Interview with Sophia Kianni

“Don’t undervalue yourself.” – Sophia Kianni

Sophia Kianni is an 18-year old youth environmental activist. She is currently the youngest member on the United Nations Youth Advisory Group on climate change, and the founder and executive director of Climate Cardinals, an international nonprofit organization working to make the climate movement more accessible to non-English speakers. In this interview, she discusses her journey into activism, her hopes for the future, and her advice to other students who want to get involved in the environmental space.  

What inspired you to get involved in environmental activism?

“My passion for climate activism began six years ago when I took a trip to Iran, which is my parents’ home country. While I was there, I learned about the Middle Eastern climate crisis, where temperatures in the Middle East are rising more than twice the global average. I was horrified when I learned that my relatives knew nothing about climate change, which is when I first really began to become interested in international climate education.” 

What was your experience participating in strikes incidents during your school year? And how has that influenced your views today? 

When I first became involved in climate activism, I was working for Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, and Zero Hour – all organizations that are very strike-based. I was helping to organize national climate strikes, and going to local strikes in DC. I think that nonviolent civil disobedience is going to be a key part of pressuring public officials into taking action. But because of COVID, it’s definitely been an interesting line to toe, as it’s not really possible to have large protests on the same scale. A lot of activism has been driven online, but there’s still a lot of lessons to learn on how we can use social media to mobilize people.”

Did you encounter any difficulty in establishing yourself as a climate activist because of your age? And if so, how did you overcome these challenges?

“I was pretty fortunate in that all the climate organizations that I organized with were pretty much youth-led. With that being said, I do think that there is a stigma that comes with being a younger person in the climate activism field. Older adults that I’ve talked to sometimes say that we’re too idealistic, and our proposals aren’t very realistic. I heard trolls online, analyzing my articles and saying that it’s hard to take us seriously if we haven’t gone to university yet. But on the whole, I think that the climate movement has been super supportive. With people such as Greta gaining so much recognition, I think they have paved the way to make it easier for climate activists to have credibility, no matter how young we are.”

Can you talk a little bit more about the work that you do at the United Nations Youth Advisory Group?

“My main role is to be an advisor to the UN Secretary-General. He gives us briefings on the types of climate change strategy that he’s working on, and I provide him feedback. Another part of what I do is working on increasing youth engagement within the UN. Even though there are seven of us in the Youth Advisory Group from all over the world, there are millions of other young people who are just as passionate about climate change as I am. On the side, I’m working with the UN environmental program on forming a partnership with my nonprofit, Climate Cardinals, and the group is working to translate their Youth For Nature manifesto to make it the most widely distributed initiative on planetary help.”

In terms of your work, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment? And what would you say is your greatest failure and how did you bounce back from that failure?

“My greatest accomplishment and my greatest failure are very interlinked. On the first day that we launched Climate Cardinals, our launch video went viral on Tik Tok. We had around 1000 people sign up to work with us on our first day, and Forbes reached out to do a follow up profile on our launch. That was my biggest accomplishment, realizing that this small idea that I had, really resonated with the climate community and beyond. 

But then that segues into my first failure, which was realizing that me and a couple of my friends that I’d recruited to work on Climate Cardinals were not equipped to handle thousands of volunteers. Thankfully, this happened during the quarantine period, where I had a lot more time on my hands. We were able to come up with a new system where we were using Google Classroom. Now, we’ve switched over to partnering with Translators Without Borders and doing all of our translations through their Caddo platform because it’s well equipped to handle the 6000 volunteers that we have. Initially, I felt like we weren’t prepared to handle this, but by working hard and onboarding additional people to help, we came up with a solution that has allowed us to manage thousands of people from 41 countries around the world. We’ve also just launched our chapter system, to enable people to work within their communities to translate climate information and then hold workshops and sessions to educate on a grassroots level. “

What are your plans and goals for the next five years? 

“I have always been a goal oriented person – I thought I needed a five or 10 year plan. However, while being someone who has always cared about climate change and been a climate activist, I never anticipate having it rule over my life to this extent, and I never could have dreamed about becoming involved in the UN. That in mind, I’m honestly just going with the flow at this point, and taking opportunities as they come, because I really don’t want to limit myself anymore. One of the biggest things I’m looking at is going to grad school, either law school or getting my Master’s in international affairs, but anything could change.”

What is the biggest obstacle when it comes to facing environmental activists? How do you anticipate keeping the momentum going about this awareness on topic? 

“On a personal level, part of my problem is that I have such a diverse array of interests where of course, I’m so passionate about climate activism, but I also do freelance journalism and media strategy. A lot of people care about climate change, but they don’t want to pursue it as a full career. It’s important to realize that everyone can play their part in advancing sustainability. Even if you’re going into business, you can make sure that the companies that you’re working for are continually becoming more sustainable. No matter what field you go into, there’s always the opportunity to champion climate action. 

More generally, a big issue is climate deniers. This is a very US specific problem – the fact that the people in office, mainly our President, don’t believe in climate change. We need climate policy to be implemented if we want to see large-scale change. Climate change is a systemic issue, where 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions. No matter how much I do, or you do, to lower your personal consumption, nothing is going to happen unless we have widespread governmental action, which is why it’s so important for people to vote.” 

If our viewers were to take one thing away from this interview, what would you want it to be?

“The biggest thing would be please go vote. And please go vote for a climate friendly candidate, not just in the general election, but for your local elections as well. 

But then also, just going for it, is the biggest thing that I like to tell other young people. I know that sounds cliche. But I don’t think people understand, just being aggressive and pursuing something that you’re passionate about will take you so far. Especially when I was first starting out, I was emailing random people who I thought would never respond to me. Time and time again, I was so surprised. Just by emailing random people who I was really inspired by, that led to me having a podcast that led to my internships. If there’s someone you want to work with, or a climate organization that you want to help out, just reach out to them and ask how you can help support them. There are so many different organizations like Fridays for Future,  Extinction Rebellion, and Climate Cardinals. Don’t undervalue yourself, and just realize that every single person has some sort of value that they can bring or add to an organization.”  

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