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Bahraini activist Reem Al Maella has helped create one of the largest Arab environmental movements in history. Her group, the Arab Youth Climate Movement, wants Arab governments to take the lead at climate talks in Doha.
DW: There was almost no mention of climate change in the media or at your school when you were growing up in Bahrain. How did that change when you started studying in London?
Reem Al Maella: I hadn't heard of climate change until I started my degree in marine biology when the Conference of Parties (COP) was happening in Copenhagen. People started calling it Hopenhagen and that really caught me.
I started wondering, well if every country had its negotiators going out and trying to combat climate change, what is Bahrain doing? When I came back to Bahrain I started asking around about it. People said ‘Reem, what are you talking about?’
So people around you hadn’t ever heard of climate change?
Yes. A lot of people haven't heard about it. There are some who have heard of climate change, mainly youth who travelled abroad and have an interest in the environment. But, most normal local kids don't really know much about climate change or the environment. It's not a hot topic.
I was fortunate enough to meet the other country coordinator, who attended Rio +20 and he was told there is this idea of starting an Arab Youth Climate Movement, which we both got very excited about.
So you noticed that climate action wasn’t happening in Bahrain and then this opportunity came along. Why was it so inspiring?
Knowing for a fact that there were other Arabs who are exactly like myself in nearby countries, all in the same situation, the opportunity and the idea that we can actually get together and form a team was very exciting.
The uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have created new opportunities for young leaders
The whole world thinks that youth don't really care, that Arab youth don't care. Actually we had over 500 applicants for the Arab Youth Climate Movement.
AYCM launched in September, so we are talking only ten weeks ago. And within these ten weeks everyone started launching their own chapter in their own country. We went into universities to talk about climate change, to tell people why we should care.
COP is coming to an Arab country. This is our chance. Across the region we were helping everyone to get involved, from protests that have happened, from educational seminars, debate panels, and it was so interesting to hear the views from different people.
Some of your members won’t be able to attend the climate talks because of fighting in their home countries or security measures that prevent them from obtaining visas. How do these young people continue to commit to climate change action when being an activist is so tough?
When we all went to the meeting in Egypt, which is where AYCM was officially launched, the person coming from Tunisia could not make it. She was struck in a bomb attack and had to be hospitalized. The guy from Syria couldn't get out due to clashes on the streets. And the person in Libya showed up at the airport, and Tripoli airport which was under emergency shut down.
We didn't want people to go out to get hurt, no. There is no need for violence and anyway the Arab Youth Climate Movement is not a violent movement.
It's all about sitting down, understanding what's going on and approaching the problem. We've actually sat down with government officials going ok, this is the problem, this is what we care about.
How do you explain to people about climate change?
In Bahrain, we didn't just sit and talk to them about climate change, high temperatures, high this high that. No. We sat down, we actually put down a map of Bahrain, a map of the island, and we showed them with one meter of sea level rise, what would happen to the country.
We're losing more than 30 percent of our land. Bahrain is an island and most of the people live by the coast. So we were asking people to identify their houses through Google Earth, and that made reality strike.
So, in addition to education on climate change, what would you like your leaders to do?
The first thing is Arabs taking the lead in COP 18, which means leading the negotiations, having ambitious targets to cut down greenhouse gases. We want 30 percent cuts, 40 percent cuts, come back and actually implement it.
What is the Arab Youth Climate Movement hoping to achieve at the climate talks in Doha?
We want to make it clear to our governments that Arab youths are here. We are listening, we are following the talks, we have high expectations. It's their responsibility towards us to ensure the negotiations are a success.
When the talks open on the 26th governments will be under pressure to dramatically scale up their commitment to reduce emissions, and that's the kind of pressure that you'll be applying. But, often at these talks, the Middle East is seen as problematic region to negotiate with. Why do you think that is?
It is the biggest exporter of fossil fuels. This isn’t just an environmental topic, it’s political. I believe you can balance between keeping your economy right, and also have a fair environmental justice and negotiations.
How do you imagine the future? If the talks go the way you want them to, what does the planet look like when you inherit it?
If the talks go the way we would like them to, with this side of the world moving into renewable energies, it would be so successful because we have the sun almost the whole year, all 365 days of the year. Using wind energy everything would be much cleaner. I see the world as a very wonderful place to be in. Inshallah, this is what we all hope for.
Interview by Saroja Coelho