Are the Maldives doomed?

Are the Maldives doomed?

Dan Drezner howls at the Maldives government’s brilliant stunt of holding an underwater cabinet meeting (more photos here and here) to make the case that “if we can’t save the Maldives today, you can’t save the rest of the world tomorrow,” and wonders if “a rational, cost-benefit analysis of how to allocate climate change resources between mitigation and adaptation” would really redound to the benefit of such small-island countries.

I doubt it — and the world has already pretty much already decided to let these nations drown. Back in 2007, when I attended the U.N.’s high-level meeting on climate change, one of the issues on the table was what level of global warming we could all tolerate. Was it 1 degree celsius, which was already upon us? One-point-five? Two?

The island countries, which have their own caucus in the General Assembly, were calling for 1.5 degrees (and still are). I remember being shocked, however, at their level of disorganization. Given that climate change is such an existential threat to them, why did they only announce their press conference on the matter 15 minutes beforehand, and why did they only send their U.N. ambassadors, rather than the heads of state? I think I was one of three members of the press in attendance.

The Maldives’ new president, Mohammed Nasheed, seems a little more media-savvy than his predecessor, the dictator Mamoon Abdul Gayoom. He has to be: The highest point in the Maldives is just under 8 feet, and the country’s average elevation is somewhere between 4 and 7 feet. But that’s the average — most of the country is still lower than that, and the U.N.’s climate panel estimated in 2007 that sea levels would rise anywhere from 7.2 to 23.2 inches, which would make the Maldives extremely vulnerable to storm surges or major sea swells (it should be noted that the U.N. report emphasized that its sea-level projections were “not an upper bound”). If current trends hold, by the end of this century, the bulk of the country’s 300,000 inhabitants will have to find other places to live.

But in calling for the 1.5 degree target, Nasheed seems to be fighting a battle he’s already lost. In the end, a rough scientific and political consensus has settled around 2 degrees — and even with that, very little has been done to make the emissions cuts needed, and there are certainly no binding commitments to do so. Would 2 degrees of warming doom the Maldives? I don’t know. But it sure looks to me like the world’s power brokers are willing to roll the dice on this one.