Politics, Climate Change and Human Rights in the Maldives

The Island President tells the story of the former president’s fight for climate action

Lincoln Else

President Nasheed at the Copenhagen Climate Summit 2009.

The new documentary, The Island President, depicts former-president Mohamed Nasheed’s efforts to draw the world’s attention to the plight of his country. The islands that make up the Maldives lie barely above sea level. With a few feet of sea level rise, they will be inundated.

John Shenk, the San Francisco-based director of the film, was a guest on KQED’s Forum last week. He talked about how Nasheed, the country’s first democratically-elected president (he resigned in February), and a former human rights campaigner, became a climate change activist.

“He took office and immediately plunged into the climate debate,” Shenk said. “He’s framing the climate debate as a human rights issue. He very much sees the climate fight, the struggle against climate change, as an extension of his fight for democracy.”

In a quote from the film, Nasheed explains: “When we came to power we thought we won the fight. After twenty years, we thought, ‘Look, OK, we’ll have a happy life.’ But we had our first few cabinet meetings, and most of the pending issues were climate change issues. Weather patterns are changing, and that’s having a very big impact on fisheries. We have lost a lot of the shoreline. Our islands are going to be flooded.”

Nasheed attended the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, where island nations banded together, hoping to pressure the larger countries into a deal to take action on reducing greenhouse gases and addressing climate change. That didn’t happen, but Shenk shows how Nasheed emerged as leader in the debate.

“Climate change is such a huge topic. I saw this as a chance to humanize the situation. Nasheed is a kind of one in a billion character,” Shenk said on Forum. “Whether about climate change or not, watching that kind of leadership is an amazing experience.”

The Island President begins screening in San Francisco tonight; the producer, Bonni Cohen will be there tonight and tomorrow night. It opens in Los Angeles, Berkeley, San Rafael and San Diego in April.