and muzzled journalists. Her fixer was murdered for helping her and an Al Jazeera crew.
“The Maldives is the most dangerous place I’ve ever covered,” she told me in a phone call. This is after living in Syria for much of the war and reporting on conflict for decades in such places as Iraq, Libya, Kosovo and Crimea.
Nasheed’s fortunes rose in 2019 in yet another power shift. He became speaker of the Majlis (parliament) under a new president. Then in May this year, a bomb left him critically injured, a déjà vu assassination attempt.
If this is fresh news, that’s no surprise. The New York Times dismissed it with a short article on page 11, written from a distance with no background about the Island President who tried who stop climate collapse.
“No group has claimed responsibility for the attack,” it said, “but officials, including Mr. Nasheed, have expressed concern about Islamic State recruitment in the Maldives, a small island nation and major tourist attraction south of India.”
But the Times’ Travel Section carried a long puff piece and photo spread with this at the bottom: “Toward the end of our stay, a friend messaged me asking if the Maldives was ‘worth the million-hour flight even though it’s basically just a beach.’”
The writer agreed. Even with her complaint about a difficult walk to a seaplane, she loved the place, concluding: “In the air, once the clouds cleared, the islands below gleamed like geodes, a final dose of sensory overload.”
Another Times story late last year, brief from Washington, said the United States was opening an embassy in Maldives because of growing Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean crossroads. Climate is not Beijing’s immediate concern.
Glasgow is not promising. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has piled up damning evidence since 1990. This year’s book-length report has a whiff of inevitability. But Vladimir Putin, for one, is skipping the summit. Major polluters stall for time. Rich countries are loath to help poor ones, which argue they did not create the crisis although Third-World deforestation, mining and population growth have taken a heavy toll.
Blame and borders no longer matter. The United States was by far the worst in earlier years. Now China spews out twice as much CO2, and India is hot on its heels. Saudi Arabia’s carbon neutral target is 2060. If Earth’s ecosystem collapses, no one will escape.
Even a massive American “green new deal” would fall far short on its own, but it would set a standard. Donald Trump’s trashing of the Paris accords gave authoritarians an excuse to cheat and renege on promises. Polls show two-thirds of Americans want action on climate change, but Republicans prioritize short-term profit based on fossil fuels.
France 5, a popular TV network, just aired a documentary on how the United States was the early prime mover to thwart global warming and yet now is heavily influenced by voters who reject science, misled by corporate flimflam, political opportunists and evangelicals.
It noted the 2018 National Climate Assessment, a multibillion-dollar survey by U.S. scientific and intelligence agencies, which detailed a looming nightmare of economic and human havoc far beyond the cost of urgent mitigation. Just the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season brought $250 billion in losses and 250 deaths, the report said, and “extreme events” are increasing fast.
A brief clip showed Trump blow off reporters who asked about it. “I don’t believe it,” he said, walking away with a smirk. No surprise. The man attempted a coup d’etat and risked global war to retain power. Yet for so many Americans, climate is a vaguely understood side issue.
Billionaires squander fortunes on joyrides to inner space or grand schemes to colonize distant Mars. Innovators find ways to monitor front doors at home while tanning on a distant beach, as if security systems matter when desperate parents need to feed starving families.
In 2004, the Times of London revealed an MI5 maxim: “Society is ‘four meals away from anarchy.’ In other words, the security agency believes that Britain could be quickly reduced to large-scale disorder, including looting and rioting in the event of a catastrophe that stops the supply of food.” Americans have a lot more guns.
The terms, climate change and global warming, are now so familiar that many are numb to them, like people who take a low dose of antibiotics for too long while a virulent infection gets steadily worse. McKibben and others who keep at it mostly reach those already committed.
Deniers mock young Greta Thunberg, whose Asperger syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder often add a strident note to her urgent appeals. But she speaks for a generation that must live with the consequences, and she is square on the mark.
At COP-24 in Poland: “You say you love your children above all else and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes … What is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?”
At Davos in 2019: “Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people”
And at COP-25 in Madrid: “There is hope – I’ve seen it – but it does not come from the governments or corporations, it comes from the people. The people who have been unaware are now starting to wake up, and once we become aware we change. We can change, and people are ready for change.”
COP-26 in Glasgow was delayed a year because of a pandemic that could have been avoided had the world closed ranks against it. Runaway pathogens eventually recede. Climate collapse is forever.
Mort Rosenblum has reported from seven continents as Associated Press special correspondent, edited the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and written 14 books on subjects ranging from global geopolitics to chocolate. He now runs MortReport.org.
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