Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives, has some words of climate change warning for the United States: "You can't pick and choose on science."
Nasheed should know. Dramatic rises in sea level due to global warming are expected to overrun his and other low-lying island nations over the next century. Scientists predict that the Maldives in the Indian Ocean might be completely underwater by 2100 or at least uninhabitable due to the loss of fresh water and agricultural options.
What would you do if the very existence of your country was threatened by climate change? Nasheed, who was his country's first democratically elected leader, has become a tireless advocate for both environmental action and free elections -- two political efforts he ties together. He also wants to push the United States to become a leader in the urgent business of addressing climate change.
As president, Nasheed worked to make the Maldives carbon-neutral. With a population of 300,000-plus, he said his country needs to complete around 200 projects to reach that goal, a process he believes would take about 10 years.
The United States has a bigger challenge."It's going to be difficult for the U.S. to be a world leader unless they themselves embrace it," he told The Huffington Post.
He suggested that Americans might need the evidence of their own eyes. Nasheed said, "You will probably see many aberrations in climate patterns. You'll have to see that and you'll have to experience that for you to take this thing seriously."
Americans may get that chance. A recent report from U.S. Geological Survey scientists found that along a roughly 600-mile hot spot from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to north of Boston, the sea level is rising three to four times faster than the global average. A National Research Council study recently suggested that California will see a 6-inch rise in ocean levels by 2030.
To those who question the evidence of global warming, Nasheed said, "The science is sorted. And not to believe in it, I think is very foolhardy."
Although the United States has its share of vocal climate change deniers, recent polling suggests that understanding of climate change may be on the rise. According to a December 2011 survey, 62 percent of Americans acknowledge that the Earth has been warming, meaning that belief in global warming is at its "highest level since the fall of 2009," reported ThinkProgress.
Speaking at a university forum in Canberra, Australia, on Friday, Jane Lubchenco, chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said, “People’s perceptions in the United States at least are, in many cases, beginning to change as they experience something firsthand that they at least think is directly attributable to climate change."
Along with being an outspoken advocate for climate action, Nasheed is also a fervent campaigner for democracy. Once designated a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, he was imprisoned numerous times by the previous autocratic regime. His 2008 election as president marked the end of the 30-year rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and the start of a new era.
Recently, Nasheed's efforts were recognized with the James Lawson Award for Achievement in the Practice of Nonviolent Action from the Washington, D.C.-based International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
He said that the ballot box is also key to the battle with climate change, calling democracy "the most important adaptation measure."
"Without democracy, you'd be making the wrong decisions at the wrong time," said Nasheed, arguing that a small ruling elite would protect its own interests and not those of the entire population.
Since he left office under disputed circumstances this year, Nasheed fears that efforts to make the Maldives carbon-neutral have become "stuck." But he said, "I think it's still possible."