I find it frustrating that human beings perpetuate destructive behaviors until they’re faced with death or worse fates. We don’t floss until we’ve had cavities; we don’t eat healthy or exercise until we’ve been diagnosed with cancer or heart disease; and we don’t curb our gas emissions…until what, the seas melt and bury us? If we all lived on small islands like the Maldives, we might be facing that very question right now.
Jon Shenk’s documentary The Island President tells the story of President Mohamed Nasheed of the Republic of Maldives, who, in 2009, tried to convince world leaders of the imminent danger of global warming as a product of carbon fuels, and, it’s no secret, failed.
The film opens with a helicopter view of several devastatingly gorgeous Maldives islands already standing at sea level, water seeping into their interiors. Footage of a tsunami shows whole islands covered in a single wave, and tsunamis are common there.
But Nasheed isn’t even thinking about this problem at first. He’s trying to free his people from the dictatorial rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a sleazy, little man who has ruled the Maldives for more than 30 years by intimidating and torturing of his people. When a reporter tells Gayoom in a television interview that the people of the Maldives are afraid to talk to him, Gayoom tells the journalist he’s been “misinformed.” Meanwhile, he has run the country into the ground by lining the pockets of outside investors and contractors, whom Nasheed notes buy a yacht for every contract they receive.
After studying in England, Nasheed returns to his country to fight for democracy. He is imprisoned, tortured and exiled. He wins the presidency, after a mother, mourning her son’s death from beatings leveled by Gayoom’s goons, refuses to be silenced. The people’s outrage at the bruises that cover him from head to toe galvanizes them behind Nasheed.
The world’s leaders—especially those in China, India and the US—however, are less easily won over by the dramatic picture of the Maldives fate. Nasheed speaks at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen. He first pleads with his fellow leaders to acknowledge the evidence that global warming exists. Then, he becomes a sort of emissary between world leaders who had stalled, hoping not only to get some financial support for his country to build its way out of its fate, but also to make room for further concessions and lower carbon rates in the future.
In the end. the Copenhagen Accord calls for a worldwide carbon emission cap of 450 parts per million—though Nasheed asks for 350 ppm to save his country.
Unfortunately, all the time he spends on the world stage does little for him when he returns to the Maldives. As of Feb. 7, 2012, Nasheed has resigned and fled the country, the film says, “under the threat of violence in a coup d’etat perpetrated by security forces loyal to the former dictator.”