Male (AFP) Oct 17, 2009
The Maldives' government held an underwater cabinet meeting Saturday in a bid to focus global attention on rising sea levels that threaten to submerge the low-lying atoll nation.
President Mohamed Nasheed plunged first into the Indian Ocean followed by his ministers, all clad in scuba gear, for the nationally televised meeting in this archipelago known as an idyllic holiday getaway for the rich.
Nasheed and his deputy, Mohamed Waheed, and a dozen ministers sat behind tables arranged in a horseshoe at a depth of six metres (20 feet) and approved a resolution urging global action to cut carbon emissions.
Tropical reef fish swam among the ministers and the nation's red and green flag with white crescent moon was planted in the seabed behind Nasheed.
After surfacing, he called for the UN's climate summit in Copenhagen in December to forge a deal to reduce carbon emissions blamed for rising sea levels that experts say could swamp the Maldives by the century's end.
"We should come out of Copenhagen with a deal that will ensure that everyone will survive," said the 42-year-old president as he bobbed in the shimmering turquoise waters.
He said there was "less talk" during the half-hour underwater meeting, but he had managed to get more work done.
"The Maldives is a frontline state and what happens to us today will happen to others tomorrow," Nasheed said.
Asked how he felt about taking the cabinet for a splash, he replied they had all enjoyed the plunge into the clear, warm waters.
"The president, vice president, and the cabinet signed a declaration calling for concerted global action on climate change, ahead of the UN climate conference," the president's office said in a statement.
The ministers signed the resolution, printed on a white board, using water-proof markers.
They had taken diving lessons for the last two months and were accompanied by their trainers at the unprecedented underwater meeting off the islet of Girifushi.
The dive was the latest publicity stunt by the media-savvy Nasheed to focus world attention on climate change and its effects on the Maldives ahead of the Copenhagen meeting.
In 2007, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that an increase in sea levels of just 18 to 59 centimetres (seven to 24 inches) would make the country virtually uninhabitable by 2100.
Nasheed, the archipelago's first democratically elected president, stunned the world last year when he announced he wanted to buy a homeland to relocate the threatened Maldives.
More than 80 percent of the the tiny nation, famed as a tourist paradise due to its coral reefs and white-sand beaches, is less than a metre (3.3 feet) above sea level.
Only Nasheed and his defence minister Ameen Faisel had any diving experience before the president came up with the plan for the underwater meeting, officials said.
Government spokeswoman Aminath Shauna said the ministers had signed their wetsuits and these would be auctioned on a protectmaldives.com website due to be launched at the weekend to raise money for coral reef protection.
"All the arrangements went ahead well," she said, adding the ministers would ride bicycles around the capital island, Male, next week as a further sign of their commitment to cutting emissions.
Nasheed, 42, dived with his cabinet to the sea bottom Saturday in an effort to press December's UN summit in Copenhagen to cap carbon emissions that cause global warming, threatening low-lying nations such as the Maldives.
"We should come out of Copenhagen with a deal that will ensure that everyone will survive," said the president as he bobbed in the shimmering Indian Ocean after the meeting.
A presidential aide said the event, to highlight the threat facing the resort paradise -- which scientists warn could be submerged by rising sea levels by the century's end, was Nasheed's idea.
He said a New York-based environmental group had wanted the president to hold a banner underwater to push for cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions.
But Nasheed, the youngest leader in South Asia, went one better, with the 30-minute meeting intended to highlight a potentially watery future for the 1,192 coral islands that make up the Maldives.
It was only the latest in a series of eye-catching public relations moves by Nasheed, a former journalist, to focus the spotlight on climate change and how it could affect the archipelago, known as an idyllic getaway for the rich.
The president stunned the world last year when he announced he wanted to buy a new homeland to relocate the population of the Maldives in the event that damage from rising sea levels became too great.
The announcement had a major impact in India, Sri Lanka and Australia -- all potential destinations cited by Nasheed for what could be some of the world's first environmental refugees.
Nasheed has also been photographed at a submerged desk off the sandy white beaches of the Maldives.
