Sagarika Sriram was just 10 years old when she started reading newspaper stories about a planet in peril—one about a whale that washed ashore after an oil spill, another about turtles found with plastic in their stomachs. She knew right then that she wanted to do something to take action, and joined an environmental group that organized cleanup campaigns in her home city of Dubai. The experience, she says, “helped me understand what an individual can do and how I can really make a difference.” But individual power is mightiest at scale, and in 2016, as a project for a coding class, Sriram created Kids for a Better World, a digital platform that has since brought together nearly 100,000 youths from around the world who want to learn how they, too, can fight climate change.
Sriram, now 16, has been called “an inspiration to all young girls in her country and West Asia” by the U.N. Environment Programme. She is at the fore of a growing cohort of youth climate activists organizing and mobilizing online in the name of a cleaner, healthier future. “We’re the generation that is going to face the consequences if the climate crisis is not tackled,” Sriram says, echoing the sentiment of other young global climate leaders, like Sweden’s Greta Thunberg. She recalls taking note of Bali’s Melati Wijsen, a teenager who successfully pressured leaders there to ban plastic bags in 2019. “Such inspirational and drastic change like that is what taught me to never give up,” says Sriram, who works closely with other youth activists and organizations across the Middle East.
As well as online engagement, Sriram organizes local cleanups on beaches and deserts in the United Arab Emirates, collecting garbage such as cigarette butts and face masks. The pandemic has made it “a little more complicated to conduct these events,” she says, but we’ve suggested that people can go on their own in their own little groups of families and make an impact.”
Slowing climate change requires drastic action on the part of governments and corporations, but Sriram believes even little individual actions can create a “ripple effect” and help build momentum in the right direction. “Change can be created on large levels even with small actions,” she says. Kids for a Better World reflects that thinking, with material designed to teach kids from eight to 16 about climate change and what they can do in their own homes and communities to reverse it (they could grow food or plant trees at home, for instance, or collect recyclables and avoid plastic bags). Sriram wants those lessons to be taught in schools around the world. “Education is the foundation of what we learn and we spend so much time in school, so this is the information which can help change our future,” she says.
Sagarika Sriram, a teen climate activist, photographed outside her home on December 29th, 2021.
Natalie Naccache for TIME
Growing up in a desert metropolis that faces risks from rising temperatures and dwindling water supplies made Sriram acutely aware of the need for action. She believes youth advocacy work is effective in bringing needed attention to the challenges the U.A.E. and neighboring countries face. “When children spread a message, and you go door-to-door telling people about this, they tend to understand what’s going on,” she says.
Even if she’s all about small actions, Sriram has big plans herself. She aims to study behavioral economics at Stanford University while continuing her activism work and running Kids for a Better World, with an aim to expand globally and create an “international team of eco warriors,” as she puts it. Moreover, she hopes that the work she’s doing will inspire others to fight for a greener planet, as others inspired her. “We’re creating our own system of inspirational change makers,” she says.
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