- “Building a community is essential”
“Building a community is essential”
An interview with Saad Uakkas, COP28 Youth Program Coordinator
Saad Uakkas, 27, is a Moroccan youth engagement and empowerment expert especially in health and climate issues. He is the Program Coordinator of the COP28 Children and Youth Pavilion, Regional Coordinator for North Africa of the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC) and Youth Advisory Board member of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.
OPEC Fund Quarterly: Could you tell us about your climate advocacy journey?
Saad Uakkas: My climate journey started in 2021 when I attended my first COP, which was COP25 in Madrid. At that time I was mainly involved in youth advocacy in public health with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations, where I was responsible for coordinating their COVID-19 campaign. In Madrid I joined the African Youth Initiative for Climate Change as North Africa coordinator and started engaging, encouraging, empowering and uniting youth in Africa to get involved in climate advocacy and linking them with different stakeholders. I later got the chance to work with Search for Common Ground, an international non-governmental organization that works to end violent conflict and build healthy, safe, and just societies, on MENA youth NGOs capacity development. Here I supported seven youth organizations to implement their climate advocacy on the local level. Currently, I am working with the African Youth Initiative for Climate Change on the African Youth Negotiators Program where we empower 35 young people to take part in negotiations by linking them with their governments. We are hoping that they will be leading negotiations with their respective governments at COP28.
OFQ: Is there anything that has really stood out so far in your work as a climate activist?
SU: What I find truly fascinating is that climate advocacy involves people from various backgrounds contributing to the cause. No matter whether you come from an architectural, medical – like myself -, financial, technological or legal background, there’s a role for everyone. It’s not solely an environmental or technical matter; it’s a societal effort that involves everyone. The key is how young people can unite and collaborate effectively. By working together, we can create more comprehensive solutions, leverage each other’s expertise and potential, and increase our impact and the actions we take. This collaboration is incredibly important.
OFQ: What advice would you give young people when getting involved in climate activism?
SU: My first piece of advice is to avoid competition. While as young individuals, we naturally seek personal growth, opportunities and experiences, it’s crucial not to adopt a selfish or competitive mindset with fellow young activists. Instead, let’s grow together and share knowledge. Support and mentor your peers, share opportunities, and recognize that you can’t navigate this journey alone. Building a community is essential because you’ll need a team to work with. The most vital aspect of being a youth activist is having a team, so encourage, support, and network with young individuals from all corners of the globe. Learning from each other and understanding what’s happening beyond your local context is very important. My second piece of advice is to continue learning and expanding your horizons. If you’re primarily focused on one aspect, like water conservation, take the time to explore related fields such as energy, sustainable waste management, the green economy, climate finance and more. These areas are interconnected and gaining knowledge in various domains allows you to develop systemic solutions and generate more impactful ideas and solutions.
OFQ: What are the biggest challenges for youth in climate action?
SU: One of the significant challenges in climate activism is finding a balance between your advocacy work and your personal life, which includes earning an income, living with family and planning for your future. Realistically, not everyone has the opportunity to work on climate activism full-time with financial support. In reality, it often requires juggling both aspects: being an activist and building a life for yourself. Another challenge in the climate field, in general, is dealing with frustration. Many individuals witness the environmental issues first-hand and experience anxiety, pressure and, at times, a sense of hopelessness. These emotions can be particularly risky for young activists. It’s essential to prioritize self-care, seek support within your community and celebrate small wins to stay motivated and resilient.
OFQ: So climate change is affecting the mental health of youth worldwide?
SU: Climate anxiety is real and many young individuals experience feelings of depression, anxiety and disappointment due to the environmental challenges they witness. Studies have even demonstrated how prolonged exposure to heatwaves can impact people’s mental health. This issue isn’t exclusive to youth; it affects local communities, leading to a rise in cases seen in hospitals. As a medical doctor, I can attest to this. Therefore, building a strong support system is crucial. Surrounding yourself with friends, colleagues and supportive family members is essential. Collaborating with others to stay motivated is key. Celebrate small achievements, take breaks from constant news consumption and in times of disaster, like the earthquake in Morocco in early September, focus on taking action. Maintain a positive mindset and remember that while you can’t solve all the world’s problems, you can stay dedicated to your own meaningful goals. Stay focused and keep moving forward while not losing sight of the bigger picture.
OFQ: What in your opinion is needed to elevate meaningful youth engagement for climate action?
SU: We, as young people, must come together and collaborate, supporting one another—this is our first imperative. We also require advocates, whether they be adults, mentors or allies, to join forces with us. These supporters can come from various sources, including agencies and different groups that align with our cause—a vital aspect of our mission. Effective communication is paramount. Engaging with media influencers and community leaders, and leveraging these communication channels to amplify our voices and reach the right audiences, holds great importance. Furthermore, the power of exchange cannot be overstated, whether it happens on a national or global scale. Sharing best practices, experiences and opportunities allows us to grow and learn collectively, identifying solutions that benefit us all.
OFQ: Anything you would still like to add?
SU: The climate battle is a long-term one. We may never completely solve it, but the key is to consistently play our part, enjoy the process, learn from our journey, and prioritize self-care. Everyone has a role to play. You don’t have to commit to it full-time; but every small contribution counts.