“The Island President”, COP15, and My Self

Last night at ACMI I saw The Island President, the last film being shown as part of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival. It was the tale of President Mohamed Nasheed’s fight to save his country, the Maldives, from climate change. The film followed his political defiance of the Gayoom dictatorship up to the Copenhagen Conference of 2009. Recent events, such as Nasheed’s being ousted, weren’t featured.

It was a good night. I enjoyed the film a great deal – it was touching and evocative without being overwhelming. To wit, it was whelming. There was also a Q&A afterwards which, though it suffered from a few technical hitches and my own cynicism towards anybody who is seen as knowing more about climate change or activism than I, was worthwhile. Some good ideas were popped around, and it was especially curious to hear questions from three young Maldivians who were in the audience. (Naturally, I approached them afterwards and suggested they join the AYCC. That’s how I roll. Naturally, they already knew about it. That’s how they rolled.)

the island president

“Giant Mohamed Nasheed will crush puny climate change!” – Tim Baxter

I found the film especially striking because of the emphasis it put on the Copenhagen Climate Conference of 2009, COP 15. On one level, this was simply a narrative device given that the film needed a climax. On another level, COP15 was something of a huge fucken’ deal, and it’s weird to remember that.

The film puts huge emphasis on Nasheed’s preparing for COP15. Numerous times he talks about the importance of the event; we watch him attending an AOSIS summit in the US and visiting ministers in the UK in preparation. Once Nasheed arrives at COP15 he is having meetings all over the place, going without sleep, struggling with the dilemma of accepting a watered-down deal, or no deal at all.

I myself was at COP15, and I lament that I didn’t make more of it. I attended as part of an AYCC Youth Delegation – as the story goes, Anna Rose saw me being funny at Power Shift 2009 and decided I was just what the delegation needed. Actually, I was out of my depth. My funniness notwithstanding, I was, let’s be honest, a naive, immature, 18-year-old with too much climate knowledge and not enough equanimity. Further improving my ability to contribute usefully, the girlfriend I had when I arrived in Copenhagen for COP15, was no longer my girlfriend by the time the first week of the negotiations was over.

joel Dignam Cop15

I look happy, but I’m dying on the inside. Climate change, girls, etc.

That said, I do have a very memorable experience of Mohamed Nasheed. As I’ve noted, at the time I was naive and immature. Thus, when I saw someone strolling down a thoroughfare, surrounded by an army of video operators and photographers, I was wondering, immaturely, enviously, who the famous dude was. Then, as he passed me by, other nearby youth spontaneously launched in to applause. As Nasheed walked past, young people from all over the world stood and applauded him. I learnt later about Nasheed, about the stand that he had taken, and was humbled. This is a beautiful memory I have.

On the whole though, regrettably,  I didn’t get much from the experience of COP15. Nor, more importantly, did I give much This is a shame.

Since, however, two things in particular has struck me as being very odd about COP15.

1 – The whole climate movement had the wrong strategy.

It’s actually absurd how bad the climate movement got it wrong. This includes a huge array of climate groups, international and national, groups such as 350.org and Avaaz, as well as many high-profile individuals such as Al Gore, Naomi Klein, and others.

These groups got it wrong because they framed Copenhagen as a huge fricken’ deal, and they framed success as achievable

Copenhagen was a huge fricken’ deal, yes. Jon Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, called it “the most important meeting in the history of the human species.” At the Bali Conference, in 2009, a “Road Map” had been devised to arrive at an “agreed outcome” at COP15. This was especially important because the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol was soon to expire, and it was sort of important to have the second period planned. Just a bit. So COP15 was important.

However, in terms of achieving climate mitigation, it wasn’t that important. Was any state going to sign, let alone ratify, a treaty more ambitious than its domestic political situation would permit? Superficially, nations are involved in the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) process. In actuality, governments are involved. And governments seek to maintain and increase their power. Thus, progress on international climate negotiations is limited by domestic intransigence in key economies. Thus, domestic advances – Australia’s carbon price, opposition to coal in the United States, clean energy in China – are more significant developments than an unenforceable and limp-wristed international climate agreement.

It’s with 20/20 hindsight that I say success in Copenhagen wasn’t achievable, but I daresay it should have been obvious at the time to observers. Both the US and Australia had struggled with achieving even a modicum of domestic action on climate change; neither country was likely to offer much. While, elsewhere, there had been many positive announcements and steps leading up to the negotiations, it seems to me now that the belief that a rabbit would be pulled out of the habbit and an agreement would be reached is more accurately described as a hope, and was without foundation. I think people actually believed that national governments would do the right thing because it was the right thing. They were woefully, woefully mistaken.

2 – the response to the Copenhagen Accord was way off

Outside Øksnehallen, several hundred climate activists gather with candles and hi-vis vests. In the chaos and confusion of COP15’s last few days, 350.org organisers are coordinating a last-ditch action. Its message? “Climate not saved”.

As COP15 wound up, the message from climate activists: “Climate not saved”.

As The Advertiser’s foreign correspondent (yours truly) opined: “Climate not saved”.

You see, the worry was that world leaders would frame the Copenhagen Accord as a success, suggesting that no further action was needed on climate change. This would, of course, have been bad.

As it happens though, that’s sort of not how it worked out. The accepted wisdom, certainly, is that COP15 was a failure, that no progress was achieved toward reducing global climate change and that, in fact, things may have even gotten worse.

Given this, it does strike me as curious that the climate community present there thought a different message was probable and worth acting against.


Anyway, as it happens, I’m not a very big fan of criticising the international climate movement, and this was a long time ago, and I was quite incompetent. It was probably also just a few people, too -it’s probably a bit of a stretch to say the whole climate movement got it wrong! These are just some of the thoughts that came back to me as I watched and reflected on the film. Since COP15 I think the whole climate movement has, in many ways, come of age. Things seem to be going a lot better these days. Not in terms of climate change, but in terms of the people’s movement to avoid such.

So go see The Island President. Nasheed is a mad chiller and you’ll like his style.



  1. On Uni and the Absence Thereof | Scit Necessitas - July 14, 2012

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