Image: John Watson

Climate activist Sophia Kianni: Countries need to start putting their money where their mouth is

The youngest-ever UN adviser on her journey from Tehran to the White House 
June 14, 2023

When Sophia Kianni and I finally speak—we’ve been trying to find a moment that works between time zones—she’s on her way to the White House. It’s the day before Earth Day, and the 21-year-old Iranian-American has been invited by the president to an event on environmental justice. She tells me that she’s “super excited”, while, in the background, her parents interject every now and then to ask for directions.

Kianni is in her penultimate year of a degree in science, technology and society at Stanford University. She says being a full-time student is her priority, but she’s also consumed by the existential challenge of climate change and how to fight it. There’s not a minute to waste.

In 2020 Kianni became the youngest-ever UN adviser, one of seven 18- to 28-year-olds chosen to help secretary general António Guterres tackle climate change for a two-year period. “I think it’s so important for young people’s perspectives to be represented when it comes to an issue that is obviously going to disproportionately impact our generation,” she says. The role took her to Glasgow, Milan and Sharm el-Sheikh. Now that it’s over, she’s joining the board of directors for the UN’s museum in Copenhagen. 

Yes, we are dissatisfied with the way the climate crisis is being handled. But what are our solutions?

Kianni’s journey began with her family in Tehran, and the smog hiding the stars that she knew filled the sky even if she could no longer see them. She realised that her relatives there lacked environmental knowledge: “Despite the fact that climate change was disproportionately impacting the Middle East, with temperatures there rising more than twice the global average,” she says, “a lot of the terms I was using were foreign to them.” She discovered that many of the UN resources she had used to learn about climate change were only available in English. 

And so after joining Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future, Greta Thunberg’s school strike movement, Kianni founded Climate Cardinals, a volunteer-driven project to translate resources into the languages spoken in those regions most affected by climate change and typically underserved by international bodies. The organisation recently translated its millionth word of educational material, most of which is disseminated through UN organisations with established networks.

“Cooperation is key” for Kianni, who argues the UN still has “convening power” even if it must turn more words into actions. After the creation at COP27 of a fund to compensate for loss and damage as a result of climate change, “now the real work needs to be done with countries actually putting their money where their mouth is”.

It’s the same story back home in the US where, in early March, the government recently gave permission for a new oil-drilling project in Alaska. Kianni, Thunberg and Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate wrote for CNN that it was a “betrayal”. Even so, Kianni is still thrilled to engage with Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and others. “I think you can balance being supportive of the administration in their pursuit of more ambitious climate policy, but then also push them for further action… Yes, we are dissatisfied with the way the climate crisis is being handled right now. But, like, what are our solutions? How can we work together?”

Some people like to call Kianni a hypocrite. Keyboard warriors have chastised her for wearing nice clothes and taking flights; misogynists have told her that she should dress “more modestly”. But she isn’t going to be swayed off course by the opinions of others. “I can only really speak for myself and my intentions,” she says. She’s on her way to the White House, and she’s got work to do.