GIRIFUSHI, Maldives — Members of the Maldives' Cabinet donned scuba gear and used hand signals Saturday at an underwater meeting staged to highlight the threat of global warming to the lowest-lying nation on earth.
President Mohammed Nasheed and 13 other government officials submerged and took their seats at a table on the sea floor – 20 feet (6 meters) below the surface of a lagoon off Girifushi, an island usually used for military training.
With a backdrop of coral, the meeting was a bid to draw attention to fears that rising sea levels caused by the melting of polar ice caps could swamp this Indian Ocean archipelago within a century. Its islands average 7 feet (2.1 meters) above sea level.
"What we are trying to make people realize is that the Maldives is a frontline state. This is not merely an issue for the Maldives but for the world," Nasheed said.
As bubbles floated up from their face masks, the president, vice president, Cabinet secretary and 11 ministers signed a document calling on all countries to cut their carbon dioxide emissions.
The issue has taken on urgency ahead of a major U.N. climate change conference scheduled for December in Copenhagen. At that meeting countries will negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol with aims to cut the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide that scientists blame for causing global warming by trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Wealthy nations want broad emissions cuts from all countries, while poorer ones say industrialized countries should carry most of the burden.
Dozens of Maldives soldiers guarded the event Saturday, but the only intruders were groupers and other fish.
Nasheed had already announced plans for a fund to buy a new homeland for his people if the 1,192 low-lying coral islands are submerged. He has promised to make the Maldives, with a population of 350,000, the world's first carbon-neutral nation within a decade.
"We have to get the message across by being more imaginative, more creative and so this is what we are doing," he said in an interview on a boat en route to the dive site.
Nasheed, who has emerged as a key, and colorful, voice on climate change, is a certified diver, but the others had to take diving lessons in recent weeks.
Three ministers missed the underwater meeting because two were not given medical permission and another was abroad.