Telling climate truths in many tongues

Sophia Kianni made headlines telling world leaders to get real about climate change. And behind the headlines, this twentysomething Stanford University student is working to spread the word – in all the world’s languages – about the crisis we all share.

If climate diplomats gave awards for ruffling feathers at climate summits, they’d be nominating Sophia Kianni this year. Days before she turned 21, Kianni addressed the COP27 climate summit in Egypt and told the assembled leaders to stop lying about climate change. In all six official United Nations languages.

“Some governments and business leaders say one thing but do another,” the Iranian-American college student told the presidents, diplomats and lobbyists. “Simply put, they are lying. Those are not my words or the words of another youth climate activist. No. those are the words of the United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres.

“What language do we need to put the climate data into for you to take action? Please tell us. Because I have to believe that the only reason you are not taking climate action at the pace and scale required is that you do not have the information. Because if you did have the information and you were only pretending to take action that would be unforgiveable.

“Or in the words of the secretary-general, that would be lying. Stop lying.”

Kianni repeated the last two words in Arabic, Mandarin, French, Russian and Spanish. It was a powerful moment. How does it feel, at not yet 21, to stand before the world’s most powerful, influential and wealthy people and call them out for greenwash?

Direct, personal questions make Kianni squirm. “I mean, I definitely felt a lot of different emotions,” she says. “I got to sit down with different climate activists, to discuss this opportunity and work out what we wanted to tell world leaders.

“What gave me hope was to see all those young people, who care so much that they came all the way to Egypt to be heard. And to be the vehicle to communicate that enthusiasm. To have a platform like that to communicate how the young people feel to the people who can implement [change]. It’s a great step forward for meaningful youth inclusion.

“So yes. Um… what I did feel was hope.”

Global reach

Kianni from McLean, Virginia, studies environmental science and public policy at Stanford University. Her parents are from Iran. Visiting the country aged 12, she saw how pollution blocked the light from the stars. But her family and friends didn’t know about climate change; didn’t understand global warming.

Back home, she joined Fridays for Future and translated articles into Farsi to send to her relatives. On learning that 40 per cent of the planet hasn’t heard about climate change, she vowed to scale up.

Three years ago, she launched Climate Cardinals, a youth-led nonprofit, to share climate information across world languages. Virginia’s state bird is the northern cardinal, a songbird famous for the male’s fiery red plumage. It symbolises information taking flight.

“Temperatures in the Middle East are rising more than twice the global average,” Kianni says. “My relatives are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. But I read that fewer than 5 per cent of Iranian students can properly explain the greenhouse-gas effect.

“There is so much work there is to do in climate literacy. Take the [landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] IPCC climate report. It’s available officially in 61 languages, which reaches less than half the world’s population. Most scientific information is in English. That’s not the primary language for most of the world’s people.”

Kianni scoured her networks for volunteer translators. As lockdown pushed climate activists off the streets and onto their keyboards, the idea went global. When she launched Climate Cardinals in May 2020, she had more than a thousand volunteers.

Climate Cardinals has translated 750,000 words into more than 100 languages, reaching more than half a million people. It has more than 9,000 volunteers in 41 countries. UNICEF and Translators Without Borders support it. So does the International Student Environmental Coalition, which offers volunteer translators community-service credits and supports their college applications.

Future star

Kianni’s profile has grown too. She joined Guterres’ Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change as its youngest member, the only member representing the US or connected to the Middle East. She is a future climate leader. How does she square her activism with becoming a climate diplomacy insider?

A seasoned diplomat, Kianni mentions gratitude. That young people need a platform. That she represents her network not herself.

But are things moving forward fast enough? “At COP27, it was great to see creation of the loss and damage fund,” she says. “At the same time, politicians are great at saying the right things about climate. There’s a disconnect when it comes to implementing that…

“The pot of money is still empty. Only when we see tangible commitments – when we see the finance start to be distributed – will I think that these agreements have been a success.”

Is it frustrating that the summit didn’t pin that down? “Completely. And there were more than 600 fossil-fuel lobbyists in the room. It’s disappointing to see marginalised voices left behind. To see who’s filling the chairs in the audience.”

Kianni juggles a complex, busy life; her start-up, her studies, her online persona, her in-person schedules and her personal life. She’s an Arctic Angel and hosts a podcast with The New Fashion Initiative. Burnout is real for so many climate activists. Kianni wants Climate Cardinals to spread advice about managing eco-anxiety – that, and to access Indigenous and African languages.

Iran, meanwhile, is in turmoil. People are marching, protesting about everything from water shortages to wheat prices and from police brutality to freedom of dress and speech. Young women are leading many protests.

“The climate crisis is a human-rights crisis,” Kianni says. “There’s been government mismanagement of water. What’s happening in Iran is a historic uprising, led by women. The climate crisis – particularly drought – exacerbates instability in the Middle East. It contributes to power struggles and conflicts.

“All these things are tied togethr. Human rights are made worse by the climate crisis. And the climate crisis has a disproportionate effect on our half of the population. Statistics show that 80 per cent of climate refugees – the people who are displaced – are women.”

These are big issues. Global challenges. Yet if you’ve only met Kianni on social media, what you’ll know about is her fashion looks. From her TED Talks to TikTok, she is fabulous.

“One of my biggest focuses is sustainable fashion,” she says. “Fast fashion is a huge issue for Generation Z. These companies target young women. We need to leverage tech to find solutions. To make secondhand fashion more accessible. I’m working on this with friends from Stanford.”

How does she navigate all that? “I always show up as myself, in everything I do. Fashion communicates your identity. Everything I wear I bought years ago. Or secondhand. Or borrowed from friends. Or handed down from my mom and relatives.”

And so Kianni’s prom gown and homecoming dress have had a second life on Instagram. She addressed COP27 in a black, sparkly number that was her aunt’s. “I love sharing stories about what I wear,” she concludes. “Fashion is a great way to tell stories about sustainability.”

This article is free from The Environment's Women's Takeover issue in March. Read more free articles from the magazine here:

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