By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 10, 2009; A14
MALE, MALDIVES -- President Mohamed Nasheed, one of the world's youngest heads of state, likes to joke about his age.
"Say I'm older. It sounds better," the 42-year-old said during an interview in his office, which faces the sparkling cobalt ocean and some of the country's 1,200 islands.
For years, Nasheed was viewed as a rowdy revolutionary, jailed 14 times during a two-decade street-level struggle for democracy. He became a hero to South Asia's restless youths. But now he wants to appear older, more presidential, as he represents a nation perhaps better known for its scuba diving than for its politics and policies.
Since his election last year ended the 30-year reign of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Nasheed has become a global leader in the fight against climate change. Even in a region often enmeshed in wars, corruption and dire poverty, the issue is far from abstract: Rising sea levels threaten to make this nation of about 400,000 uninhabitable by the end of the century.
Supporters and critics describe Nasheed's leadership style as unconventional. He recently slipped into a wetsuit and strapped on a compressed-air tank to hold the world's first underwater cabinet meeting. The exercise was meant to highlight the effects of global warming in the Maldives; some critics called it a publicity stunt.
An American film crew is following Nasheed -- who happens to rank No. 14 at http://hottestheadsofstate.wordpress.com/list/-- for a feature-length documentary on climate change.
Last month, Nasheed announced plans for a $200 million wind farm that he hopes will become a model for developing countries looking to leapfrog polluting energy sources such as coal. On a recent visit to India, he encouraged officials there to consider solar and wind power and not "be imprisoned by coal or oil."
Climate experts say such discussions are important because they show that developing nations can limit their carbon footprint while also meeting their citizens' power needs.
The wind project would make the Maldives the country with the highest proportion of renewable power in the world.
"We have the sun, wind and wave resources all here," said Nasheed, who likes to walk to work, to the annoyance of his security guards. "To me, this is the next industrial revolution. The winners would be those bold enough to take this on."
Nasheed recently hosted a two-day forum for 11 countries most vulnerable to climate change, including Bangladesh and Barbados. The countries adopted a declaration "to show moral leadership" and promised to start "greening their economies."
"Nasheed's the coolest president because he makes us think about ways to actually fight global warming," said Ahmed Ramie, 28, an architect who started Postcards from the Frontline, a project in which 350 postcards showing climate change in the Maldives will be sent to 350 world leaders attending a U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen.
"The president's background is activism," said Ramie, in one of the many newly opened cafes in the capital. "Maybe that makes us feel we could really make change and that it's not just naive."
Nasheed has also encouraged the country's luxury resorts to hire marine biologists to rejuvenate dead coral reefs and study erosion and changes in fish migrations.
At the Huvafen Fushi resort, resident marine biologist Ulrike Kloiber is trying to restore "bleached" coral beds by re-growing broken corals.
"When there is coral bleaching, it means these corals are literally starving to death because of rising temperatures," she said inside the resort's underwater spa, where hundreds of colorful rudderfish and parrot and giant rabbit fish raced by an artificial reef. "But we do feel there is a lot of hope right now for these kinds of projects. Replanting coral is like replanting trees underwater."
The president has visited Kloiber's work site; the project has re-grown 3,000 corals.
People here said they have mixed feelings about Nasheed. Some said they were impressed that he took time to listen to them and had tea with workers. More conservative elders said they weren't used to such a young president and were worried about him scuba diving in public without any of the pomp and ceremony his predecessor was known for.
Mohamed Hussain Shareef, who worked in the environmental office during the previous administration, said Nasheed's projects are too gimmicky.
"The president grabbing all these headlines is good for us. But it's not something new at all. We have been working on this for a long time. We were the ones at the forefront of climate change," Shareef said. "I'm a strong believer that climate change is very close to our people, and many of our islands are eroding at an alarming rate. But the issue that concerns me is that it's all public relations. That's where it starts, and that's where it ends. There aren't many practical ideas."
But Nasheed said his stunts might help push developed countries to act.
"Some will want to ridicule me," said Nasheed, who is married and wants his children to grow up snorkeling the reefs of the Maldives, as he did. "But the bottom line is that we don't know what will happen to us tomorrow. We have to talk about this now."