In an exclusive interview with Sophia Kianni, the youngest UN advisor, I asked her about her journey into climate activism, the birth of her NGO Climate Cardinals, and the significance of making scientific knowledge accessible to all.
Sophia’s climate journey started during her 6th-grade class, where she learned about climate change. During her visit to Iran, her homeland, this struck a chord in her heart. Witnessing the severe air pollution and the lack of climate awareness among her relatives, Sophia felt compelled to take action: “I learned that temperatures in the Middle East were rising more than twice the global average, and I was most struck by the fact that my relatives didn’t really know anything about climate change”.
Sophia discovered that only 5% of Iranian students could explain the greenhouse gas effect, largely due to a scarcity of climate resources in Farsi, Iran’s native language. This inspired Sophia to collaborate with her mother and translate climate resources into Farsi to educate her relatives and others in the region.
I was curious about her journey and how at a young age, she was motivated to start her own NGO. When asked about the challenges, Sophia described how she advised young activists to first gain experience by working with existing organisations. She joined notable organisations like Greta Thunberg’s Fridays4Future and Zero Hour before establishing Climate Cardinals during her senior year of high school.
Sophia’s innovative approach to reaching a wide audience was driven through social media, especially TikTok. Collaborating with her friend, Sophia created a viral video calling on young people to volunteer with Climate Cardinals during the pandemic: “The video went viral and reached over like 100,000 people on the first day, and over 1,000 people signed up to volunteer with us. That was basically what kick-started Climate Cardinals and gave us our starting momentum”.
Climate Cardinals’ mission involves translating credible scientific documents into over 100 languages, making vital information accessible to diverse populations worldwide. Their partners include esteemed organisations like UNICEF, UNEP, and the Yale Centre for Climate Communications. The need for accessibility becomes evident as Sophia points out that 75% of the world does not speak English, and yet 80% of climate literature is solely available in that language.
In fact, of the ten countries worst impacted by climate change, nine of them are a majority non-English speaking. By bridging this language gap, Climate Cardinals aims to ensure that climate knowledge is disseminated equally across all regions, especially in countries most impacted by climate change.
Sophia also highlighted the vital role of the media and journalists in raising climate awareness: “Given that climate change is the biggest threat and the biggest problem facing our generation, we really need all hands on deck when it comes to creating solutions”.
As a media officer for an animal welfare and environmental organisation, I resonated with Sophia’s efforts, considering the limited media coverage on climate change and the challenge of communicating technical climate reports to convey the message to the general public.
IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) climate summaries, intended to be accessible to non-scientific audiences, have become ‘unreadable’. Sophia emphasised that we need to make scientific knowledge more accessible. The importance of simplifying this information for the public cannot be overstated, especially regarding climate change and its impacts.
Additionally, Sophia highlights the power of social media for engaging younger audiences. A survey conducted in August 2022 found that Gen Z news consumers most commonly get their news from social media, with 50% of respondents using social networks as their news source daily. As Sophia observes, “it’s really fascinating to look at where the future of consumption is really headed”, and media outlets and organisations have to adapt accordingly to reach the younger generations.
I asked Sophia how young people with a sense of urgency can take action. Climate anxiety can become very real. Like many others, I went vegan and stopped buying fast fashion and travelling as much. When reading the news every day, it is inevitable to feel that you are not doing enough. Sophia stresses the importance of systemic change and collective efforts rather than the hyper-fixation of individual actions.
“I think that I would definitely say a big goal of mine is turning more apathetic people into climate activists. I think for me, one of the biggest things has been critical in conveying to people that what needs to happen is a systemic shift in our society, which is going to require progressive climate legislation. The number one most powerful thing people can do as an individual is vote”.
Sophia advises people to take the first step and start small. She reflects on her journey with Climate Cardinals: “Obviously, I didn’t wake up and then overnight started running a nonprofit and working with the UN and doing all these things”. As Sophia reflects, her non-profit began with only a handful of volunteers and has now grown to nearly 9,500 dedicated individuals.
As Climate Cardinals celebrates its third anniversary, Sophia expresses excitement about the NGO’s plans, including launching an ambassador program and a newsletter featuring contributions from young people. Additionally, she shares her new start-up with her best friend and roommate, Phoebe, focusing on leveraging technology to promote sustainable fashion.
Sophia’s commitment to climate activism and her innovative approach to engaging diverse audiences demonstrate the power of accessible information and social media in shaping a greener and more sustainable future. As she continues to inspire others with her journey, it becomes clear that Sophia Kianni’s impact in the fight against climate change is bound to leave a lasting legacy.