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When it comes to climate change activism, there really is no age limit to making a positive impact.
For American Iranian entrepreneur, climate activist and university student Sophia Kianni, the inspiration to dedicate herself to raising awareness on climate change was sparked by a visit to the Middle East with her family when she was 12.
“I was really struck by the fact that the air pollution in Iran was so bad I couldn’t see the stars at night,” she tells The CEO Magazine.
While she had learned about climate change in her sixth grade class, she quickly realized her Iranian relatives knew very little about it, despite it impacting their lives so significantly.
With her mother’s help, she translated climate change resources into Farsi so they could learn about the impact of climate change in the Middle East, where temperatures were rising at more than twice the global average.
“That was the spark for me, and from there I started to get involved in climate advocacy and climate education in particular,” she explains.
Back home in the United States, Kianni was inspired by the incredible advocacy work being done by Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future group and decided to join her local chapter.
“Between classes, we’d work to get as many people as possible to pay attention to climate change,” she says. “I dedicated a lot of my free time to helping to organize different initiatives like strikes and reaching out to press to get them to cover the work that we were doing.”
Kianni remained proactive throughout high school, also getting involved with other climate change advocacy groups such as Zero Hour. At 17, she was invited by climate advocacy group Extinction Rebellion to speak to the crowd as she and its members staged a peaceful hunger strike to protest inaction on climate change outside Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s office.
“At the time, I couldn’t even vote, and I felt like I was lacking a lot of control over the issues,” she says. “And so the way in which I could raise awareness and demonstrate my enthusiasm, my outrage and my passion, was to get involved in this hunger strike, to basically push for more progressive private legislation.”
In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, climate change took a backseat to the unfolding global emergency.
“We were no longer able to organize climate strikes and I feel like we lost a lot of key momentum,” she says. “Of course, the priorities of the world shifted toward an all-hands-on-deck effort for the pandemic, and so it felt like climate was no longer as much of a priority.”
But despite the world shutting down around her, Kianni’s own momentum increased as she utilized the extra time at home to dedicate to a project idea that had been developing since she was 12 and visiting Iran.
“Once the pandemic hit, I was stuck at home in my bedroom and finally had time to work on this idea, so I used that time to double down on bringing it all together,” she says.
Her ambition was to make information about climate change more accessible through language translation, providing global access to educational resources for people all over the world.
And so, amid the dark days of the pandemic, Climate Cardinals was born and has since grown into an international, youth-led, not-for-profit organization that makes the climate movement more accessible to non-English speaking people. Its members volunteer their time to translate educational resources into other languages to educate and empower people around the world to tackle the climate crisis.
Its global impact has been nothing short of incredible, which did not go unnoticed by the United Nations (UN). In 2021, the international organization invited Kianni to join its Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change.
Made up of a conglomerate of passionate young people from around the world who are proactively engaged in raising awareness on the dangers of climate change, the Youth Advisory Group works to provide the Secretary-General with practical and outcome-focused advice, diverse youth perspectives and concrete recommendations. It has a clear focus on accelerating the implementation of the Secretary-General’s climate action agenda.
It led to Kianni’s involvement in the UN’s climate change conferences, COP26 and COP27, and several other major global events, which provided her with invaluable experience, expanded her social network with other prominent youth leaders in the field and further increased her impact.
This extraordinary experience has since opened more doors for the 21-year old, among them to act as an advisor with other UN agencies, including the World Health Organization and the UN Association.
“The UN Youth Advisory Group is a concrete example of how important it is for young people to be involved in the dialogue when it comes to decisions that are really going to impact our future,” she says. “It has set a real precedent and I’ve seen so many other youth advisory councils and groups be formed since then, which has been very encouraging.”
Kianni is also a member of Ashoka, a not-for-profit organization that promotes social entrepreneurship by connecting and supporting individual social entrepreneurs.
“Ashoka is awesome. They have this Young Changemakers program that I’ve been a part of, which I’m really enjoying and appreciate. It has been an incredible opportunity to receive mentorship, advice and guidance on how to upscale my impact,” she says.
In addition, she is one of four Ashoka Young Changemakers involved in the INKEY Impact Fund, which works to identify, encourage and enable other young, emerging changemakers who are making a positive change in the world to continue their incredible work.
Kianni is currently juggling her climate change advocacy work with full-time study at California’s Stanford University, and says she’s also in the process of co-developing an online sustainable fashion initiative.
“Honestly, right now I feel like I’m constantly working, but I love the work that I’m doing so that keeps me motivated,” she says.
Despite her busy schedule, she prioritizes creating leadership opportunities for others, and actively encourages other young people to become leaders themselves.
“We now have around 100 young people in our Slack group who are directors for Climate Cardinals,” she explains. “As the Executive Director, I really try to just be a guiding force, to give people on my team the resources and opportunities they need and then let them have autonomy to pursue things that most interest and excite them.”
She says collaboration plays an integral role in her approach to leadership.
“I work with some of the smartest people, much smarter than I am, so while I obviously have my own ideas and vision for Climate Cardinals and for the work we’re doing, I would never treat that as the final way we need to do things,” she says.
“It really has been a process of, OK, these are people I respect and admire and I want us to co-create and co-collaborate a direction for this organization that we all contribute to, and that has made it better than anything I could have ever envisioned on my own.”
Despite the impact of climate change already being felt across the globe, Kianni says she feels “100 percent optimistic” for the future.
“I’m so inspired by the young people I work with every single day who voluntarily dedicate their free time in between doing their homework, just because it’s something positive they can do,” she says.
“It really gives me hope, that people are able to do things that they love and care about because they’re so concerned about the future of our our planet and want to make the world a better place.
“So I’m very optimistic that our generation – my friends and the people around me – who are so inspired and passionate about the work we’re doing, will continue to really push forward with positivity.”
Despite the threat of climate change to our planet, with incredibly capable, charismatic and inspiring young leaders like Kianni shining a light for a generation of young people, the future certainly does look brighter.