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Leading the Youth Climate Movement in the Arab World

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Youth climate activist Neeshad Shafi from Qatar emphasises the important role the Arab region ought to play in climate action and calls for civil society engagement to ensure climate action is inclusive and open to all.

This blog is the third in The Elders’ Intergenerational Climate Blog Series 2021 and features an introduction by Lakhdar Brahimi:

"Although the Middle East has historically been considered as the cradle of civilisation, the perspectives from the region are often overlooked when we talk about climate change. For climate action to be truly inclusive, we must expand the perceived scope of the climate crisis.

Neeshad Shafi rightly emphasises the historic importance of the Arab world and civil society’s central role in environmental activism. As climate change will only add to the already existing combination of fragilities in the Middle East, it is paramount its people are being heard.

Passionate young people like Neeshad, who tirelessly work to bring people together to promote sustainable change, give me hope for a green and inclusive future in the Arab region and beyond."

- Lakhdar Brahimi

Hotter and more frequent heatwaves, higher sea levels, and more severe droughts are everyday realities in the Middle East where climate change is an urgent issue. By 2050, temperatures in the world’s hottest, driest and most water-scarce region are expected to increase more than twice compared to the global average. By the end of the century, daytime highs could reach 50°C, with 200 days of exceptional heat every year. And without urgent action to curb global emissions, according to research, cities in the region may become uninhabitable before 2100.

Given the combination of existing fragilities, civil wars, and poverty, the impact on the region’s vulnerability to some of the most severe consequences of global warming is far-reaching. Young people have started paying attention to news across the Arab world, but there is a lot to be done in mainstreaming climate change issues as the public knowledge about the climate crisis is shallow and few understand the scale of the threat in our part of the world.

I have always had a passion for youth advocacy and grassroots environmentalism, and in 2015, before youth climate activism became a trending hashtag, I co-founded the Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar (AYCMQA) to encourage youth in the Arab world to call on our government, policymakers and community to take action to protect the environment for future generations. It became a first-of-its-kind registered youth lead, independent environmental association in Qatar and the Arab world.

We aim to bring collective attention to our unsustainable lifestyle and the ways it contributes to ecological devastation, accelerated pollution and species depletion. We also bring attention to the role of communities and their tremendous potential to develop creative solutions to the deeper malaise.

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Over the years, I have realised how strong non-profit community-based organisations with a clear mandate can help engage our society, businesses, and governments in the Arab world. For example, one of AYCMQA’s initiatives ‘Earth Talk Series’ showed that when organised with meaningful advocacy and activism, grassroot initiatives can be heard at the highest level – the event was attended by the Minister of Environment and Municipality of Qatar as well as other key stakeholder from government, private sector and civil society.

This demonstrates how climate and environmental organisations led by young people can play a crucial role also in the Arab world and it is crucial that the high barriers to create new organisations are lowered. After three years of struggle to gain our official registration status, AYCMQA came together in Qatar to highlight that the youth in the Arab region are part of the global conversation, and to call for climate action alongside youth from the Global North, though these interactions do not always make the front-page news.

Young people from the Arab world are historically underrepresented in the mainstream climate conversation both locally and internationally, even though the region suffers some of the world’s worst impacts of climate change. The realities of our region’s politics are very different from the realities of youth activists in the Global North, but it is absolutley necessary that Arab youth can make their voices heard along young people in the Global North. Our collective voice too must be inclusive and transparent in our common battle against climate change.

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As environmental activism enters a new era with the science clearer than ever, more educated and empowered youth in the Arab world are coming forward. Thanks to social media and other avenues, one thing is clear: Arab youths are working together shoulder-to-shoulder with our global youth community so that the overall voice represents us all in inclusive and joint calls for climate action. We are clearly stating to our governments and private sectors that they must listen to young people. Are you?  

It seems easy to despair, but I believe the activism of young people in the Arab world provides hope. We have shown that young people are eager to tackle climate change, and we hope the climate action mobilisation in the Middle East will only intensify.

The challenge ahead is difficult to comprehend, but it cannot be forgotten that for an enormous part of our history, the Middle East was the cradle of civilisation, culture, and intellectual vibrancy. Through this region, and particularly through our young people, there is a great potential to learn and recover the wisdom and knowledge to build a sustainable and inclusive future for all in the Arab World and beyond.

Neeshad Shafi is an Environmentalist and Social Change Advocate. He holds a master’s degree in Energy and Environmental Engineering and is based in Doha, Qatar.

Neeshad is currently the Co-founder and Executive Director at the Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar (AYCMQ), a 2020 +SocialGood Connector with the United Nations Foundation, and One Young World Ambassador. He is also on board of CAN Arab World, CoalitionWILD and Global Shapers Climate and Environment Steering Committee and Youth UNESCO Climate Action Network (YoU-CAN). He was a contributor to UNFCCC negotiations at COP21, COP22, COP24, COP25, and the UN Youth Climate Summit in 2019 for his work in raising climate change awareness, advocacy & policy.

Neeshad is an Agenda Contributor for World Economic Forum and has been featured in TEDx, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Gulf Times, The Peninsular Qatar, Qatar Tribune, and Qatar Today. In 2019, he was named on the Apolitical list of the World’s 100 Most Influential People in Climate Policy, the only youth from the Arab world to be included on this list.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

Mary Robinson and Brianna Fruean at COP 25Intergenerational Climate Blog Series 2021

Featuring youth climate activists from around the world, discover stories of courage, hope and resilience in taking climate action.

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