As the Maldives sinks, the world plays the fiddle

The historian Suetonius wrote that, in 64 AD, Nero reveled in the beauty of the flames that he had set upon the capital of his empire. And in the destruction of his city, Nero sealed his own fate – brought down by his own extravagance. As I think over the fate that hangs over the Maldives, a small island state with a population the size of New Orleans, the Classicist in me is forcefully reminded of this turbulent time in Roman history.

While all of us see the effects of climate change – hotter summers, colder winters, stronger storms – no country is more affected than the Maldives. Its highest point is at just 2.4 meters (“dolphins can leap higher”[1]) and with seas rising, it is likely that, by 2100, these beautiful atolls will exist no more, submerged into the ocean with its entire population of almost half a million evacuated.[2]

Making the Trumpian mistake of not believing this? 100 years ago, the Maldives highest point was 20cm higher.[3] By the end of the 21st century, UN Climate Change panel believes sea levels will have risen a further 23 inches.[4]

Under the Maldives’ former Obama-like President, Mohamed Nasheed, several gestures were made that caught world-wide attention, including an underwater cabinet meeting and passionate addresses to the UN.[5],[6] However, despite numerous references to being “the underwater Obama”[7], he lacked his American doppelganger’s power to make any meaningful impact on the real causes of the climate change that blight his country.

That said, the Maldives does its part at home, pledging to be first carbon neutral country by 2020,[8] as well as sourcing 100% of its energy from renewable sources.[9] In his enthusiastic zeal to legislate, Nasheed also established the ‘Climate Change Trust Fund’ that, with US$15mn support from the Australian government and the EU, will help will build a ‘climate resilient economy’ and support mitigation and adaption as climate change takes hold.[10]

However, even as the country sets its sights on achieving these noble goals of which we in the West should take note, the government has been forced to direct most of its action towards the very survival of its people and infrastructure.

The National Adaption Programme of Action[11] looks to further the Maldives relocation of people at risk of losing their homes with the idea of ‘population consolidation’ – moving people from the 200 inhabited islands, in which they now live, to just ten.[12] This may not be enough and there was talk (before the president was deposed) of setting up a sovereign wealth fund, which would draw on tourism revenues to enable to purchase of land abroad for future relocations, as well as a plea to Australia to help, should necessity arise.

But it’s not going to be enough. The Maldives are already sinking into the ocean – the 2004 tsunami saw 20 islands completely submerged – and its new government needs to ensure that it maintains the enthusiasm and evangelism of its past leader in fighting against climate change and protecting its people.

The country has no choice but to engage with partners to secure the reefs around the islands to provide natural defense barriers, as well as look for international help to build storm resilient houses. At the same time, the government must maintain a loud voice internationally and ensure that climate change remains top of the agenda across the world. It is at its peril that it chooses not to.

The Maldives serves as a warning to all of us. The Red Cross has said that climate change will cause greater population displacement than either war or persecution.[13] Already we have seen the world’s first ‘environmental refugees’[14] and, while the Maldives may be first with 80% of its population living within 100 meters of water, more than 44% of the global population lives within 150km of sea[15] and could see their property, livelihoods, futures destroyed.

So, as we turn our heads once more towards the beauty of the Indian Ocean and the jewel the world has given us, will we too fiddle? Will we too mock the destruction that we have created? Or will we play our part and put out the fire before it is too late to save ourselves. In former president, Nasheed’s, words, “If we want to save the world, I suggest that saving the Maldives is a very good starting point.”[16] (727 words)


[2] Charles W. Schmidt, 2005, pA608











[13] “Climate Refugees” in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No 23, p 7

[14] “Climate Refugees” in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No 23, p 7




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Student comments on As the Maldives sinks, the world plays the fiddle

  1. Has the Maldives considered filling in land to try to extend the longevity of habitation? We’ve seen other countries in the Pacific region build entire atolls and islands from outsourced land fill. It would potentially damage or harm the eco-system surrounding the islands, but would save (or extend the existence) of homes. Another option would be to not try to stop or slow the effects of global warming, and instead embrace the potential attraction for tourists to explore the submerged islands. While not beneficial to inhabitants that will be forced to relocate, it may help offset the rising cost of living on the remaining islands and hopefully preserve the incredible (and ideally protected) undersea life.

  2. The situation in the Maldives is particularly striking to me. The Maldives are one of the countries that will be most affected by climate change, but, given their small dimension, any actions they might take are only trying to limit the consequences on their islands, having little effect on the root causes of climate change. It is urgent that the world’s largest economies and their leaders realize the responsibility they have regarding climate change and take the appropriate measures to ensure that the root causes are tackled. Countries like the Maldives should lobby in international organizations and ensure their voice is heard, pressuring global leaders to impose stricter measures regarding climate change.

  3. After reading this great article, one question arises: Who has the duty to take actions steps? According to the article, the Malidives do a lot in order to help stopping the climate change, but in the end it is them, who suffer from the consequences of a climate change, which is mainly caused by other nations. Isn’t that absurd? But actually is it the fault of the Chinese government or the fault of any other government? Or is it the fault of the companies who pollute? But now my questions is, who can actually be blamed for? States, governments, companies, the consuming population, the consequences of the colonial times or the thinking of ‘More and more and always cheaper’?
    The articles nicely brings up the question of ‘Whose fault is it and who should deal with the consequences?’. The Maledives are a great example, because the climate change is absolutely not mainly their fault, but in the end, they are the ones who have to bear the consequences.

