Fierce Female Interview No. 24: Meet Climate Activist, Sophia Kianna
• • • Sophia Kianni, an Iranian-American climate activist, and the founder of Climate Cardinals, an international youth-led nonprofit working to make the climate movement more accessible to those who don’t speak English. Sophia has recently become the youngest advisor on climate change to the UN Secretary-General. She spoke about her background of activism and the future of Climate Cardinals.
Sophia, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. Please could you give us a little bit of background on you, where you’re from and what got you into a lot of the great work you’re doing from an activism point of view.
Definitely. I am from McLean, Virginia, and I’m Iranian American. I really became interested in climate action in middle school. I took a trip to Iran, which is my parents’ home country and I stayed for two months. I was struck by the fact that the pollution in Iran is really horrible.
After learning that temperatures in the Middle East were rising more than twice the global average, I was horrified when I talked to my relatives and realised that they were unaware of the ramifications of the climate crisis. They didn’t really understand how important it was that we all work together to advocate for climate action and for our governments to be working to minimise our effects on the climate crisis. So I set about trying to educate them by translating climate material into Farsi.
Tell me a bit more about that. How did that process go and tell me about the progress that you’ve made with it?
So my relatives can mainly only speak Farsi. So a lot of the translations that I did was me orally explaining in Farsi what climate change is, how it works, why it’s so damaging. I also worked with my mum to translate articles or important information that I found online into Farsi and then sent it to them.
And, I mean, I think it was really, really positive because they realised “Oh, this really is, an impending disaster or a disaster that’s already happening,” so they have become a lot more eco-conscious, they’ve tried to minimise their carbon footprint. They just try to be a lot more sustainable overall. Most importantly, they’ve tried to educate others in their community. Iran also signed onto the Paris Climate Accord and even though they haven’t ratified it yet it is definitely a step forward.
I have realised that since I was able to have such a great impact by myself, really educating them, that other people could really do the same thing.
That’s amazing and tell me a bit more about Climate Cardinals.
So Climate Cardinals was born from my experiences translating climate information. And so the way that Climate Cardinals works is that we give students community service hours for translating climate information into different languages.
So by doing all of this, I think that we're really going to be reaching new demographics of people, especially people of colour.
Okay. Wow. And is that kind of across the US or how does it work?
So our volunteers are from all over the US and we also have international volunteers from over 41 countries. We have a whole breakdown spreadsheet of where everyone is from but a lot of them are from the US and there are also people who are international as well and so they all speak English and another language or some of them speak multiple languages. So for most of the languages, they work in our Slack together to translate.
And then for larger languages like Spanish and French, that we have a Google classroom with view admins or language leads, and they work to assign assignments to volunteers and then edit them.
Wow. Based on your experience, how are you hoping that to make climate information more accessible will lead to people changing their behaviour and start taking action to tackle the climate crisis?
I think that the work that we’re doing is really great because right now we have over a hundred languages registered and so by translating into all of these languages, we’re going to be making climate education more accessible to people who previously hadn’t had the same exposure. Around 40% of the adults in the world have never heard of climate change.
Because of this we’re really working on our outreach component, finding partners who can distribute our climate information, especially in the Middle East. We already have quite a few partners who can help to distribute our information that’s in Farsi and Arabic. So by doing all of this, I think that we’re really going to be reaching new demographics of people, especially people of colour. Which I think is really important because people of colour are the ones who are just disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, which is why it’s so crucial that we are educating a diverse demographic of people.
Around 40% of the adults in the world have never heard of climate change.
You just answered my next question as well, which was kind of, cause you also mentioned going to Iran and talking about how that kind of pushed you to become a climate activist. Yet, many people in the Western world may never experience the impacts of environmental degradation firsthand -How can we convince them about the seriousness of the climate crisis? Because there’s one thing kind of translating things and making things more accessible, but then there’s the next step.
Yeah, definitely! I mean, I think that it just has to do with us translating a very diverse subset of information. And so we’re starting with very basic information like, what is climate change?
And then we’re also going to be translating the implications of the climate crisis if we don’t reach like net-zero emissions by late 2050, like what would happen and I feel like that type of information is what will incentivize people to change their behaviour and to pressure politicians to change our legislation.
We also read that you have been very engaged with Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion and some other climate groups and many climate movements have been criticised for being very white-dominated and not inclusive or accessible enough. What are your thoughts on that?
