Earth Day 2012

maldive erosion

I’m watching the rain replenish the Earth today. It needs it in Massachusetts which is many inches below normal at this time of the year. I don’t keep weather records of my own, but there is little normal about what I have been observing locally and on the national news. Anyway, the rain which may present us also with flash floods later today is most welcome.

I began this day at our Cinema Club, which presents an about-to-be-released indie film, but unannounced until we show up. We have seen some winners lately, including Separation and Monsieur Lazhar, both of which were terrific. But today, probably in honor of Earth Day, we watched a documentary, The Island President, a real-life story about the Maldive Islands, an archipelago of several thousand islands in the Indian Ocean. Two stories are entwined: one about the establishment of democracy, the other about the plight of the Nation at the hands of global warming, creating the inundation of the many Maldive islands.

A new President, Mohamed Nasheed, was elected in 2008, ousting a dictator who had ruled for 30 years. Nasheed had been imprisoned several times, but kept alive a freedom movement that finally won the first real election in those 30 years. Nasheed and his inexperienced Cabinet had many issues to handle, but none as daunting as the existential threat to their nation at the hands of the rising ocean. The Maldives are the lowest lying nation in all the world. By the time Nasheed took office, great damages had already occurred with the shorelines becoming badly eroded.

The new President took on this issue in anticipation of the 2010 Copenhagen Conference, which was to move the international climate change action agenda forward. Those who follow the climate change issue know that the Conference produced essentially no action. But for Nasheed and the Maldives it was a major event. In the lead-up to the Conference, Nasheed and others formed an alliance of low-lying nations, and developed a cohesive bloc to support their peculiar and urgent needs for action to halt the increasing levels of greenhouse gases. At the Copenhagen Conference, his persistence and leadership led to the issuance of a report which all the attending nations signed onto. It was small feat to get this result since China and other major powers wanted to prevent any agreements to be officially recorded. The cost of getting through the political morass was a toothless agreement with no required follow-up. The 350 ppm level of greenhouse gases, generally agreed upon as a “safe” level was not included.

The lessons I tool home are several:

  1. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. It didn’t yet, but the film showed what a single individual could do against tough odds.

  2. Climate change is real and already with us. It may be too late to stop the temperature rise and its consequences at a tolerable point, if one deems that tolerable is morally acceptable, and adaptation, the strategy being forced on these low-lying countries, is economically and technologically very challenging. Most are poor and have little infrastructure in place on which to built the seawalls necessary to buffer the rising seas. The is no high ground to which they can retreat to get out of harm’s way.

  3. Garett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” is an all too accurate portrayal of the destructive power of self-interests aimed at using a scarce natural resource. Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel prize in Economics in part for her work in refuting Hardin’s harsh conclusions, the need for coercive intervention, and showing that excessive use could be curbed by collective action by the interested parties. I am afraid that Hardin is right in this case, with one unfortunate variation. The parties, as the Copenhagen Conference illustrated (The movie gave us a candid camera view of the proceedings.) that there is little likelihood that the great powers of the East and the West will voluntarily agreed to act to reduce the level of greenhouse gas emission. No magic bullet exists, and in my opinion none will emerge in the window we have, so countries would have to stop growing the way we have been. We are not going to make sacrifices to enable China and India to “catch up” with us. So the Planet will suffer along with all of us.

I thought for a moment that we are committing suicide by our refusal to see the tragedy working itself out, but it is more accurate to say we are committing homicide because it is future generations of humans who will suffer. Even Hardin’s solution of some coercive institution intervening and setting limits won’t work simply because there are no such institutions around. The United Nations, designed, in theory, for conflict resolution and enforcement of some basic moral ends, is toothless here. It can only intervene, in limited ways with conflicts among Nations, but has no means at all to intervene with a war against the Earth itself.

The avoidance of the tragedy is possible only if Nasheed’s commitments to democracy and to the preservation of the Earth spread to other leaders, big and small. The film clearly shows that the time is now; maybe its images and story will get people moving. I doubt if enough people will take time to see it, however. We are lured into theaters by the Angelina Jolie’s and Brad Pitt’s of the celebrity world. No actor could, however, portray the grit and commitment shown by this film’s real-life hero to his people and the Globe.

ps. Nasheed was ousted by a coup, fomented by forces loyal to the previous regime just two months ago in February, 2012. Another tragedy.

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