  4. I struggle to comprehend how anyone can deny the impact and severity of climate change when we are seeing an incredible, beautiful collection of islands disappear before our eyes. Having been fortunate enough to have visited the Maldives, it is simply shocking that few understand their plight. Christin correctly raises the “whose fault is it?” question, but I think that we need to focus on fixing the problem instead of assigning blame.
    From my understanding, the Maldives asks tourists for a voluntary “tax” to help the country fight climate change – why doesn’t the Maldives enforce a mandatory tax on tourists and on the airlines bringing in the tourists? I understand that tourism is the main money-maker for the Maldives, but when islands continue to be consumed by rising sea levels, there won’t be a tourism industry. I think that the Maldives needs to be more aggressive in taxing tourists; let’s face it, the vast majority of tourists presumably can afford an incremental $20 on top of the many thousands of dollars spent on airfare, accommodation, and discretionary expenses.
    Maybe the Maldives should implement a very large tourist tax – hopefully the tax would gain international attention and more people would enter the discussion and become aware of the situation. Who knows, maybe a very large tax could encourage tourism?

  5. An important example of the cataclysmic consequences of climate change. Thank you, Alex.

    I was troubled by the rate of decline that you noted, especially as the Maldives, with their limited carbon footprint, are effectively paying the bill for the recklessness of larger, significantly more pollutive nations. They would be right to underscore this unfair dynamic when lobbying multilaterals and other countries for their support.

    You mention a few concrete steps that could be taken in order to mitigate the problem at hand, e.g. reinforcement of barrier reefs to forestall erosion, and the improvement of infrastructure and homes to protect against inclement weather. I wonder whether – or in what proportion – the government of the Maldives has redirected revenues from tourism to this end.

    Perhaps the government of the Maldives could partner with corporates that operate in the Indian Ocean. Certainly, many regional corporates are in need of offsetting their carbon footprints. Given awareness around the desperate situation in the Maldives, corporates might benefit from a corporate social responsibility standpoint, by publicly committing to take on this important challenge.

  6. Fantastic article.

    What strikes me is that it is clear the Maldives are a victim of climate change, rather than a root cause. There situation is as such tragic. However, tragic as it may be, the country’s situation serves as a powerful lesson to other countries around the globe and could be used as a catalysed for lobbying for legislative change.

    It is with this context that I consider the initiatives you mention (e.g. the Climate Change Trust Fund) to be – whilst noble – short-termist and reactionary, serving only to slow-down the Maldives’ inevitable demise, rather than have any wider impact beyond those islands. As such, I would re-pivot these efforts into showing the rest of the globe what can happen if changes are not implemented and lobbying for that global change.

    It is perhaps too late for the Maldives to save themselves, but it is not too late for positive change to be implemented around the rest of the globe.

  7. The Maldives will go under and become an example of externality in future economics textbooks. The world has shown a reluctance to act on many urgent, massive tragedies. Genocides, epidemics, famine, and slavery are all happening now. Things are being done, but certainly not “enough”. So why should this one be different? Countries will act in their own interests. And the Maldives don’t have much oil or strategic relevance.

    The Maldives will be the Lehman Brothers for climate change. When we see one fall, we’ll believe we can be next.

  8. Thanks for writing, Alex – this was really interesting to read. As others in the section have noted in their comments, the predicament facing the Maldives highlights the asymmetrical impact of climate change. Given the Maldives’ small geographic footprint, their culpability for climate change and ability to make a meaningful impact to shift its current trajectory are limited, but they stand to face some of the most severe consequences. I know that the Maldives are one of several geographies facing similar consequences of global warming, such as the Solomon Islands, Fiji, etc – it would be interesting to hear if any of the other geographies have made any more headway in calling other global players to action or what effort is being made to coordinate across them.

  9. Great article! I have heard about Maldives sinking for quite some time but and thought it will be sooner than the year 2100. For me the hardest part to convince is how do we make people feel good about combating global warming. How do we create this kind of mindset and culture in the industry where there’re a clear conflict of interest. One can argue that everyone should work together but the most efficient way is to rank all companies by the degree they caused global warming and publicize them. I personally believe the 80-20 rule apply here and everyone could do their part in putting pressure on these giants to improve on their carbon emission reduction mission.

  10. Great article Alex! I think the Maldive’s situation highlights one of the most worrying aspects of climate change: while economically developed countries are the ones responsible for causing the problem and are better prepared to withstand its consequences, poor countries are likely to suffer most. And the paradox, clearly exemplified in your post, is that developed countries (as well as a number of large emerging economies – China, India and the likes) are the ones most capable of determining whether we, as a society, solve this problem. Small developing countries like the Maldives are not only likely to be hit the hardest by climate change, but their ability to influence it is almost negligible.

    That is why I would say that the agreement reached in December last year in Paris was a crucial milestone towards coordinating action against global warming. It was the first time 195 countries ranging from the largest emitters – US and China – to the smallest and most vulnerable – the likes of Maldives – agreed upon a common climate objective. Let’s hope the action that these countries take thereof will be enough to avoid places like the Maldives from disappearing.

  11. Great article! Climate change is definitely real. And while I had read a few articles about the Maldives, you have done an excellent job of conveying the urgency of the situation.
    The Maldives are also experiencing a high degree of coral bleaching, which is essentially a sign of the death of reefs that comes from warming waters, pollutants and other environmental problems. Since coral reefs are a key attraction and driver for tourism in the Maldives, the government fears that people will stop coming if the reefs are in danger and is thus more sensitive to the issue. Needless to say, tourists are one of the key drivers of the local economy.

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