Prudent planning: President of Maldives wants to move his island nation

The NYT Magazine has a pretty good piece on the Maldives, “Wanted: A New Home for My Country”:

… ever since Nasheed declared on the eve of his inauguration last November that, because of global warming, he would try to find a new homeland for Maldivians somewhere else in the world, on higher ground, local reporters didn’t miss the chance to see their unpredictable (“erratic” and “crazy” were other adjectives I heard used) president.

The citizens of the Maldives would not be the first islanders to evacuate because of global warming. That “honor” appears to belong to the Carteret Islands, as noted on CP Friday.

But the Maldives have 100 times as many people on their low-lyng islands:

The Maldives is an archipelago of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean, with an average elevation of four feet. Even a slight rise in global sea levels, which many scientists predict will occur by the end of this century, could submerge most of the Maldives.

Exactly how much sea levels will rise this century can’t be known for certain — especially since it depends on the greenhouse gas emissions, which humanity still has the power to control.


The Maldives will have a very good idea over the next decade or two whether or not the world is going to take enough action to provide high confidence that we will avert catastrophic sea level rise. And it will take a decade or two of planning to do the necessary planning for moving that many people.


Nicholas Schmidle interviewed me for this piece:

Joe Romm, the author of the blog Climate Progress, told me: “There is no saving the Maldives. They are wise to find a new place.”

I probably put in some caveat such as “on our current emissions path, there is no saving the Maldives.” The interview was a couple of months ago.


But from the perspective of the Maldives, such caveats are largely meaningless. For existential threats, which will warming clearly presents to the country, they need to strategize on the basis of what I would call the planning case.

In general, there are two important “cases” that governments, policymakers, and the public should focus on. The planning case is what those who are focused on adaptation should incorporate into their designs, such as the rebuilding of New Orleans. The plausible worst-case is what should drive government energy policies aimed at prevention, since it represents a catastrophic loss of future health and well-being, which government is supposed to preserve — see Harvard economist: Climate cost-benefit analyses are “unusually misleading,” warns colleagues “we may be deluding ourselves and others.”

The plausible worst-case scenario for SLR by 2100 on the business-as-usual emissions path (which takes us to some total warming from preindustrial levels of 4.5°C to 5.5°C [8°F to 10°F]) is a staggering 2 meters (see here) or even higher — see Nature sea level rise shocker: Coral fossils suggest “catastrophic increase of more than 5 centimetres per year over a 50-year stretch is possible.” Lead author warns, “This could happen again.”

It typically doesn’t make sense to do all of your adaptation planning for the worst-case scenario, since even the richest countries don’t have an unlimited amount of money. On the other hand, it certainly doesn’t make any sense to do your adaptation planning for the best case scenario, since then you are left with New Orleans, post-Katrina.

[And yes, the word “adaptation” is a mostly a euphemism for what humanity will be doing if we keep emissions anywhere near business as usual. A better word is “suffering” or “misery” as science advisor John Holdren used to say in his talks.]

Nasheed understands you don’t do your adaptation planning for the best case:

“When we talk about climate change . . . you aren’t talking about gradual things, sea-level rises of a millimeter a year,” Nasheed said to me, using storm surges, strong winds and tsunamis as examples of the kind of cataclysms he expects. “You are talking about the force of things that can go wrong.”

What is the planning case for SLR in 2100? I’d put it at 1.2 to 1.5 meters — 4 to 5 feet. I sent Schmidle a bunch of links to the latest post-IPCC studies on SLR, and he wrote:

In 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that by 2100, sea levels could rise by anywhere between 7 and 23 inches. The I.P.C.C. represents the closest thing the scientific community has to a consensus, but nearly every scientist I spoke with placed his or her estimates slightly higher. “Is this an underestimate?” Thompson says. “No real way to tell. It is a conservative estimate. When you are trying to provide guidance to global governments, you don’t want to be alarmist.” Since the I.P.C.C. study, the journals Science, Nature Geoscience and Nature have all published articles featuring estimates that exceed two feet, some saying that rises could be as much as five feet by the end of the century. “The rise to 2100 is just the beginning of a much higher sea-level rise,” says Stefan Rahmstorf, a professor of ocean physics at the University of Potsdam. “This is a real long-term effect that we are setting into motion. It will continue.” Rahmstorf says he believes the increase could be as great as 1.4 meters, or four and a half feet, by 2100.

The problem for the Maldives is stark:

Twenty-two years ago, Nasheed’s predecessor traveled to New York with a mission. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, then only 9 years into his 30-year reign, stood before the United Nations and warned the world that rising sea levels would eventually erase his country from the map: “With a mere one-meter rise,” he said, “a storm surge would be catastrophic and possibly fatal to the nation.”

So any prudent leader of the Maldives would start planning on relocation. Especially since, SLR isn’t going to stop at 4 to 5 feet in 2100. It is probably going to continue at a rate of some 1 to 2 inches a year for centuries.

But relocation imposes immense challenges, not the least of which is where the heck to go?

Last November, when Nasheed proposed moving all 300,000 Maldivians to safer territory, he named India, Sri Lanka and Australia as possible destinations and described a plan that would use tourism revenues from the present to establish a sovereign wealth fund with which he could buy a new country “” or at least part of one “” in the future.

Hmm. Not sure those countries have much spare arable land (or fresh water) — especially in a globally warmed world (see, for instance “Australia faces collapse as climate change kicks in”). Nasheed understands this, too

“They would rather die here,” Nasheed said when I asked how he would persuade people to leave their homes. “You can’t ask them to leave. This is almost an impossible task, unless and until you have doomsday on them. . . . Moving would have to be the very bottom line. If you think about it, in certain eventualities, there wouldn’t be a place to move. Everyone would be running around. I mean, you mention a country that wouldn’t have all sorts of problems “” even India or Sri Lanka, all of these countries would have millions of people moving from place to place. We would be lost. Three hundred thousand Maldivians? Who would care about them?”

The Maldives has no good options.

And the world has only one — get off of the BAU emissions path ASAP and keep atmospheric concentrations as close to 350 to 450 ppm as possible.

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