The Pentagon knows it. The world’s largest insurers know it. Now, governments may be overthrown because of it. It is climate change, and it is real. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last month was the hottest March on record for the United States since 1895, when records were first kept, with average temperatures of 8.6 degrees F above average. More than 15,000 March high-temperature records were broken nationally. Drought, wildfires, tornadoes and other extreme weather events are already plaguing the country.
Across the world in the Maldives, rising sea levels continue to threaten this Indian Ocean archipelago. It is the world’s lowest-lying nation, on average only 1.3 meters above sea level. The plight of the Maldives gained global prominence when its young president, the first-ever democratically elected there, Mohamed Nasheed, became one of the world’s leading voices against climate change, especially in the lead-up to the 2009 U.N. climate-change summit in Copenhagen. Nasheed held a ministerial meeting underwater, with his cabinet in scuba gear, to illustrate the potential disaster.
In February, Nasheed was ousted from his presidency at gunpoint. The Obama administration, through State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, said of the coup d’etat, “This was handled constitutionally.” When I spoke to Nasheed last month, he told me: “It was really shocking and deeply disturbing that the United States government so instantly recognized the former dictatorship coming back again. ... The European governments have not recognized the new regime in the Maldives.” There is a parallel between national positions on climate change and support or opposition to the Maldives coup.
Nasheed is the subject of a new documentary, “The Island President,” in which his remarkable trajectory is traced. He was a student activist under the dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and was arrested and tortured, along with many others. By 2008, when elections were finally held, Gayoom lost, and Nasheed was elected. As he told me, though: “It’s easy to beat a dictator, but it’s not so easy to get rid of a dictatorship. The networks, the intricacies, the institutions and everything that the dictatorship has established remains, even after the elections.” On the morning of Feb. 7, 2012, under threat of death to him and his supporters from rebelling army generals, Nasheed resigned.
While no direct link has been found yet between Nasheed’s climate activism and the coup, it was clear in Copenhagen in 2009 that he was a thorn in the Obama administration’s side. Nasheed and other representatives from AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States, were taking a stand to defend their nations’ very existence, and building alliances with grass-roots groups like 350.org, that challenge corporate-dominated climate policy. More