Changing Planet

Maldives, Ground Zero for Climate Change Impacts

If there is a ground zero for observing the impacts of a changing global climate the Maldives are definitely a front-runner.

It is a place many have heard of but few could easily pick out on a map. Comprised of twelve hundred islands and atolls, most pancake flat, the highest reaches no more than five feet above sea level … making the Maldives the lowest country on earth. Only two hundred of the islands are inhabited, by roughly 320,000 people. It is an always hot, exceedingly beautiful, Muslim country stretching about 600 miles from north to south in the heart of the Indian Ocean off the tip of Sri Lanka.

Photo by Jon Bowermaster


I have been visiting the islands since 2005, when I first went to assess the damages wreaked by the massive tsunami that rolled from Indonesia to Somalia. The Maldives were largely spared; its coral reefs absorbed the brunt of the wave. In the years since, as rising sea levels and warming sea surface temperatures have gained more and more headlines, so has this tiny island nation.

Today erosion is a big problem on many of the islands and most of its coral is badly bleached.

In the past few days an invested crowd of thinkers and doers, including the Maldives’ President Mohammed Nasheed and several members of his cabinet, gathered on the small island of Kunfunadhoo, for the third annual S.L.O.W.L.I.F.E Symposium.

Daryl Hannah and Richard Branson at the SLOWLIFE Symposium, photo Six Senses


Organized by the owners of the resort company Six Senses, Eva and Sonu Shivdasani, the barefoot conference brought together environmentalists from the United Kingdom including Jonathan Porritt, Tim Smits and Jeremy Leggett, National Geographic Emerging Explorer Mark Lynas (author of “Six Degrees” and the new “God Species”), renewable energy and island nation leaders from as far away as Reunion and Bali, ocean mariners including Fabien Cousteau and some incredibly dedicated headline-makers (Richard Branson and the actors Edward Norton and Daryl Hannah).

The subject of three days of talks was, What can be done fast to slow climate change, before it’s too late.

Topics ranged from how small island nations can become energy independent, how to engage local communities in ambitious carbon reduction plans and the challenge of adapting transportation in a low-carbon economy.

It’s clear there are no easy answers. Soon after arriving by float plane President Nasheed delivered a harsh message. “Carbon dioxide emissions are going to kill us,” he said. “Here in the Maldives our goal of becoming carbon neutral is not to scare the world, but simply to make a step in the right direction.”

While Nasheed leads an effort to make the Maldives the first carbon neutral country on the planet, by 2020, there are some good things to brag about here on the Laccadive Sea. Last year the country banned all shark fishing and any tuna in the Maldives are caught only by pole. Recently the Baa Atoll was declared a UNESCO Biosphere.

Author Mark Lynas, photo Six Senses


While the Maldives, with few natural resources but a growing population and energy demands, is on the forefront of nations attempting to take themselves off the grid it’s clear the problems are not a lack of knowledge and information. But the Maldivian government officials reiterated what stands in their way is not lack of knowledge but of money. It’s one thing to have great ideas and access to information; paying for progress is something else, especially in a country with a fledgling democracy and a history of high debt and bad credit.

But it is trying. By 2020 the Maldives hopes to generate 60 percent of its electricity from solar, without raising the cost of power to its consumers. It has introduced a new import regime by the Transport Ministry to ensure that in the future electric cars will be a third of the price of conventional gasoline cars. And it has pledged to spend two percent of its national income on renewable energy deployment in the country. If that figure were matched worldwide, we would be collectively be spending $1.25 trillion a year rather than the $260 billion we spend today on renewable energy sources.

Fabien Cousteau at the SLOWLIFE Symposium, photo Six Senses


Worrying to all island nations of course is that CO2 in the world’s atmosphere is not declining but growing, as development and growth continue to mount globally. The goal of reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million — what scientists regard as the safe limit for humans — may fast becoming an unreachable goal, since it has already risen to above 392 ppm.

One industry that prospers in the Maldives of course is tourism. Nearly 1 million visitors a year, including increasing numbers from China and India, fly into the capital city of Male each year and jump out to various island resorts by float plane or small boat. Taxes on resort development — and potentially new tariffs on visitors to support renewable energy projects — are the lifeblood of the Maldivian economy.




  • […] NatGeo Newswatch: Soon after arriving by float plane President Nasheed delivered a harsh message. “Carbon […]

  • Anthony Watts

    Here is a rebuttal to your article. The claims are ludicrous and not supported by the data.

  • […] From NatGeo Newswatch: Maldives, Ground Zero for Climate Change Impacts […]

  • Chas Rasper

    If the president of the Maldives is truly interested in going carbon neutral as a country, then why are they building 11 new airports and more resorts for tourists?
    They need to limit tourism, not promote it. All those tourist flying there and back is spewing way more carbon than the inhabitants of the islands.

  • ADE

    If all the “tourists” and “greens” only visited by sail boat ,brought their own water and took their waste products back home with them ,there would be no problem.
    But greed dictates .
    Sea levels are are falling too.
    Their future is in the regulation of tourists by their government,but “it” wants more!