I definitely agree that there is a lot more that the climate movement can be doing to be more diverse and more inclusive. There is an abundance and over-representation of white activists and it makes sense for activists to be people of colour who have actually experienced the effects of the climate crisis and for whom the climate crisis is, it’s more personal for them.
It makes sense for people who are people of colour to be advocating on behalf of the climate crisis because they’re the ones who genuinely understand how damaging it can be and so that’s why I feel like they’re more likely to push for more aggressive legislation. So I definitely do think that movements like Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion should actively be trying to incorporate a diverse array of activists with a diverse array of voices and experiences in their initiatives.
There is an abundance and over-representation of white activists and it makes sense for activists to be people of colour who have actually experienced the effects of the climate crisis and for whom the climate crisis is, it's more personal for them.
How would you say we can achieve a more diverse, inclusive and intersectional climate action movement?
I mean, I think that taking steps, such as translating climate change information and making it more accessible to a diverse group of people is a step forward because you’re showing that you’re more inclusive of people from different backgrounds. In addition, general outreach efforts to other types of groups like racial justice groups, because climate justice is racial justice. So it makes sense to be working with those types of organisations and really trying to actively show people of colour that we are an inclusive accepting movement where people of color need to be on the frontlines leading change.
So much of our cause-related work is focused on female empowerment so based on your experience of being a young female activist and founder – what piece of advice would you give to others out there who might like to get involved in our joint cause?
There are so many influential, powerful female activists and they’re honestly so inspiring to me. I think young people should definitely see that there are so many other young women who have really taken an initiative and are leading the charge in the climate movement. So there absolutely is the same opportunity for them to really make the same difference. Everyone who I’ve talked to in the climate movement is always super accepting and super receptive if I want to get advice from someone you can always just contact them. Everyone who I’ve reached out to is always more than happy to get on a call and give me advice. So there are so many amazing people that you can work with and I think that women really are on the forefront of the climate movement.
There are so many amazing women, especially women of colour who are working to help solve the climate crisis. So I definitely hope that other young women look towards these leaders as inspiration and they try to get involved…That they are not afraid to ask for help.
So I definitely hope that other young women look towards these leaders as inspiration and they try to get involved...That they are not afraid to ask for help.
What advice do you have on overcoming the feeling and this – I love asking this question to many people because it’s a common issue that we face – what advice do you have for anyone on overcoming the feeling that one’s actions don’t have an impact on the climate crisis?
I understand that notion just because I think it’s like a hundred companies are responsible for like 70% of emissions and so because of that, it definitely is not because of individuals that the climate crisis is happening, it really is because of companies and firms that have been prioritising profit over planet.
I do think the number one thing that people can do is vote and vote for a candidate who is climate-friendly and also lobby on behalf of candidates, just because that’s really how we’re going to be able to have the biggest impact. And then on a personal level, advocating on and joining climate strikes and just try to do everything you can. It just takes one person to be able to make a difference.
If you’re able to really turn that into a domino effect and get your friends involved and they get their friends, friends involved, then as a collective, we have much more power than just one or two people.
If you're able to really turn that into a domino effect and get your friends involved and they get their friends, friends involved, then as a collective, we have much more power than just one or two people.
If you knew the next campaign or project you work on would be a 100% success, what would that be?
I would love to continue to expand Climate Cardinals’ outreach. I would really love to partner with schools and different areas around the globe with the languages that we’ve translated climate information to and provide them with that information so that they can start to incorporate it in their curriculums. Just so we’re not just putting information out there on a platform and to avoid that people don’t know it exists, but we’re directly getting that important information to people.
What are your ultimate goals and aspirations for say 10 years from now?
10 years from now, I would love to be working in the climate movement. I would love to have a job in the climate sector, probably as an environmental lawyer. I think right now I’m very much looking towards going to law school. I hope that I have a career that’s really able to make an impact on the world. If I don’t end up pursuing environmental science as like my career I definitely will always be working on activism on the side and it will always be the passion of mine is something that I believe is truly, truly important.
That’s interesting. Finally, with the work that you’re doing now and around climate action generally – what could our listeners or even us at SLO do in terms of collaboration do to help you?
I really think that it’s just a matter of supporting and uplifting voices, very similar to what you’re doing right now. Just giving people a platform to tell their story is a lot, it really does have an impact just because when you’re able to get the word out, when you’re able to really spread initiatives, on large platforms, just even like word of mouth, it really does make a big impact because our goal is just to reach and help the largest amount of people possible.
That’s great. Well, we will continue to cheer you on from the sideline and it’s been really great hearing your story.