"The Island President" Director Jon Shenk Talks With TreeHugger

The Island President, the new documentary by Jon Shenk on now-deposed President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed's efforts to politically combat climate change in the run-up to the 2009 COP15 climate talks has been given the full media blitz in the past few days.

After screening at festivals for several months, its now being released in New York theaters this week. TreeHugger recently reviewed the film, the trailer for which is above.

It's really a compelling piece of filmmaking, especially for anyone who was closely following the climate talks in 2009, and doubly so for anyone who, like this author, covered them live. There's really a good deal of background information on decision-making that, while it could've been inferred at the time, is now made clear.

I won't give all that away. Go see the film. It's definitely worth it. Good stuff, with a Radiohead soundtrack to boot.

However, what I will spoil is that the film ends with a series of title cards. The first saying, "Although portrayed as a failure, Copenhagen marked the first time in history that China, India, and the United States agreed to reduce carbon emissions." And then two later, "In the year following Copenhagen, atmospheric CO2 rose from 387 to 390 parts per million. (pause) It continues to rise."

Upon first seeing that first title card, I was livid. At them time virtually no one in the environmental community saw the Copenhagen Accord as a success. In fact even if everyone lived up to their commitments, the world would still see 4°C warming—dooming the Maldives and other low-lying places. The outcome of the latest climate talks, in December, only further cemented the situation, putting off emission cuts for a decade. And former UN climate chief Yvo de Boer just essentially said that there's no way we can hold temperature rise to a safe level of 2°C. We just haven't collectively done enough.

So when I sat down with Jon, this was obviously the pressing thing on my mind. What was he seeing in this situation that I wasn't?

Jon replied:

I think that Copenhagen, for better or worse, was a moment, a really significant moment. All the world leaders got together at a UN-sponsored event and they tried to hammer out some kind of language, common language, about the environment. And they did. Is it dramatic? Is it binding? Is it going to save the world? No, no, no, no, no, obviously.

But from Nasheed's point of view, and I've kind of been swayed somewhat by that point of view, you've got to start somewhere. What are we going to do, not work on it?

Essentially, what he brought to Copenhagen is almost an activist approach. He's a president, so he doesn't play the role of a street activist, but he is, in a way. He's a small figure, using his moral authority to get into the room, to influence change.

I think that he was successful in some way. He elevated the conversation. Certainly, he was able to eke something out there. So we wanted to pay some respect to the fact that that happened.

At the same time, I think he would even admit: "Does it really help? Will it save us? No." There's so much more work to be done.

So we wanted to acknowledge both. It's a yin and yang thing.

The Titanic may be going down, but does that mean we should just give up? No. We should retain our humanity and help other passengers on the ship.

It's a very nuanced thing, when you're making a film, when you're following this central character, we wanted to acknowledge that he's been through something very important, and acknowledge what he's managed to do. But at the same time, pull back and get perspective as well.

Obviously, the international talks have not moved fast enough. On the other hand, in November I sat down with Nasheed's carbon neutral team, I was looking forward to the Maldives moving forward, being a symbol of a country going carbon neutral. That could've been a really awesome moment for the history of the world. Now that's been, in an instant, with the coup, been called into question.

I tried to end the film with some hope, but also with a lot of real heaviness about how serious the problem is. That's essentially where I think we still are.

Fair enough. Perhaps I'm just nitpicking. But having been involved in the editing of dozens of films of various lengths I know how much nitpicking, down to the frame level of cuts, goes into this sort of thing.

I'd still have chosen different words for those title cards.

"The Island President" Director Jon Shenk Talks With TreeHugger
"The Island President" is really a compelling bit of filmmaking, especially for anyone who closely followed the COP15 climate talks and the rise of Mohamed Nasheed. But there was one thing which really annoyed me: The closing title cards. Really.

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