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Meet Sophia Kianni, the Iranian-American Climate Activist Representing the Middle East at Cop27 in Egypt

Sophia Kianni

This month the world leaders will meet in Egypt for Cop27 to discuss the global challenge of climate change, and as you read this, a 20-year-old woman is stirring a few things up in Sharm-El-Sheikh. Sophia Kianni is not only an American Iranian climate activist, but also one of the seven (and the youngest) members on the United Nations Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. She is representing the Middle East at Cop because this is where her mission to change the world has started.

“I learned about climate change for the first time in my sixth-grade class,” she tells me when we meet over Zoom from her room at Stanford University a month ago. “And right after that, I went on one of my summer visits to Iran to my grandmother’s house. I remember being really struck by how horrible the air pollution was, I couldn’t even see the stars at night! I started to read and learn that temperatures in the Middle East were rising more than twice the global average, and when I told my relatives about this and brought up some of my concerns and the things I had been learning in school back in DC, you know what happened? They pretty much greeted me with blank stares… They had never even heard the words that I was using, like carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. I started working with my mom to translate into Farsi for them the information about how climate change was impacting Iran in a disproportionate way and it was basically the first time that I truly realized the power of climate education. And that I, as a young person, could make a difference for my loved ones…”

I ask her if she thinks things are very different among her peers – do they really know about climate change? “Oh yes, people are definitely starting to understand the gravity of the situation; a new polling by the Yale Centre for Climate communication for example says that around 70% of people in the US now believe in climate change, which is amazing. But there is a huge disconnect still – my peers for example think that climate change is a really big issue, but they don’t know what to do about it. And that’s part of the reason why a lot of young people feel a greater sense of climate anxiety and this overwhelming feeling of despair, because they’re like ‘Okay, I see that there’s climate change, it’s getting worse and worse. But as a young person, what can I do about it?’ The thing is…. Climate change is neither taught at school nor is considered a subject that needs to be treated as a priority at all, even though this is the defining existential issue of our time! It’s part of the reason I’m working on a project now to provide young people with access to therapy for their eco-anxiety.”

Kianni with her trophy at the Renaissance Awards 2022 in Florence, Italy. Photo: Getty

Some of you may think that Sophia is just a passionate young woman, but when you hear her speak you know there is a huge movement behind her. A huge tide of youth all over the world that before the pandemic started to say “enough with the excuses” and demanded action. Their poster child was Greta Thunberg, who raised and empowered thousands of young climate activists around the world. But do they really know about their power, I wonder? Do they realize that past the protests in the streets and the school strikes, in them lies the solutions to this global crisis?

That was the premise to start with Eco-Age the Renaissance Awards last year, to recognize young leaders from all over the world who understand they are part of the solutions and therefore are working towards a future that is more socially just, environmentally restorative, economically inclusive, and technologically balanced. The awards served to pass the mic to them, amplify their voices and their examples, to inspire more peers and widen the unstoppable circle of change. Sophia was one of the awardees this year, and when she came to Florence to collect her award, her message on stage was loud and clear: “What is the future we are all in school studying for?”

If you ask her what’s her recipe for success, she will always tell you it’s to empower her peers: “how we can make young people understand that they are part of the solution, is by giving them the tools they need to understand what difference they specifically can make in their communities. My biggest advice usually is to start local, to identify what each one of us can do in our community first, to make an impact. You can organize a recycling drive, you can clean up your park, you can start a community garden, there are so many things on a local level that you can do!

But obviously the biggest thing we need to affect is systemic policy change, which can only come from political change. For instance, over seven million people are dying prematurely every year from breathing air made toxic by the burning of fossil fuels. To help tackle air pollution, we need leaders all around the world to meet the new WHO air quality guidelines. Unfortunately, leaders are unlikely to take that kind of action voluntarily. We will need pressure from civil society to hold them accountable. So I also always urge people to get involved with local politics or grassroots organizations, voting for a candidate that believes in climate justice – and making sure their voices are heard. And then also make sure your friends and family do that as well.

Kianni at a protest

Because remember that even if as individuals, we should try our best to be as conscious consumers as possible. I don’t think that hyper fixating on things like being only vegan or perfectly sustainable is extremely productive. What is instead [needed] is to work with organizations that do a lot around politics and climate – like the Sunrise Movement here in the US.

