The Activist Translating Climate Crisis Information Across the Globe

Sophia Kianni, founder of Climate Cardinals, is distributing vital information about climate change in more than 100 languages.
December 18, 2020, 2:00pm
​Image: Michelle Urra
Image: Michelle Urra
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In 2020, Sophia Kianni was selected as the U.S’s representative for the inaugural United Nations Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change and she started Climate Cardinals, a non-profit that translates climate change information to more than 100 languages. 

She also just turned 19 and is a freshman at Indiana University.

“It’s been a really busy year,” Kianni said in an interview with Motherboard. 

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Kianni said being Iranian-American, and growing up in a science-centric home, inspired her to first look at the Middle East’s climate crisis. The young activist explained how the region’s environmental needs and the population’s lack of information on climate issues are at stark odds with each other. 

“There was very little information about climate change in Iran when I went in sixth grade,” Kianni said. “I saw how horrible the pollution was—I couldn’t see any stars at night—and I said, ‘Wow, the environment here is so different.’” 

“I really thought it was important for my relatives to know about the disastrous effects climate change was having on Iran,” she continued. “After verbally explaining it in Farsi, they started to understand how concerned I was and how concerned they and their community should be.”

Climate Cardinals is growing at an exponential rate. Started only eight months ago, the non-profit now has nearly 8,000 volunteers in more than 40 countries. They’ve partnered with global organizations like UNICEF and Translators without Borders to spread their multilingual material. 

This is intrinsically impressive, especially considering that a vast majority of these activists who are making a difference with the organization aren’t old enough to drive. 

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“The average age of a Climate Cardinal volunteer is just 15-and-a-half-years old,” according to Kianni. “They’re so passionate about their work and translating, but we definitely want the material to be proofread for grammar, etcetera, so it can be distributed by other prestigious entities.”

Social media, Kianni said, is the only way such growth and reach is possible. The non-profit is able to flourish, especially during the pandemic, because Gen-Z wants to volunteer during this time and are using different apps to make that happen. Fittingly, the non-profit’s popularity came thanks to the one app that rules them all at the moment. 

“The way that Climate Cardinals basically got off the ground and really, really blew up was through a Tik-Tok,” said Kianni, laughing. “We made it a few months ago and it went viral and got more than 100,000 views on the first day. I think now it has almost 400,000 views. So on the very first day, we had more than 1,000 people sign up to volunteer with us.”

Kianni said one of the group’s first translated documents that resonated in all languages was a climate change glossary. In the guide, volunteers defined common phrases like “what is climate change,” “what is carbon dioxide,” and “what is the Greenhouse Gas Effect.” 

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This document went over well, but not all of the group’s work hasn’t been as simple. Many times, countries the group is dealing with have restrictions on communication, so getting these documents to those who can distribute it comes with hurdles. 

Kianni said apps like WhatsApp and Telegram have been crucial in distributing materials. Still, all volunteers are extremely careful to keep both themselves and readers safe. 

“I don’t want to put the burden on these people to change their behaviors and make change happen if it’s going to put them in danger,” said Kianni. “That’s one of my biggest priorities”

Looking ahead, Kianni hopes to use her platform on the UN’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change to further these values. Aside from speaking at numerous climate summits around the world, and providing environmental reform feedback to UN Security General António Guterres, the climate leader hopes to use her years at university to continue working on the intersection of public policy and climate change. 

“It was so, so unexpected,” Kianni said. “But it’s so humbling.”