As the seventeenth United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, popularly known as COP-17, takes place in Durban, South Africa, November 28–December 9, I think of this man: Dr. Mohammed Waheed Hassan, with whom I had a chance to speak this September in New York. Waheed, as he prefers to be called, is vice president of the Republic of the Maldives, the lowest country on the planet. An archipelago of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives have seen the sea waters around their low-level homeland rise almost eight inches in the last 100 years, and accelerating rates of warming threaten their nation’s existence.

“Climate change is making a huge difference for our lives right now,” said Hassan. “About a third of our islands are under severe erosion and many people are losing their homes.” We were both speakers at Moving Planet—an event organized by NYPIRG outside the United Nations General Assembly on a global day of action coordinated by the group

The Maldives are already spending a good part of their annual budget on coastal erosion and water desalination, Hassan explained. Island water is increasingly brackish and if clean water supplies continue to diminish, fossil fuel imports (for desalination) will have to grow. “We’re spending 17 percent of our GDP on fossil fuel imports now” says Hassan. “For the Maldives, global climate change is a problem “environmentally, economically and security-wise.”

And they can’t solve it alone.

“Everyone else has to understand that our lives are interconnected. It’s not enough for just us to change our lifestyles,” says Hassan in this short interview.

As for the future? Says Hassan: “My ancestors have lived in the Maldives for 3,000 years. When you talk about 100 or 150 years, that’s not very much. When and if the eventuality comes, where do we go? What happens to us as a nation? We’ve been a separate nation, a separate culture separate people, with our own unique contribution to human diversity for so long. When we’re gone, what does that mean?”

It’s a question the people of the Maldives will be raising at COP17 in Durban. But as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol gets set to expire next year and the world’s top emitters, the United States and China, face off over who will agree to which types of emissions targets first, the fear is that Durban, like Copenhagen in 2009 and in Cancún in 2010, will produce little in the way of progress.

That’s not acceptable to the people of the Maldives. And they’re not the only ones. “Climate change is a matter of justice,” Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu of the global Council of Elders declared on the eve of the Durban meeting.

“The richest countries caused the problem, but it is the world’s poorest who are already suffering from its effects. In Durban, the international community must commit to righting that wrong.”

Fed up with government foot-dragging and backstabbing of what they believe are possible agreements, civil society groups have convened an “Occupy COP17,” which is holding daily people’s assemblies, outside the UN one. According to the posted transcript, the first people’s GA kicked off like this:

• Inside the UN are talking about the climate change
• May [sic] of us can’t get in, so we’re here to talk about climate justice and • What we think each of us should do to solve climate change and make sure we live in a world
• Where every person is treated equally
• And gets an equal share of what we have.”

You can get more information at Occupy COP17.