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Maldives Goes Under

Over the weekend, Maldives held its first cabinet meeting underwater. Yes, underwater: The ministers of the tiny island nation all put on scuba gear and sat at desks six meters below sea-level in a rather brazen bid to get people to pay attention to the rising sea levels that are threatening countries like the Maldives. (If sea levels rise at least a meter by 2100 as a result of global warming—a figure that's looking increasingly likely—more than 80 percent of the Maldives will be swamped.) The country’s president, Mohammed Nasheed, has also pledged that his nation will go carbon neutral within a decade and will set up a fund to help evacuate the island's entire population, should that prove necessary down the road.

Nasheed's stunt wasn't randomly timed. Right now, as various nations haggle over a climate treaty, one of the biggest points of contention is whether wealthy nations will offer up aid for developing nations—both to develop low-carbon technologies and to adapt to climate-related changes that are unavoidable. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has suggested that some $100 billion per year may be required by 2020, but only the EU has made any gesture at all toward that goal—pledging some 15 billion euros per year. (The Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House, meanwhile, would devote 1 percent of the value of pollution permits toward international clean-tech deployment and another 1 percent to help poor nations adapt from 2012-2021—both of those would rise to 4 percent by 2050). Unfair or not, in the midst of a recession, most industrialized countries aren’t keen on shelling out billions for foreign aid.

So does that mean a deadlock’s inevitable? Not necessarily. One way to potentially bridge the gulf would be to abandon the idea of pure aid transfers. Mexico, for instance, has proposed the creation of a “green fund,” into which all nations would be obliged to contribute a certain amount based on a number of factors including their historical and current emissions, GDP, and population. The United States and Europe would be responsible for a large share of the fund, at least initially, but a system in which all countries had to chip in might be more politically palatable.