As she describes in her TED talk Language shouldn’t be a barrier to climate action, Sophia came up with a solution like Climate Cardinals – the international youth-led nonprofit organization created in 2020, to make the climate movement more accessible to those who don’t speak English. “We aim to educate and empower a diverse coalition of people to tackle the climate crisis. We have over 9 000 volunteers who are translating and sourcing climate information into over 100 languages. To date, this movement spans 41 countries and has reached millions of people, with over 500 000 words of climate information translated!” Climate Cardinals is the perfect example of Sophia’s power – she has passion, but it is her determination and drive that made her achieve something so incredible so quickly.

When I was volunteering with these different organizations like Fridays for Future, I couldn’t help but notice that pretty much all of our outward facing communications, all the stuff we were publishing, was only available in English. The reason I became a climate activist was because of my relatives in Iran and because of my experience translating into Farsi. I couldn’t help but think that we were leaving a lot of people out of our activism and advocacy. And so, during my 2 senior year of high school, with a couple of friends, I launched Climate Cardinals. We posted a video on TikTok to recruit volunteers and it went viral. And we had over 1 000 young people sign up to work with us on the first day!

I can’t stop but think that if only half of the student population was like Sophia, we would have already solved all the problems in the world, and my perception is that the majority seem instead to be more interested in spending time on social media recording themselves. As I think this and feel immediately like a granny, I realize that this is precisely what Sophia did – used TikTok to launch a revolution… “Honestly, this is our differentiator – the thing that makes us totally unique and able to mobilize social change, like no other generation, is that we are social media savvy, and we know how to use platforms like TikTok and Instagram,” she says. “I think that my advice is always to be authentic and to post content that you would want to consume, but also do it within the confines of trends. For example, the reason why I think our TikTok went viral, even though it was like the first TikTok any of us had ever posted, was because of a couple of different factors, like we used a trending sound, because I knew that that would help it gain traction. So I think finding a way to create content that is unique, and that is educational, but then also looking at what other content has done well in the past, because I do think that this is the era of the TikTok revolution. Look at the success of Fridays For Future and the school strikes all over the world – it was all over Instagram, people were resharing posts, resharing links, and I think that using social media to grow Climate Cardinals has been the biggest way that we have actually been able to make an impact. And I strongly urge other young people who want to make a difference in their community to use Instagram, use LinkedIn, use Twitter, use TikTok, and just try to reach as many people as possible. This is the future of organizing.”

Just when lots of brands would like us all to move to some Metaverse wearing special skins and digital fashion outfits, could young people also move there to protest? “No, I think that the power and beauty of what we are doing as young people is that we are channeling what has already worked in the past. And if you look at the civil rights era, the women’s suffrage movement, nonviolent civil disobedience is what we need to power a revolution. That’s the only way we are going to get world leaders to pay attention. You need to see it, you need to feel the energy in the streets and to see how fired up and enthusiastic people are. I first made my foray onto the climate scene because of a hunger strike that I did with Extinction Rebellion in 2019 in Nancy Pelosi’s office, and I had a whole conversation with reporters who were wondering why I was doing a hunger strike and my reply was simple: ‘you wouldn’t be here, if I wasn’t doing the hunger strike. You’re only here because you know that the headlines are going to say ‘a 17-year-old went on hunger strike because she is so worried about climate change’. And that’s the reality – people only pay attention when other people take drastic measures. And that’s skipping school, skipping work, going out into the streets and making our voices heard. I think that’s the only way we are really going to make a difference”.

As Sophia speaks, I find myself thinking about British writer and journalist George Monbiot’s Domino Theory, and harnessing the power of domino dynamics: non-linear change, proliferating from one part of the system to another. A small disturbance, in the right place, can trigger a massive response from a system and flip it into a new state. This is how the global financial crisis of 2008-09 happened: a relatively minor shock (mortgage defaults in the US) was transmitted and amplified through the entire system, almost bringing it down. We could use this properly to detonate positive change. Look at the #MeToo movement, which, in a matter of weeks, greatly reduced the social tolerance of sexual abuse and everyday sexism. Now think about Sophia and all the youth she mobilizes and empowers…

Can you hear the tide changing forever? As Carlos Álvarez Pereira (who holds the Unesco Chair of Global Understanding for Sustainability) said, we have very good reasons for optimism: “those reasons are possibly less obvious, less evident, less in the headlines in the media and elsewhere. I would say that if you look at what’s happening with the younger generations, there is a big change…. So politically, at the level of corporations, at the official level, things are going pretty much in the wrong direction. Culturally, below the line, my bet is that a lot of things are happening in the good direction. The human revolution is already happening – it’s just that we don’t see it. And maybe it’s good that we don’t see it yet, until the very moment where it makes a lot of things shift.”

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