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CLIMATE CHANGE: The World Needs a Hero

COPENHAGEN, Dec 14 2009 (IPS) - Climate change is becoming an increasingly colossal problem, and civil society, fed up with fruitless negotiations, seems to have found its David: Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed.

Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, climate hero. Credit: Raúl Pierri/IPS

Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, climate hero. Credit: Raúl Pierri/IPS

Because the crusade against big interests, corporations, indifferent governments and bureaucracy demands great determination, but more importantly in this age dominated by images, it also needs a symbol.

And that symbol is not media sweetheart Barack Obama, whose popularity is rapidly waning. “Earn it” is the phrase that can be read in stickers handed out in Copenhagen, asking the U.S. president whose speeches have raised so much hope to back his words with concrete actions, to earn the Nobel Peace Prize he came to accept days ago in Oslo, just a few kilometres from the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

When months ago activists appealed to the leader of the Maldives – an Indian Ocean archipelago of 1,196 islands that are home to 350,000 people – to give his support to a global mobilization against climate change, Nasheed did not hesitate.

Without waiting to hear what they had in mind, Nasheed announced that his cabinet members were learning to scuba dive with the aim of holding a meeting underwater to highlight the threat of global warming. In the meeting they planned to sign a document calling for global cuts in carbon emissions, to be submitted at the climate change summit in Copenhagen.

And true to his word, on Oct. 17 Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting, the images of which were seen around the world. They painted a clear and powerful picture of the urgency of the problem: if global warming is not stopped, water levels will continue rising and small island states will soon be submerged like the mythical city of Atlantis.

As the scientific reasons for global warming are complicated, it’s sometimes difficult to explain the extent of the problem to the general public, and the issue has its sceptics.

The controversy over the leaking of a series of private emails between climate specialists from the British University of East Anglia, who are accused of manipulating data to fit their projections, has called into question the credibility of the entire scientific community, starting with the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change.

Most of the residents of the Danish capital would probably be hard pressed to pinpoint the Maldives on a map. Few will know that it’s a predominantly Muslim nation, that it obtained its independence from the UK in 1965, and that the name of its capital is Male. Not many will be able to make out its red and green flag among the many flags in Copenhagen.

But this Monday, its president was received like a true international hero, amidst great expectation and excitement at Klimaforum09 – the civil society meeting held parallel to COP15.

A crowd had been waiting for an hour when the lights went on in the main hall of Klimaforum, and reporters from numerous media focused their cameras on the 42-year-old president and former political prisoner popularly known as “Anni.”

As they listened intently to his moving speech, the crowd wasn’t disappointed by their hero. “We are here to save our planet from the silent, patient and invisible enemy that is climate change,” he began.

“There are those who tell us that fighting climate change is impossible. There are those who tell us that taking a radical attitude is too difficult. There are those who tell us to give up hope. But I am here to tell you that we refuse to give up hope.”

But a number can also be a symbol – and that number is 350, the name of an international campaign led by activist Bill McKibben, among others, and which Nasheed has joined. The aim of the campaign is to make 350 the limit of CO2 parts per million in the atmosphere, as that’s the level that scientists have identified as the safe upper limit.

After a display of dozens of pictures showing a global demonstration organised in October, where people of all ages gathered to form the number 350 in different places around the world, Nasheed led the crowd once again in loudly chanting “three-five-oh,” as McKibben had done minutes earlier.

“Three-five-oh saves the coral reefs. Three-five-oh keeps the Arctic frozen. Three-five-oh ensures my country survives. Three-five-oh makes a better world possible,” the president said

“I am here to tell you that down the road in the Bella Center (the venue of the COP15) the Maldives team is fighting to keep three-five-oh in the negotiating text,” he added.

But his address was not just passionate slogans meant to stir up the crowd. He also presented what his government plans to do about global warming.

“In March, the Maldives announced plans to become the first carbon neutral country in the world. We intend to become carbon neutral in ten years. We will switch from oil to 100% renewable energy,” Nasheed said.

“For us, going carbon neutral is not just the right thing to do. We believe it is also in our economic self-interest. Countries that have the foresight to green their economies today, will be the winners of tomorrow.”

He finished his speech urging his audience to chant “three-five-oh” over and over again, and when he stepped down from the podium security guards formed a circle around him as people swarmed him.

*This story appears in the IPS TerraViva online daily published for the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen.

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