In 2022, Pakistan experienced flooding that killed more than 1,700 people and left millions displaced.

This event had followed extreme heat waves that had led to the melting of glaciers, which then contributed to the extreme flooding. Pakistan consistently ranks among the top 10 most climate-vulnerable countries in the world — despite being responsible for less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to dealing with climate emergencies, Pakistan also has faced challenges relating to poverty and inequality, and has what the CIVICUS Monitor considers a repressedcivic space. Challenges in the civic space include authorities being accused of continued harassment of journalists, persecution of activists, and stifling of protests.

Despite issues within the country's civic space, young climate activist and journalist Zainab Waheed calls for urgent action on climate change, particularly for vulnerable countries like her own.

Waheed is an 18-year-old climate activist and writer from Pakistan. She is involved in educating and mobilizing climate-vulnerable communities and also represents Pakistan at international climate conferences. She has been the country delegate to the C40 World Mayors Summit and the Youth4Climate Summits of 2021 and 2022. Currently, she is Pakistan’s representative to the United Nations Youth Force and to UNICEF South Asia.

Here, the teenager explains why she believes collective action by passionate and determined people is more important — and more powerful — now more than ever.

I describe myself as a firm believer in the power of the people. The sheer power that a group of passionate and determined people holds, and the change they can drive with their chants and slogans, always fascinates me. Naturally, protesting is my favorite part of climate activism!

Linguistic inclusivity in climate discourse is the most important to me. I believe that the movement for climate justice is unjust itself if it isn’t inclusive of all the climate victims that demand climate action in their regional languages.

"Why should the people of my country suffer from the development of the Global North?"

When I put this question to Pakistanis in my advocacy, I see a range of emotions: worry, surprise, and anger. Pakistanis, however, can’t express these emotions to the international community due to language barriers. Removing these barriers matters the most in my work.

Pakistan has a charm that teaches you to love your country despite its many shortcomings. While I was getting an education that now enables me to fight for climate justice, Malala in Swat was fighting to get this very education. While my parents support my advocacy, climate disasters in Pakistan force parents who are financially vulnerable to sell their daughters into child marriages in return for food and money. When I march on the roads of Pakistan for climate action, child beggars watch us with blank expressions, not understanding what we are saying, sometimes giggling because they think girls yelling in public is funny.

Life in Pakistan has been one of hope and hopelessness.

Hope, because my nation’s resilient people have survived dictatorships, economic crises, and terrorism; [and so] surely, they can survive more horrors too.

Hopelessness, because emergency camps sent in [through] international aid for flood victims end up being used as carpets in political rallies. Pakistanis illegally escaping our crippled economy and unemployment drown off the Greek coast.

Zainab Waheed, photographed in Kachnar Park in Islamabad, Pakistan. Waheed is a climate activist and writer. She is involved in educating and mobilizing climate-vulnerable communities and also represents Pakistan at international climate conferences.
Image: Saiyna Bashir for Global Citizen

Like a steaming cup of chai that balances out the spices in Pakistani cuisine, choosing to look at bright news does sometimes numb the aches of being a Pakistani. Pakistanis will often joke about how living here is an extreme sport itself, and I think that is the most apt description I can find of life in Pakistan.

My family comes from a remote village in northern Pakistan, where people rely on kathay for their water, which means streams of rainwater in the Hindko language. Growing up, I saw how changing rainfall patterns constantly reduced the water flow into the kathay, leaving our villagers with insufficient water for their crops. I learned how the changing of climate was inextricably linked to lives and livelihoods, and how climate change is not just an environmental issue, but an issue that births hunger, poverty, disease, and refugees.

I was 13 years old when I worked with the German embassy in Pakistan on a climate awareness campaign and started looking more into the destruction of climate change.

Since then, I have worked with students, teachers, government representatives, as well as climate activists from other countries, on climate action and to make climate discourse more inclusive of Pakistan’s national and regional languages.

In a world where climate criminals continue to put their money above our lives, where global northern politicians churn out vague treaties and meaningless promises annually, and fossil fuel industries constantly pour billions of dollars into climate denial propaganda, climate activists are our only hope. Climate activism is the most powerful catalyst for climate justice, and also the rent I pay for living on this Earth.

In my work, I use the influence of religion in Pakistan to promote climate education. I collaborate with madrasas, which are informal Islamic schools, to interact with students and teach them about climate change, and prepare them for climate catastrophes. I also lead plantations in public spaces and hold seminars in schools to mobilize my community for climate action.

Zainab Waheed works on an upcoming article at her home on June 27, 2023 in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Image: Saiyna Bashir for Global Citizen

I feel safe as a climate activist, and that is because climate discourse in Pakistan is so sparse and uncommon that authorities do not feel the need to censor us. I can freely talk about climate change, not because the state guarantees protection to climate advocates, but because climate change isn’t “hot” enough as a topic yet to provoke the masses and risk disorder in the country.

There is a lack of general understanding of who Pakistan’s own climate criminals are, hence the lack of conversation around them, which means the scattered groups of people who do talk about climate change simply aren’t important enough to be threatened or stopped.

One might feel restricted because of the lack of opportunities and platforms for climate activists, but there is no censorship or repercussions for climate activism. This, however, is certainly not the case for other areas of advocacy, such as journalism.

The murders [of climate activists globally] are heartbreaking and condemnable. They all have legacies of brave activism, and their murders are evidence that mere peaceful advocacy is the biggest threat to climate criminals. It also shows us that we are fighting the climate fight against mafias and climate criminals who would go to any lengths to muffle our voices, so countering them will require a coordinated effort from activists and governments from the world over.

