(For the full audio of the interview, listen here)
Sophia Kianni is a 19-year-old Iranian-American climate activist. She serves as the youngest member on the inaugural United Nations Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Kianni has been featured in Forbes, CNN, Business Insider, TIME Magazine, The Guardian, NBC, and the front page of The Washington Post. She was chosen for Energy News Network’s 40 under 40 list and is VICE Media’s youngest Human of the Year.
A lot of people [in the U.S.] have been disillusioned by the steps Biden has taken to combat climate change—like approving a bunch of oil drilling. What steps do you think are necessary? And is it possible to reconcile a divided government and country with more concrete climate change policy?
I think that Biden has definitely [taken] steps to make his climate policy more progressive. When he first started running, the Sunrise Movement gave him an ‘F,’ and I think that [he has] definitely improved since then. But we still haven’t seen him support the Green New Deal. I think he and a lot of people around him refer to it as a “Green New Dream” and haven’t really taken it seriously, which isn’t good. We want him to ban fracking—that doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen. So there are a lot of things I think he can do better on. But, again, he recently assumed office, [so] I’m not just gonna sit here and bash him given that he’s only been in office for a little. I don’t think it’s fair to prejudge based on what’s happened so far—just because there definitely is still time and room for improvement.
But I think the onus really is on youth climate [and] progressive activists—all of us [need] to put collective pressure on him and to make these tangible demands. And it’s part of the reason why I really do want there to be some sort of mechanism for young people to have formal engagement with the administration—kind of like how the UN has many different formal engagements.
For young people, I think it would be really great to see the Biden administration parallel that and show that they’re not just speaking euphemisms. And they’re not just saying, “oh, yeah, you climate activists, you guys are so awesome.” Like you’re doing great work, but then they’re not actually talking to us and taking us seriously.
The movement to include youth in the conversation around climate change is really gaining momentum, but a lot of people are concerned that steps to do so are performative and that, ultimately, lawmakers are going to make the final decision. Do you feel that this advisory group is performative in its creation and execution?
I don’t feel like it’s performative because I feel like the creation of this advisory group [gave us] a direct line of communication with the highest ranking authority in the United Nations, the Secretary-General. We’re giving official meeting notes to him. While he’s giving speeches to other world leaders, he has this in his mind. We also published a report of six key actions that young people want from world leaders, which the UN put out as a press release that was pretty widely circulated throughout the media. Different mechanisms like that give us a meaningful way to participate. It’s only been, I think, about eight months since I started, and we’re off to a slow start, too. So I can’t say it’s perfect. [But] I haven’t had problems with it.
The Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, is 71 years old, which is a long ways off from the 18 to 28 age range of your own group. Can any disconnect be attributed to that age gap, [especially] when it comes to the advice that you and your peers are giving?
I think, on the whole, [when] young people [are] compared to the older generation, we kind of have different priorities. In our meetings, I always stress social justice. I always say, “I really hope that in these public speeches you can talk about how climate change is disproportionately affecting people of color, and how our policies really need to be targeted to make sure that when we have a just transition, it’s helping these frontline workers who are going to be displaced from the fossil fuel industry—who really need retraining so that they can reenter the clean energy sector.”
In that respect, I think social justice is more at the forefront of young people’s minds. On the whole, I wouldn’t say there’s any disconnect. But I will say there is a difference in how priorities are presented.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report in 2018 said we only had 12 years until the effects of climate change were irreversible. That report was only translated into the six major UN official languages, not including Farsi, which is Iran’s primary language. Have you relayed any of that concern to the Secretary-General?
Absolutely. One of my strongest recommendations to the UN Secretary-General was that he should translate his climate strategy into more languages, especially because the UN has the resources to do that. Those six UN languages, they account for less than 50 percent of the world’s speaking population. Half of the world can’t understand the documents being issued by one of the highest political authorities in the world. With the UN Environmental Programme, we translated a Youth for Nature manifesto into dozens of languages. Right now, we’re going to collaborate with UNICEF to translate their new report that’s coming out in a few months into a lot of languages.
I know that you’re particularly interested in the intersection of the fashion industry and how that affects climate change—part of your personal brand is accessibility and inclusivity. But a lot of climate-conscious brands are notoriously unaffordable and very inaccessible. How do you reconcile that need for inclusion in climate change advocacy with the fact that a lot of climate change policy is, at its core, not inclusive?
I would 100 percent agree. And I often bring up that statistic when I’m talking to others because I feel like too often the conversation starts swaying towards consumers—that everyone needs to be shopping sustainably. We’re in this situation because rich, wealthy people have been treating the planet like their personal playground—unnecessarily polluting and letting their companies pollute our planet. That’s why I think we need strong governmental regulation. We need to be passing policies like the Green New Deal.
Of course, I think a lot about using your privilege—if someone’s in a privileged position where they can afford to shop more sustainably, or to eat a more green diet, where they’re limiting their consumption of meat, I think that’s an amazing thing to do. I do think these little things will add up to a certain extent.
Guterres just spoke a few days ago at the UN Environment Programme, and he mentioned that households are responsible for two-thirds of global CO2 emissions. Do you think that putting pressure on individuals, since it doesn’t come with the strife of overcoming policy conversations or gridlock, may do more to combat climate change long-term?
It just doesn’t make sense to put the onus of a problem that was created by corporations on the people. It just seems a bit hypocritical in my mind. But I don’t think that should absolve you from taking personal responsibility and bettering yourself as a consumer. I think that these are great things to stress. But in a way, it shifts the responsibility away from corporations and gives them a scapegoat, which should not be the case. I think that you can have these two conversations at the same time; they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But I think that one conversation is a lot more important than the other.
Obviously you have a lot of ideas about the many ways that we can work to reduce global CO2 emissions and global warming. The million dollar question is, where do we go from here? Is climate change irreversible in our lifetimes? Or do we just have to work to mitigate the calamitous effects as they come?
I think that climate change is reversible. COVID-19 has shown that sense of urgency is there when it’s convenient for lawmakers. We need to continue these movements like Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Climate Cardinals, Zero Hour. I think above all, the biggest thing you can do is vote—tell your friends and family to vote, and then help educate others about how severe climate change is and what they can do to help, which, again, all ties back to governmental policy.
In Iran, dozens of environmentalists have been jailed for their advocacy. If you were to ever visit again, would you fear retribution for your work? How has your family in Iran reacted to your advocacy?
My immediate family who live in the United States are all very, very passionate [about climate change policy], and they support me wholeheartedly. My family overseas—they support me, but I wouldn’t say they agree with everything because they feel like it might be dangerous. It’s definitely not something I think they could support publicly for fear of retaliation by the Iranian government. For the past few years, I’ve been working to translate information to inform them on climate change, so they definitely know what climate change is now, believe in it, and think it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.
I haven’t been to Iran in many years—not just because of my environmental activism, but because of the political state there [and] how tensions have been between Iran and the U.S. It’s definitely a sticky situation; I hope that I will be able to go to Iran one day again. I hope the tensions between Iran and the United States become better. I hope that life becomes better for the Iranian people who really are struggling right now. But that’s a lot of wishes.