Last week, I was in New York City for my brother-in-law’s wedding. While I was there, I had the lucky fortune to hear President Mohammed Nasheed speak to an audience at Columbia University. President Nasheed is a climate justice hero, so despite the wedding festivities, I convinced my husband to make the trek with me uptown.

Nasheed was democratically elected president of the Maldives in 2008 and became a vocal climate justice leader on the world stage, made famous by his underwater cabinet meetings and his relentless hope despite all odds. In February, President Nasheed was ousted by a military coup and he was forced to resign. (See Small Island States Lose Powerful Voice by Maxine Burkett.) During his talk at Columbia, he reiterated his faith in humanity, even though his recent treatment has left many of his supporters feeling quite hopeless.

President Nasheed spoke briefly with Columbia Law School’s Center for Climate Change Law Program Director, Michael Gerrard. And then President Nasheed took questions from the audience. In his responses, he proved himself to be more witty and interesting than the question-askers, with his answers sounding strikingly smarter than the questions dealt to him. He did not seem irritated (although I was) at the countless questions seeking his soundbyte position on cap and trade, carbon sequestration, and other subjects that seemed to ignore the political (and climate) realities of his recent political ouster. “It is not possible for the current government of the Maldives to talk about anything but pepper spray and tear gas,” he said. Yet people still kept asking him his opinions on carbon trading.

Democracy, said Nasheed, is the best measure of climate adaptation. But most people in the audience seemed disenchanted with democracy as a tool for change. Not many seemed to take it seriously, even though Nasheed constantly spoke of democracy as the only tool that could secure the fate of his presidency, the future of the Maldives, and the solutions to climate change. Yet some still complained. Protests are too hard to organize. Can’t we just set up a website? It worked for Kony, why not the Maldives? Really?

I began to wonder, what if people weren’t allowed to ask any questions? (Yes, as I pump up democracy, I understand the irony in the rhetorical question that I’m posing.) Or, what if we spent more time teaching students in universities how to ask a good question: where would the conversation go? Where would it go if—instead of listening to ourselves talk—we listened beyond the hollowness of the easy solutions limiting our inquiries? If we allowed ourselves the creative space to think beyond “let’s just build a website” or design a new plastic bracelet that said “What would President Nasheed do?” One solution, however, did seem to catch President Nasheed’s fancy. Love. Tell the romance of the climate story, he said:

“The romance has to be articulated. If you want to love anything you have to love the Earth. Lure people through love and romance.” He insisted that a young woman pursue love as a climate solution after she asked him why she should care.

Below are snippets of his talk that I captured on my IPhone. They are not all direct quotes, and I apologize up front for that. But below are my best attempts at capturing his words while tapping my phone like a monkey (in pre-wedding haste, I accidentally left my pad of paper in my hotel room).

President Mohammed Nasheed, March 29, 2012. Columbia University, Low Library.

  • I believe in human ingenuity.
  • We’ve worked against the odds before and we can win. We must win.
  • It will take the Maldives 50 years to become uninhabitable. The Maldives has been in the Indian Ocean for 5,000 years, and it has a written history of 2,500 years.
  • A grandmother said to me: “President, I can leave if you want me to. But where would the colors, the sounds, or the butterflies go?”
  • You cannot relocate a culture. You can move people away. But you cannot keep a civilization in tact.
  • The UN negotiations exist for the sake of process. We cannot expect a result.
  • Unless we don’t have millions of people in the streets, these conferences won’t being change. Don’t expect anything from a UN conference. Only you can make change.
  • If the people of this land [the U.S.] decide to do something [about climate change], there is nothing more powerful than that. In the U.S., climate change will become an election issue. It’s really up to the people of the U.S. to bring this change.
  • [Climate change] is happening. The option we have is to brace ourselves with adaptation.
  • Many people understand climate change as an earth science issue. We need to make people see it as an economic issue…as a human rights issue… as a romance.
  • Democracy is the most important adaptation tool.
  • Today is done. The day is gone. The sun has set. The only thing we can do is for tomorrow. To think about tomorrow.
  • The corals are our first line of defense for the islands and the beaches.
  • The foundation of democracy movements is protecting humans, but also protecting the climate. Democracy is the best adaptation measure. Climate change and democratic movements go hand-in-hand.
  • For democracy to survive in developing countries, we must ask big countries not to be so hasty to defend the status quo.
  • Yes, it’s easy to remove a dictator, but it’s very very ambitious to crush hundreds of years of…practice. The comeback of dictatorships must be avoided.
  • I think we must be thinking about extreme ideas. We are consulting with Dutch to build 5 floating islands. It’s extreme but we need extreme ideas.
  • Other than people in the streets, I have no other advice. There is no easy way. Otherwise, you can’t influence the politicians to act. You must influence the next election. Just do it.
  • The coup is a Maldives thing. Climate change is everyone’s thing.
  • There is no science in questioning science.