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How I became a climate activist in Pakistan

  • Published at 10:20 pm September 27th, 2021

“I believe that being a climate activist is not a competition, it’s not about being known by “everyone”, and there is no one right way to be an activist.”

Growing up in a traditional Pakistani family, I was always taught not to waste food, save water, buy what’s necessary, and be responsible for my actions. While writing this, I am connecting dots that how unconsciously our cultural values inculcate the basic practices of respecting nature. However, reflecting back, I did not know much about climate change and how urgently we need climate action to adapt to the emerging climate crisis. 

The only thing that stayed back with me is one of my science teachers telling us that global warming is increasing and there will be a time when rivers will run dry and only the land covered with glaciers will be green. Back then I always thought this to be an issue of the future but now I see this becoming a reality. 

Fast forward to my young teen years, I chose Environmental Sciences for higher studies without much deliberation and did not get much involved in anything practical for good two years except academic stuff (looking back, I never knew the right way to do activism or get involved with the like-minded community). After doing some volunteer work and internships, I realized that I have far more of an ability to take this cause forward and mobilize local climate action.

Now, being an Environmental Scientist I feel very happy about my research work and journey of climate activism. I take the privilege to have represented Pakistan at the 26th Mock Conference of Parties (Mock COP26), be a member of the steering committee of a COP26 research fellow, be the Regional Coordinator for North, Central, and South Asia at the 16th UN Conference of Youth, and have participated in multiple events as a participant and as a speaker to share the concerns on the climate crisis.

Presiding the Environment Club of my university is among my favourite memories of youth engagement. I had the privilege to plan and execute massive public awareness campaigns with the participation of hundreds of volunteers which also helped transform my life (and hopefully of other volunteers too) as an environmentally conscious individual. Organizing multiple climate action events, motivating the team and volunteers to keep doing their work not just for numbers but for real environmental advocacy itself was a phenomenal experience. University being a hotspot of highly motivated like-minded individuals helped me to listen, learn, and act.

In Pakistan, a layperson does not have much knowledge on the impacts of climate change and how to adapt in response to extreme events. Realizing the gap, I have founded an informal youth group called Youth for Green Pakistan where we engage students on climate education and teach them the basic steps to bring change, starting from home. Building upon the very basic activities, we aim to further advance the work. 

My engagement within YOUNGO (The Official Youth Constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - UNFCCC) helped me to connect with highly motivated and driven individuals, understand the UNFCCC processes, and amplify the youth voices at different events. I learn and drive inspiration from the young climate activists from across the world who are doing wonderful work to help build positive momentum in the climate movement.

Besides having worked my way up to a leadership position, putting myself out there and standing up for something I strongly believed was initially quite intimidating being a socially selective person. I believe that being a climate activist is not a competition, it’s not about being known by “everyone”, and there is no one right way to be an activist. Activism is researching to collect scientific evidence, building a determined community of practice, managing a climate strike, or even just showing up for a street protest, unlike climate naysayers. 

The struggle of being a climate advocate is not smooth. Besides all opportunities out there, there have been instances where tokenism could not be ruled out. Talking of top-down approach, rather than involving young people throughout the planning and execution process, they are invited just to speak at the launch events of reports on youth engagement. Given such a state of affairs, I feel very strong about communicating and articulating my thoughts on giving youth a chance for “real” engagement, listening to them, and helping them claim their spaces on the negotiation tables. 

Zainab Zahid holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Sciences. Her research interest lies in adaptation, climate education, and nature-based solutions. Can be reached at [email protected]