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The Island President

April 22, 2012
The Island President

We’re all pretty familiar by now with the predictions of climate change resulting from anthropogenic — human-created — global warming: changing weather patterns, extremes of drought and storm, and rising ocean levels. The last may seem the subtlest — even if the coastal areas of the country are removed, there’s plenty of space left to move. Well, no such option is open to the residents of the Maldives, an archipelago of some twelve-hundred atolls and islands off the southwest Indian coast; the highest point peeks a mere 2.4 meters above the waves, and less each year. For the people of the Maldives, the effort to halt the oceans’ rise is a struggle for their very survival. And leading their charge is — or was — President Mohamed Nasheed, the main subject of The Island President.

Of course, nothing that the Maldives do on their own can affect the global climate the way that major developed carbon emitters like the United States and developing carbon emitters like Brazil, China, and India can. But as a small country they’re very difficult to push around on the global stage, lest the pusher appear like a bully to everyone else. Nasheed was thus able to act as a gadfly in the year leading up to and through the 2009 United Nations summit in Copenhagen, and he managed to hold enough people’s feet to the fire to get even as disappointing an agreement out of the summit as was reached.

This sort of project requires a certain quixotic tenacity, and that’s just what Nasheed brings to the table. Before his term in office, he was a political prisoner, in and out of some pretty atrocious confinements for speaking out and organizing against the ruling dictator of the previous thirty years, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The film goes into this history briefly as an illumination of the problems that the island nation faces other than its looming existential threat.

One consensus after The Phantom Menace came out was that Lucas’ script bogged down in politics which were inherently uninteresting and dry. The Island President blows that theory out of the water; Nasheed’s political maneuvering is fascinating as he attempts to build some leverage he can use to force a goal of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is generally believed necessary to hold the temperature rise to a mere 1.5ºC, and a sea level rise small enough to leave the Maldives inhabitable.

By and large the film restricts itself to observing these negotiations rather than expounding on settled climate science; audiences by now either believe in science or in marketing tricks, and there are plenty of other documentaries that can lay out the case for anthropogenic global warming better than this one can. But it does, in passing, make one strong policy point: politicians love to cut ribbons, so an agreement that emphasizes things to do — new, “green” ribbons to cut — rather than things to stop doing will go over much more smoothly. Nasheed led the Maldives to set the example in committing to become 100% carbon-neutral by 2020, and consistently encourages the governments of China and India to follow the same example and leapfrog the developed nations rather than go the easier route of burning as much coal as the United States and Europe did.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t go much into the internal politics of the Maldives themselves. The former dictator’s brother still holds the propane concession for the whole nation, so the prospect of cutting back gas-burning so drastically wouldn’t be very palatable to the old guard. The film was edited at the last minute to insert a mention at the end of Nasheed’s forced resignation two months ago, but there is no exploration of the ways in which this coup is a reactionary backlash against his own environmentalist policies. We can only watch and hope that international pressure will force further democratic reforms that will allow Nasheed to lead the Maldives in the fight for their own survival. With luck, this film can help bring that pressure to bear.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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