However, in a failing economy, with skyrocketing inflation, worsening poverty and political crises, climate change is not among the primary concerns for common Pakistanis.

Convincing Pakistanis that climate change is not a far-off issue but, in fact, an immediate and primary threat, is a big challenge for me.

If a climate-vulnerable community is made aware of predicted floods, [I get asked]: "So what?" and "Do you have the funds to help me evacuate and rebuild a life elsewhere?"

If a regular Pakistani is made aware of climate science, [I myself ask,] "So what? Is it enough to make them demand climate action from the political parties they vote for?"

Sometimes, seeing the long way we have to go, from mere climate education to solid climate action, makes it easy to lose hope and give in to climate anxiety.

And the government’s tokenistic approach towards youth inclusion in climate action makes climate activists’ work all the more difficult.

Often, climate activists go to ministers’ conferences prepared with questions and suggestions, but their participation is limited to just clapping for the politicians at the end of their hour-long talks, as they immediately rush out of conference rooms. Calling these politicians out on social media results in climate activists being blocked.

[Even internationally], lack of representation still stands as a challenge to meaningful climate action. For instance, I was selected by the UN to partake in a climate conference in Italy, but couldn’t obtain a visa to attend.

Recently, activists from African countries particularly, and the Global South, protested the lack of visa appointments to attend the pre-COP held in Germany. They demanded special visa considerations for young climate delegates. As far as mere numeric youth representation is concerned, climate activists are constantly disappointed.

And when young advocates do actually get to attend these conferences, they are seldom heard.

Activists at COP27 reported that they weren’t allowed to attend the main plenary, and were only let in when the meetings were over, to take pictures. It’s hard to see why organizers think young activists exist just to take pictures, and treat us likewise. We have also seen copies of youth recommendations at COP27 thrown in dustbins, which is evidence that even when young people attend conferences, their voices aren’t really being heard.

It is imperative that youth sit on policy-making boards as key stakeholders, have their voice heard without prejudice or naivety, and without the dismissal on the basis of being young. Young people are the first ones to experience the real and raw impacts of climate change, we are the last generation that can actually do anything about it, and we have the potential to stem the climate crisis.  

Zainab Waheed poses for a portrait in Kachnar Park on June 27, 2023 in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Image: Saiyna Bashir for Global Citizen

The statistics on the 2022 floods are heart-wrenching: 33 million people were impacted, including 16 million children. Nearly 650,000 pregnant women were left stranded, without access to necessary health services. The floods damaged more than 1,400 health care facilities, in a country with an already crippled health care system. Our agriculture, livestock, infrastructure, and essentially everything Pakistan desperately needs, was destroyed.

We haven’t yet recovered from 2022’s floods and we are set to face even worse climate disasters. My country is under constant threat of unprecedented climate destruction, be it the ferocious Cyclone Biparjoy, prolonged heat waves, droughts that claim lives, or the risk of even deadlier flash floods.

Pakistan has basically become a case study for the world to assess the destructive potential of climate change. International assistance did flow into Pakistan, but much of it was in the form of loans. It was painfully evident that the climate finance promised in 2009 in Copenhagen never reached Pakistan, and the Global North could only offer debt increments to my climate-stricken country.

As we now move closer to COP28, it is clear as day that COPs are increasingly becoming networking opportunities for climate criminals. One can’t help but feel like the global response to Pakistan’s floods was merely for face-saving, doing nothing to really address the root cause of our plight.

The root cause of our suffering is the absence of climate finance to help us prepare for and recover from climate catastrophes. Instead of strengthening the channels and mechanisms of climate finance in response to the 2022’s floods, the global response has merely been to send financial and material aid, which is temporary and insufficient. It sets a dangerous precedent — that of casually waiting for climate catastrophes to strike climate-vulnerable nations, and then sending them some little aid so no one points fingers at you for never helping out.

We urgently need improvements in the accounting and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Developed countries have been free to decide what they report as “climate finance,” counting all financial instruments such as loans, investments, and insurance as climate finance. This lack of consistency means exaggerated claims of climate action and presents a significant obstacle to the achievement of mitigation and adaptation funds.

Moreover, organizations responsible for reviewing developed nations’ progress on climate finance, such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, are led by the world’s richest nations. This nurtures a lack of transparency in climate finance that is often met with skepticism from the Global South.

We need measures that clarify definitions and standardize methodologies and reporting of climate finance, if we are to really tackle the climate crisis.

Zainab Waheed walks with her mother, Ghazala Tabasum, in Kachnar Park on June 27, 2023 in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Image: Saiyna Bashir for Global Citizen

We must understand that big corporations and developed countries contribute the most to causing climate change. Hence, the primary responsibility for solving it also lies with them, and not with ordinary people as climate criminals’ propaganda might have made you believe.

Simply adding your voice to the demands for climate action can amount to a big difference. We need as many people calling for change as possible. And social media is the most powerful tool to call for this change.

Every single scroll over social media is important and has an impact, which makes social media the perfect catalyst to educate and mobilize communities for climate action. Together, our slogans and chants can break the stagnation in climate justice from authorities too. We need to be loud, persistent, and even annoying if that is what it takes to jolt unresponsive government officials into action.

It isn’t difficult to lose your thoughts in climate anxiety, but climate optimist communities over social media are incredibly helpful in supporting each other and giving us all some much-needed hope!

The 2023-2024 In My Own Words series was made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

In My Own Words

Demand Equity

Being a Climate Activist Can Sometimes Feel Hopeless — But I Still Believe Activism Is the World’s Best Hope

By Zainab Waheed