Sarah Holcomb

Explaining Climate Change in 100+ Languages

How a 19-year-old mobilized thousands of volunteers to translate information for the public.

Stories

Everyone knows that Sophia Kianni doesn’t stop talking. “Literally, I am like a radio,” she says. “I grew up really believing that my voice matters…it’s because my parents always raised me that way.”

When Sophia visited her relatives in Iran in middle school and saw how pollution blotted out the stars, she decided to use her voice to educate others about climate change — a subject she couldn’t find information about in Farsi. So she started translating resources for her family.

“It was me, annoying my relatives — you guys need to care about this, blah blah blah,” she jokes. But neither Sophia nor her family could have predicted how her platform would explode, leading her to launch a mass translation operation. “This time,” the 19-year-old says, “I’m annoying thousands of people and getting my point across to them instead of pestering just my relatives.”

Farsi would become just one of over 100 languages Sophia helps to translate — thousands of volunteers do the rest.

Rising to the moment

Sophia’s experience translating for her relatives had sparked something. She realized the climate change knowledge she had needed to be for everyone.

“That’s really when I became an advocate,” she remembers. “It was the beginning of my journey to become an activist, because I realized I had the power to make change on a micro level. Now I’m trying to implement that same change, just on a much larger scale.”

In November of 2019, Sophia joined climate activist group Extinction Rebellion for a week-long hunger strike in Nancy Pelosi’s office. She didn’t expect to go “semi-viral” on her way to Capitol Hill. After telling a reporter why she showed up, she found herself featured by The Lily, and was later offered a chance to write about the climate crisis for Teen Vogue.

A friend who saw Sophia’s article reached out, telling her how the piece inspired her to care about climate change and launch an environmental club. “That was really crazy to me,” Sophia says. She was beginning to realize her words had greater power than she had imagined.

It wouldn’t be the last time Sophia’s efforts went viral. For that story, we turn to TikTok.

Media to fuel a movement

Sophia’s decision to start a nonprofit wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing, she explains. “I really have been working on it since last year — coming up with the idea, strategy, reaching out to partners.”

Then a global pandemic broke out in 2020. Young people were looking for safe opportunities to earn community service hours from home. Now was the time to start her non-profit, Sophia realized. She decided to go for it.

When Sophia launched Climate Cardinals, an organization dedicated to translating climate change information, she expected maybe 100 volunteers to sign up — if that. “I didn’t know that many people who were bilingual and interested in this, even among my friends,” she remembers.

Perhaps Sophia’s predictions would have been right, had it not been for a friend’s TikTok video putting out a call for volunteers.

On the first day, the video got over 100,000 views. “It was the reason why so many people signed up,” she says. “It was beyond my wildest dreams.” Today the video has over 350,000 views.

Continuing to leverage media — from social media to news outlets like the Washington Post — Climate Cardinals has built a network of 8,000 young activists across 41 countries. Sophia’s team now includes over 400,000 people.

Together, they’ve translated over 500,000 words (3,000 pages) of climate information in a matter of months. But they’re just getting started.

Changemakers come together

The Climate Cardinals community is not only large, but diverse.

“I knew that climate change disproportionately affects people of color,” Sophia explains. “That’s part of the reason why I believe it is so important to…empower a diverse coalition, especially of young people, to learn about climate change so that we have a representative view on how we need to tackle this crisis, from people who first hand have experience with its effects.”

Young people are at the core of Climate Cardinals. And as they work to help educate others, they’re getting immersed in the environmental policies specific to their regions at the same time.

Sophia is considering studying public policy and environmental science herself — but she’s wide open to a world of possibilities. “I always change my mind and go with the flow to explore things,” she says. Regardless of the particular path Sophia chooses, she’s already well along in her career as a changemaker.

At the heart, being a changemaker means “going into the world and shaking things up,” Sophia explains, “and reevaluating how we go about our everyday lives.”

Sophia has reached out to other youth-led climate organizations to plug into their efforts and encourages fellow young changemakers to do the same.

Through social media, young people “have so much access to one another,” Sophia says. “It’s so easy for us to communicate our thoughts and improve our perspectives. I feel like every generation is more progressive than the previous. We have so much compassion and humility, and care about one another.”

Today, her experience has only deepened the belief Sophia has carried with her since childhood: every person’s voice has power, no matter how young.

Sophia Kianni’s organization, Climate Cardinals, was named a recipient of the Early Entry Prize for Ashoka and GM’s Our Planet, Our Purpose: STEM for Changemaking Challenge. Read Ashoka’s extended interview with Sophia here. Interview by Maddie Finn, story by Sarah Holcomb.