Jon Shenk’s documentary The Island President, now in limited release, follows Mohamed Nasheed through the first year of his term as President of the Maldives—but the movie doesn’t open in that tropical string of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it opens in Denmark, at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. Nasheed is surrounded by cameras and interviewers asking him about the climate negotiations. Will they get a deal potent enough to save his nation from destruction?
To the people of the Maldives, the climate change debate is a matter of survival. On average, the 2,000 tiny islands that comprise the country are just 1.5 meters above sea level. As the sea level rises, they are washing away. Perhaps only climate watchers will remember the specifics of that summit and the toothless deal it produced, but Copenhagen casts a long shadow over Nasheed’s story. We didn’t solve climate change three years ago. It’s like watching Kate and Leo cross the gangplank to the Titanic: Whatever else might happen along the way, we know that boat is going down.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Nasheed was part of a small group of dissidents struggling against Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the dictator who had ruled the Maldives since 1978. In the film, Nasheed recounts being locked in solitary confinement for 18 months after starting a political magazine critical of the former dictator. In a disorienting mix of geographic beauty and human horror, Nasheed and his colleagues describe the country’s then-rampant police violence and political repression in scenes intercut with aerial and underwater footage of the Maldives’ turquoise waters and bright white beaches. In 2005, the civil unrest led to riots and Gayoom was ultimately overthrown. In 2008 Nasheed was elected President. And so the first bit of The Island President is triumphant—the man who lived a year and a half in a 5-foot by 3-foot freestanding cell of corrugated tin under the tropical sun has survived, and bested his tormentor. It feels as though this young President, handsome and buoyant, can do anything.
If someone’s drowning, you don’t have a discussion about which person standing on the patio would be less inconvenienced by throwing a life preserver.
Once in power, Nasheed turns his attention from democracy to climate change—concerns of equal weight to him. “What’s the use of having democracy,” he asks, “if your country doesn’t survive?” He goes on a public relations offensive, shooting PSAs in which he sits in a suit behind a desk that’s half-submerged in the ocean, staging “the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting” with his advisors in scuba gear sitting in a large oval of sunken desks. And the campaign is not all publicity stunts. He also initiates a plan to make the Maldives completely carbon neutral within a decade, not because that tiny nation can actually reverse the warming trend, but to show the world that it can be done. So that, he says in a moment of earned melodrama, “we can die knowing we’ve done the right thing.” Meanwhile, the government is planning for the worst, starting on the “adaptation” projects. The euphemism cannot conceal the long-term futility of surrounding islands with sea wall plans and placing boulders on beaches to keep them from eroding.
The most fascinating parts of the movie are those that should by driest: those that give an inside look at the climate negotiation process. Nasheed reframes the debate, making climate change not an issue of ecology or economics, but a bald plea to save 328,000 people, and an entire culture, from annihilation.
At Copenhagen, the debate carried on in the same way it has since Kyoto. Should carbon reduction targets focus on developing countries or the already industrialized West? It’s easier and more efficient, one side argues, for China, India, and Brazil to grow their economies with climate-friendly technology from the start, rather than overhauling the energy infrastructure that already exists in the U.S. and Europe. But it’s not fair, the other side argues, for those countries to reap the economic benefits of high-carbon economic development simply because they got started first. At the time the film was shot, India’s per capita carbon emissions were half that of the United States. Why should they do anything to limit emissions while the U.S. proceeds with business as usual?
An Indian government official makes exactly this argument to Nasheed at a pre-Copenhagen conference. It’s a fair question, but it loses all of its impact when Nasheed is in the room. He is talking about climate mitigation because it is the only way to save his country. If someone’s drowning, you don’t have a discussion about which person standing on the patio would be less inconvenienced by throwing a life preserver.
Nasheed suffers no loss of dignity by letting his dire need show. In one sceene, all of the representatives are assembled in Copenhagen, in one of those scenes where an amphitheater of diplomats arranged alphabetically by nation sit behind their desktop placards and discuss. They are about to ditch even the non-binding agreement, and go home with nothing. “We need this document,” he says, and his voice cracks, “to go on.” It’s not an argument, but a plea.
With the exception of catastrophes, environmental issues generally happen too slowly for us to create good narratives around them. People rarely get riled up. Political action relies on stories, and with environmental damage the causes are too far removed from the effects—in both time and space—for us to see the plot points clearly. It’s one of the reasons nuclear energy gets so much press. A Fukushima Daiichi or a Three Mile Island plays out in days; it’s easier to see what to get angry about and what needs fixing. Climate change is an even greater emergency, but it’s an emergency in slow motion.
For this reason, Nasheed’s plea is exciting. Climate activists have tried many tactics to spark the right mixture of concern, knowledge, and urgency that could make us change our ways. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore attempted to shock us into action with a battery of statistics. Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid, in which a man in the year 2055 tries to explain why we burned the Amazon and flooded London, tries to give us the benefit of hindsight before we actually do those things. Bill McKibben’s 350.org makes the atmospheric science more transparent and provides a specific global goal. The World Wildlife Fund made polar bears the center of its climate campaign. They were cute and sympathetic, but not nearly as morally compelling as a nation full of human beings. The Island President contains no charts. In tone, it is more like Kony 2012 than An Inconvenient Truth. It appeals to our sense of fairness and our concern for human suffering. This may be what the climate change discussion needs.
Good stories also have heroes and villains, and there’s a faint but noticeable current in the film that casts China in the role of the bad guy. The Copenhagen summit ends with an agreement with carbon-reduction targets that are optional rather than obligatory. China didn’t want even this much. But one of the many inconvenient truths about climate change is that there is no looming antihero. No one person or nation is holding the drowning victim underwater. We’re all just driving to work, eating meat for dinner, air conditioning our houses, and traveling to faraway places in planes, a litany of tiny actions that don’t seem to even meet the threshold of victimless offenses. I think about the wild popularity of Kony 2012 (problematic as that video was) and wish that global warming were the work of some terrible madman who we could hunt down. Our lifestyle is a much harder thing to do away with.
The Island President is in limited release. Find screenings here.