Mohamed Nasheed has been a major voice for climate action in an island nation with everything to lose.
In early May, Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives and climate activist, was struck by a bomb blast as he tried to get into his car. He survived his injuries, barely, and local police recently announced arrests of the suspected bomber and accomplices — “religious extremists,” they claim. Current Maldives president Ibrahim Solih condemned the assassination attempt as “an attack on Maldives’ democracy and economy.”
Nasheed’s dramatic career mirrors the complex politics of the island nation southwest of India. In 2008, Nasheed was the first democratically elected president after a long history of authoritarian governments. He has been an outspoken climate change advocate for decades, famously holding an underwater cabinet meeting in scuba gear to demonstrate the need for urgent action if Pacific nations are to survive.
Four years after taking office, Nasheed was ousted — at gunpoint, he said — in a coup led by the Maldives army and opposition party. In 2015, he was convicted under the nation’s Anti-Terrorism Act and sentenced to 13 years in jail in what Amnesty International called a “politically motivated” effort and that the U.S. State Department said occurred with a “lack of criminal procedures.”
Nasheed was the first democratically elected president after a long history of authoritarian governments. He has been an outspoken climate change advocate for decades.
In 2016, Nasheed was granted asylum in the U.K., where he had gone for medical treatment. He safely returned to Maldives in 2018 when his colleague and friend Ibrahim Solih won the presidential election and, incredibly, he ran for office again, winning a seat in the country’s parliament.
At the time of the assassination attempt, Nasheed held the role of parliamentary speaker, the second most powerful position in government. In addition to being outspoken about climate change, he has been a critic of hardline Islamists, the likely motivation for the assassination attempt.
“Nasheed was perhaps the first world leader really ready to join the climate movement,” says author and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben. “I will never forget his arrival for the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. He came straight from the airport to a massive public rally where he led the crowd chanting, ‘350,’ ‘350.’” The battle cry is short for “350 parts per million,” which scientists say is the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The world is currently at 418 ppm.
McKibben explains that when he and the 350.org team were organizing their first global day of climate action before the Copenhagen talks, Nasheed taught his entire cabinet to scuba dive so that he could convene the underwater meeting on their endangered reef.
“Nasheed understands the power of symbolism. … He has to, because the Maldives is a small and powerless nation by conventional terms,” McKibben says. “But thanks to his courage and creativity the country punches way, way, way above its weight.”
Nasheed understands the power of symbolism.
The Republic of Maldives is a Muslim country whose economy is dependent on international tourism. The country is made up of almost 1,200 islands, most uninhabited. All of the coral islands of the Maldives are so low-lying that they are highly vulnerable to climate change, particularly sea level rise.
Nasheed has received numerous international awards including the United Nations’ Champions of the Earth Award in 2010 in recognition of being “an articulate voice for the vulnerable and the poor facing the challenges of global warming” and “a politician who is showcasing to the rest of the world how a transition to climate neutrality can be achieved and how all nations, no matter how big or how small, can contribute.”
That same year he was named by Foreign Policy magazine in its list of top global thinkers and in 2012, Nasheed received the James Lawson Award from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, D.C. The award was given to “recognize his leadership in opposing the long dictatorial regime and for “restoring genuine democracy in his country.”