The environmental activism of Nasheed, who came to power last year, follows efforts by his predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, to highlight the nation's predicament.
"Gayoom had been a very vocal campaigner so there is a political compulsion for Nasheed to keep the Maldives at the forefront of the global warming issue," said Ibrahim Ismail, for many years an independent member of parliament.
Gayoom, described by opponents as autocratic, ruled the islands unchallenged between 1978 and 2008 and repeatedly threw Nasheed in jail over a period of six years.
As a political activist, Nasheed was at one point an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience.
Educated in Sri Lanka and Britain, the president, a father of two young daughters and holder of a degree in maritime engineering, built a pro-democracy movement with local and foreign support, winning the country's first multi-party elections a year ago.
His latest dive in scuba gear was preceded by interviews to foreign television networks to talk about what he called his "sinking feeling."
Ismail said Nasheed's underwater cabinet meeting had little impact locally in a country whose 300,000 Sunni Muslim population was more preoccupied with immediate bread and butter issues.
"I think this is a good action as far as publicity is concerned. Not locally, but internationally," Ismail said.
Nasheed announced last month the Maldives had no money to pay for him to attend the Copenhagen summit, but Denmark has said it will fund him as his participation is considered essential.
The question has become vital two months ahead of a world climate summit in Copenhagen in December where leaders hope to thrash out a deal to battle global warming for years to come.
The European Union sees itself in the forefront of the global battle, but insiders are becoming less optimistic that the 27 member states, and the wider world, will be able to agree on how to fund it.
"The Copenhagen deal is hanging in the balance," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has warned.
"It's a real danger that the world will not come together in the way that is necessary to agree on an ambitious and comprehensive deal in December," he added.
EU nations have agreed among themselves to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent in 2020, from 1990 levels, and by 30 percent if the rest of the world agrees to do so.
However Europeans are not seeing those targets matched in many other countries and their pride in taking the lead is becoming increasingly tempered by frustration that their ambitions are not being embraced elsewhere.
A draft EU position for the Copenhagen summit, seen by AFP, is peppered with gaps where monetary figures have yet to be agreed.
One figure that remains in the text is the 100 billion euros, the estimation of what poorer nations will need annually from 2020 to fund their adaptation and mitigation efforts.
However, one of the amounts yet to be pencilled into the draft text is the overall level of public funding that would be required.
The European Commission estimates that this amount could total between 22 and 50 billion euros per year by 2020.
Calculations will also have to be made about how to fairly distribute the burden within the European Union.
One problem here is how to distribute the contribution required via some equation involving the two key factors; a country's emission levels and its ability to pay.
Some heavily coal-dependent eastern European countries, led by Poland, are unwilling to fork out when they seem themselves as among the needy.
"Quite frankly, from our point of view it's totally unacceptable that the poor countries of Europe should help the rich countries of Europe to help the poor countries in the rest of the world," Polish Finance Minister Jan Rostowski said earlier this month.
Europe's frustrations are accompanied by growing fears that laxer rules outside the EU will lead to a migration of both jobs and pollution - the so-called carbon leakage effect.
One European negotiator spoke of "vague, conditional promises," from many key players.
The United States, which is responsible for a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, is seen as a prime climate foot-dragger, and wants its cuts to begin in 2030.
Last month Fredrik Reinfeldt, prime minister of Sweden which holds the EU presidency, warned that the current levels of commitment were insufficient.
"The negotiations are going too slowly. The (emissions) reductions targets presented by different countries are not enough," he said.
Some EU nations, particularly France, are therefore looking for a Plan B in the form of a carbon tax to penalise imports from countries with less stringent emission rules.
However such a scheme is opposed by the European Commission as well as the Swedish EU presidency.
The overall goal is to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius. Scientists warn that if the world heats up by more than that a string of uncontrollable consequences could ensue.
It is in this context that European finance ministers will meet in Luxembourg on Monday followed by environment ministers on Wednesday, with a view to reach a deal at a European summit at the end of the month.
The European leaders are well aware that if they can't arrive in Copenhagen speaking with one voice on how to tackle global warming it will be very difficult to persuade the rest of the world to do so.
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