When you think of the climate movement, you might picture the millions of young people, led by Greta Thunberg, who have taken to the streets in recent years to call for urgent action, or the Just Stop Oil protestors who have blockaded roads and even thrown soup at Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at London’s National Gallery.
For student Ayshka Najib, though, climate activism in the United Arab Emirates – where this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, Cop28, is being held – looks very different. “We do not do any forms of protest or mobilisation, but that doesn’t mean that the youth here don’t advocate [for climate action],” the 21-year-old tells Vogue over Zoom from Dubai. “I always felt so left out and like an imposter because in [this] country, I cannot replicate the same forms of mobilisation that they do in the West.”
Like many activists, Najib first became concerned about the climate crisis while she was at school. “When I [found out] all this information, I became really anxious,” she recalls. “I think it was that anxiety that drove me to do something.” As a teenager, she decided to join a local student journalism network to raise awareness about environmental issues, as well as launching a podcast and successfully campaigning, along with other pupils, for her school to go plastic free.
But it was during a trip to visit her grandmother in Kerala, India – where Najib was born – in 2018 that the full extent of the climate crisis really hit her. “[The area] was hit by one of the worst floods ever; I saw houses around us and people’s livelihoods being destroyed,” the activist remembers, explaining how she and her family were forced to evacuate from her grandmother’s home. “I remember this one specific night I was so terrified because my whole area was under Red Alert. My grandmother told me I should sleep, but I was so scared that if I closed my eyes, the next minute I would be underwater.”
Shortly after that first-hand experience, Najib became involved with the international climate movement, setting up Fridays For Future MAPA (Most Affected People and Areas) – an offshoot of Thunberg’s movement – with fellow activists including Disha Ravi and Mitzi Jonelle Tan. “We cannot truly achieve climate justice unless and until we centre the movement, through the leadership of those who are at the frontlines, on those who are most affected [by the climate crisis],” she says.
Najib hopes that Cop28 will see a renewed focus on the people in these countries, explaining that it’s important to “divert platforms and resources to these communities”. At last year’s conference in Egypt, there was a breakthrough agreement to establish a Loss and Damage Fund to help the nations most affected by the climate crisis. However, it’s not yet clear exactly what that fund will look like, nor how much money richer nations will actually contribute.
The activist also has mixed feelings on this year’s conference being held in the UAE, a country that is closely associated with the oil industry. Earlier this week, leaked documents appeared to show that UAE leaders planned to use Cop28 to make oil deals. Najib points out, however, that “conflicts of interest” are not a new thing at the conference, with more than 600 delegates from the fossil fuel industry attending Cop27 in Egypt last year.
Considering that the UAE is being hit by extreme heatwaves and desertification, Najib sees positives in the country hosting such a major climate event. “Record-breaking heatwaves one after the other is causing a lot of people to fall ill, and also disrupting schools and affecting workers [with] long hours outdoors,” she says. “Water capacity is also a big issue; we have to depend on desalination processes to get access to fresh water.”
Over the past year, the activist has been working with UNICEF to help educate young people in the UAE on the growing impacts of the climate crisis, as part of her role as a youth advocate. “Cop28 being held here has opened a floodgate of opportunities,” Najib explains. “[It has] allowed me to work with the Ministry of Education to co-create climate change education in the country. We also got to hold an in-person conference for the local youth.”
Despite all of this, Najib is keenly aware that change is happening too slowly, although that’s not keeping her from fighting for a better future. “When you have friends from some of the most vulnerable communities – I have friends from Tuvulu who are facing floods after floods and friends from the Philippines who are having [multiple] cyclones in one year – you understand that you have no choice but to be hopeful,” she says. “It’s a matter of survival for a lot of people. We do not have the privilege to sit back and watch the word fall apart. That’s what helps me keep going.”
This article was originally published on British Vogue.