  • Spencer Lindsay

    So done with the oil industry shills commenting on climate change. There’s a reason why 99% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and that it is influenced by humans: the science points them there. I guess if I had looser morals I might go with corporate sponsorship.

  • GreenHearted

    Years ago, before I knew anything about global warming, I made a visit to India that was going to take me to the Maldives as well. That trip was cut short due to a family emergency, but I remember saying, “Oh well, not a problem. The Maldives aren’t going anywhere.” $#@! Little did I know.

    The goal of every nation shouldn’t be going carbon neutral but achieving zero carbon. If we make the shift to a zero-carbon perpetual energy economy quickly enough (and refreeze the Arctic summer sea ice while we’re at it), we (at least the least vulnerable) might just squeak through the climate change emergency.

    It’s all about compassion, which is in short supply these days, I see.

  • Mohamed

    @Chas Rasper, Maldives is scattered over a relatively vast area and the transportation link between islands is so difficult. When I was about 8 years I remember traveling from Male’ the capital to my father’s island took about one week. In the morning we leave then by night stop at an island. In the ocean you cant operate buses and a person can step down and swim to where he want to go like how you can do on buses. The Maldives has only about 6 major hospital in about 6 islands. The population in all the islands total only about 320,000 and the government is building aiports not because its fun, but its for sheer necessity for the people there. Yes our ancestors have lived in Maldives for centuries without airports, but only if you knew the level of malnutrition, life expactancy and all kind of vulnerablity we had for centuries which partly explains the reason why even today we have sucha small population although Maldives has a distinct ethnic group, language and culture. During the secont world war when trade with other countries was difficult many Maldivians died of hunger, people used to eat leaves. They were afraid to go for fishing because Japanese submarines were around, and of course you cant just eat fish, you needed rise or flour also, but the trade was cut off to a large extent. I am a Maldivian, and believe me life in Maldives really unimaginable until you have been there. I have been to 18 countries in the world that include USA, UK, South Africa, India, China, Seychelles and I know what I am saying here as I compare life elsewhere.

  • Jordan Chambers

    The Maldives government is a ‘Ground Zero’ of hypocrisy and junk science. The ultimate joke is the sight of eco warriors showing solidarity by flying thousands of miles to get to the islands .. pushing out tons of the very CO2 they’re all complaining about. You couldn’t make it up could you?.
    If anyone still takes swallows the CO2 / AGW theory they should read ‘The Greatest Lie Ever Told’ by Nils-Axel Morner for a reality check.

  • Uzuna

    @Chas Rasper

    If you searched that, you might have as well searched where more then 90% of the Maldives’ GDP come from: Toursim.
    Its not USA or wherever you live, people there NEED the airports. Surely, you will not want to spend a week or 4 -5 days travelling through seas on boats/launches to reach the capital or so. they are made up of islands, not connected by bridges. its not only the people of USA or other countries who need a comfortable way of necessarily transport.

    they are making airports for locals and tourists, its more then their 90% of GDP. I am pretty sure you are not gonna give the money to run the whole country, and at the same time spend money protecting the eroding islands.

  • […] Jon Bowermaster – National Geographic […]

  • […] Not only are its waters a potential site for China to build a covert naval base, but the first waves of climate change will hit these islands. Each year rising sea levels flood the white beaches that […]

  • […] October National Geographic declared that ground zero for climate change is actually the Maldives – a collection of 1,200 islands […]

  • […] if you still think climate change isn’t “real,” I suggest you take a trip to the Maldives. If you can find them, that is). While change can be uncomfortable and irritating because it […]

  • […] And then there are the people. No surprise, it’s the desperately poor — those who have contributed the least to climate change — who stand to suffer the most. In fact, they’re already feeling the effects of climate change. From the increasing frequency and intensity of droughts in parts of Africa, to rising sea levels already threatening to overwhelm an entire nation. […]

  • […] Smoke rises from burning waste on Thilafushi, Maldives, the lowest-lying country on Earth—and therefore among the most threatened by potential sea level rise, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates could total up to 23 inches (60 centimeters) by 2099. (Read related blog: “Maldives, Ground Zero for Climate Change Impacts.”) […]

  • Petter Joe

    […] Smoke rises from burning waste on Thilafushi, Maldives, the lowest-lying country on Earth—and therefore among the most threatened by potential sea level rise, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates could total up to 23 inches (60 centimeters) by 2099. (Read related blog: “Maldives, Ground Zero for Climate Change Impacts.”) […]

  • […] whale and dolphin-watching in the world, the crystal clear waters of these coral islands are like nowhere else on earth. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t […]

  • Allan William Ullmann

    I unfortunately have to say to all complaints you will not change the course of events that are about to take place as a result of Global warming, its too late for that and sea levels will rise. Low lands will be lost and temperatures will rise in most countries, and no amount of denial will halt it proven or otherwise.
    The decimation of the Ice shelves at the present rate would show some hope but the rate is accelerating not slowing so draw your own conclusions whilst the world leaders are in denial.

  • GFDD

    Maldives Ambassador Discusses Climate Change Challenges for Small Island Developing States in the GFDD Global Roundtables.

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