The Island President: Climate Story-telling

*Note: On February 7, 2012 President Nasheed was forced out of office under military pressure. Sign the petition circulated by, calling for the protection of President Nasheed. Also, see a short documentary, “The Island President Deposed,” by filmmaker Jon Shenk in the NYTimes this week.

President Mohamed Nasheed, Photo Credit: Chiara Goia

The Spring 2012 National Climate Seminar series hosted by BardCEP kicked off last week with Spencer Adler, co-producer of the documentary “The Island President,” and director/cinematographer Jon Shenk, discussing the inspiring story of President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives and the role of climate change communication. The documentary follows President Nasheed during his first year in office as he faces the reality that the entirety of his country could be under water within the next century. The Maldives are comprised of 1200 coral islands that average an elevation of less than 5 ft above sea level. According to the 2007 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, global sea level is predicted to rise 23 inches by the year 2100, high enough to force most of the inhabited islands of the Maldives to be abandoned. As Adler explains, the Maldives are a “canary in the coal mine” as to the impacts of climate change. In the words of President Nasheed, “If you can’t save the Maldives today, then you can’t save yourselves tomorrow.” The film follows President Nasheed as he takes his plight to the international stage and uses his position as an underdog to pressure the large greenhouse gas emitters of the world to reduce their emissions.

Malé, capital of the Republic of Maldives

The success of the message of the film depends much on the charismatic character of President Nasheed. After enduring torture and imprisonment while leading the democratic opposition party in the Maldives, much like the experience of Nelson Mandela, Nasheed is elected to the presidency in 2008 following a movement for democracy in the Maldives. His win in the first democratically held elections in the island nation’s history, defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose autocratic rule of country had lasted for 30 years. Following his election, President Nasheed is instantly thrown into the international limelight and begins traveling the globe to illustrate the dramatic plight of the island nation. The documentary focuses on Nasheed’s role at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, inspiring a landmark agreement between India, China, and the United States to reduce carbon emissions. Film director Shenk explains that Copenhagen was somewhat of a turning point, although many felt disappointed with the results of the conference. According to Shenk, there were “unfair expectations for Copenhagen,” but at least they “eeked out something.”

Jon Shenk, Director/Cinematographer of The Island President

When asked about what he sees as the role of climate change communication, Shenk explained that “there is an opportunity, right here, right now, for people in all walks of life to do things that are positive for the world. I’m a story teller at heart; I’ve been moved along the way by things I’ve seen.” There is a role for positive messages in the climate change movement. For Shenk it was “incredible story to tell, a David and Goliath struggle, a small country with a President who speaks with a moral authority going up against the powers that be in international politics.”

Shenk describes Nasheed’s message to the world as, “Let’s not wait for things to happen, let’s just use whatever power we have, wherever we are in our lives to do things.” In this vein, President Nasheed announced in 2009 that the Maldives would be the first country in the world to go carbon neutral by making the switch to renewable energy sources by 2020. Within a decade, the island nation aims to build half of a square kilometer of solar panels as well as 155 wind turbines. The film opens in New York on March 28th.

Check out the spring line-up for the National Climate Seminar, including Billy Parish on his new book: Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money and Community in a Changing World and Cynthia Rosenzweig on climate and agriculture. Next week features Anthony Leiserowitz from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Podcasts of the conversation with Adler and Shenk and of previous NCS conversations are available here. Attention climate leaders of the future, apply now to be part of the upcoming C2C Fellows programs at the University of Georgia (February 10th-12th) and at Oberlin College (April 6th-8th). Or sign up to stay informed about C2C Fellows.

About Ariadne