It’s been over two years since the hope and expectation of the Copenhagen Climate Summit gave way to the sobering reality that the best, near-unanimous agreement negotiators could reach was a non-binding promise to merely “take note of” the targets and principles laid out in the Copenhagen Accord. The two weeks of high-stakes UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations that led to that disappointing 2009 deal, which featured the leaders from over 100 countries including — at the last minute — U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, have been agonized and argued over by environmentalists and diplomats ever since.
A new film by acclaimed documentarian Jon Shenk provides both a new window into the historic negotiations and many new reasons to second-guess the logic that led to the Copenhagen Accord. “The Island President” stars 44-year-old Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, a low-lying Indian Ocean nation of some 1,200 islands and 394,000 citizens. Until Nasheed was deposed in what his supporters describe as a coup orchestrated by forces loyal to the nation’s former dictator, he was a leading voice in the fight to stop global warming and rising seas which threaten his homeland.
The documentary, which is currently traveling the international film festival circuit, is largely divided into two parts. It begins by examining the azure beauty, troubled history, and endangered future of the Maldives and follows Nasheed around the globe in the year leading up to the Copenhagen summit. Nasheed made the case for an immediate, aggressive approach to curbing climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions to anyone who would listen. “This is not something in the future, this is something we are facing right now,” he explained in the film. “Our survival is non-negotiable.”
Despite being set in the snowy, darkness of the Danish winter, the second part of the film is likely to be the more fascinating half for anyone who has watched or taken part in U.N. climate negotiations or international diplomacy. Shenk and his crew were granted an astounding degree of access to Nasheed and his team in both the run up and midst of the Copenhagen conference. The footage adds to the perception that China, the largest current emitter, was the villain of Copenhagen, but interestingly the epic collapse of the cap-and-trade bill in the U.S., the largest historic emitter, months before the summit merits nary a mention.
The biggest surprise Shenk caught on tape was an inside glimpse at the negotiations and compromises that Nasheed and other vulnerable developing nations made in an effort to keep the UN negotiating process alive — an outcome that was by no means assured during those dark December days. In a telling exchange between Nasheed and one of his cabinet members, the former president argued that it was better to agree to a weak deal and get the annual $100 billion climate adaptation funding U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was promising than to stick to his principals and reject any agreement that wasn’t based on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. (The accord was based on a 2 degree Celsius limit, which is nearly impossible to meet if countries make only the cuts promised to the UNFCC.)
In the end, Nasheed’s support for the Copenhagen Accord — which included a passionate speech in the wee hours of the final day of negotiations — helped convince developing countries to sign onto the flawed deal.
Besides salvaging a UN negotiating process that produced two similarly ambiguous climate deals in the years since Copenhagen, it is unclear what Nasheed’s compromise produced. He has been ousted from office and, due in part to the great recession and eurozone debt crisis, so far much of the promised adaptation funding has yet to materialize. As Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, put it in a talk after a screening of the Island President in D.C. last week, the Maldives thought they were getting the sun, moon, and stars. But now all they’ve got is the moon, “and it’s made of Swiss cheese.”
Click here to see where “The Island President” is currently playing. Here’s the trailer: