COP28: Climate mums make themselves heard in halls of power

Aydah Akao
Image caption,Aydah Akao, 43, travelled to COP28 while pregnant with her fifth child

By Malu Cursino

BBC News, at COP28 in Dubai

With the COP28 climate talks drawing to a close, three mothers from different continents tell the BBC how their love for their children has motivated them to take their arguments to the people in power.

For the past week, in the sweltering heat of Dubai, Aydah Akao has been on a singular mission.

For her personally, there are five reasons the world needs to act far more urgently on climate change: her children. Four are at home in the Solomon Islands, and she is pregnant with the fifth.

“My children are so afraid,” Mrs Akao tells the BBC. Rising sea levels are more than just lines on a chart for her family. It means their home, and heritage, are at risk of disappearing beneath the waves.

COP28 is her first UN climate summit, but as she marches around the vast Expo 2020 venue, she’s not alone.

Mothers from across the world have joined forces at the summit in Dubai to ensure their voices are heard by the heads of state and policy-makers making the key decisions at this conference.

Mrs Akao said her community in the Temotu province of the Pacific country is bearing the brunt of natural disasters worsened by climate change – from cyclones to droughts.

It was a long journey to get here, but for her, the sense of urgency and the need to get that across to everyone she meets is palpable.

The Solomon Islands, north-east of Australia, are made up of nearly 1,000 tropical islands and atolls. The country of 670,000 people is extremely vulnerable to climate change.

Mrs Akao says some smaller islands are, in her words, “already out” – meaning unliveable due to sea levels. Some of her relatives in Temotu province – made up of two chains of islands – have had to move to larger islands, as houses were washed away.

“We could lose everything,” she says. “We could lose our identity”.

Aydah and her youngest children.
Image caption,Aydah (middle) with her eldest daughter Eleanor Pago (left), four-year-old daughter Anika and son, Fernando (right) in the Solomon Islands

Asked about what she would like to see agreed by leaders at the summit, she’s unequivocal – an end to the burning of fossil fuels for energy.

Over the past 27 COP summits, all that has so far been agreed on this is a “phase down” of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. At this conference, hosted by the United Arab Emirates, a major oil producer, there may be agreement to go further, but deciding whether the world should further commit to “phasing out” fossil fuels has been highly contentious.

Aosis, a negotiating group responsible for the interests of small island nations (including the Solomon Islands), is demanding that the conference agrees action that will ensure the world does not warm by more than 1.5C compared to pre-industrial levels – something that many scientists say has already become out of reach.

Aydah Akao and her son Zedi Cavord
Image caption,Aydah Akao’s work on behalf of her children has inspired her eldest son, Zedi Cavord, to also get involved in climate activism.

Miriam Wanjiku, 35, is another mother making her voice heard at the conference.

From Kisumu in Kenya, Ms Wanjiku says her teenage daughter, Rahmina Paulette – the founder of a group called Kisumu Environmental Champions – inspired her to get involved with environmental action.

Ms Wanjiku now manages community projects in Kisumu with her daughter, focusing primarily on campaigns to safeguard Lake Victoria. It is the world’s second largest freshwater lake but pollution has left it blighted.

Their campaign,”Let Lake Victoria Breathe Again” aims to bring attention to chemical and single-use plastic pollution in the lake, which is impacting its ecosystem.

Miriam Wanjiku and her daughter Rahmina heading to COP28
Image caption,Miriam Wanjiku (left) and her daughter Rahmina heading to COP28 in Dubai from Kisumu airport

Rahmina, who is also at COP28, is in charge of the Pavilion for Youth and Children at the summit, Ms Wanjiku tells us. The 18-year-old is also part of the Fridays for Future movement, which has seen millions of school students around the world skip classes to protest for climate action.

While Ms Wanjiku supports her daughter, she’s worried that her relentless activism is getting in the way of her enjoying her youth.

“It is really distracting her because she wants to change things and sometimes it is like a force,” she says. “And she also has to be a kid at the same time.”

But both mother and daughter are keenly aware that the generational message that their joint activism sends is a powerful one.

A report from climate marketing firm Potential Energy Coalition, published in November, found that protecting the planet for future generations was an important motivating factor to solve the climate crisis across 23 countries surveyed – 18 of the G20 countries as well as Chile, Colombia, Kenya, Nigeria and Norway.

The report found that “love for the next generation” was identified by participants as 12 times more important than guaranteeing jobs.

Bhavreen Kandhari speaking to the BBC
Image caption,Bhavreen Kandhari, 51, is a mother of twins passionate about a future with cleaner air

Bhavreen Kandhari, a mother of twins from India, shares that motivation but she is kept awake at night by a very specific issue – clean air.

She lives in Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities, and joined the Indian clean air movement two decades ago, motivated by growing concerns over her then-baby girls’ health outcomes.

Bhavreen Kandhari and her twin daughters

“What are we doing to our children? They are breathing toxicity every second of their lives, and we are not even reacting,” she says. “My daughters are turning 20 … I still didn’t manage to bring them clean air.”

In polluted Delhi, one in three children has damaged lungs she says. “Unfortunately air is not visible. It’s invisible. We don’t see it, so we don’t believe it.”

In early November, the Supreme Court in India called for “immediate action” after air quality in the capital deteriorated to alarming levels. Similar orders in the past, targeting construction and crop burning, have had little impact. Weeks later, Mrs Kandhari left the smog for the halls of climate power in Dubai.

Along with Mrs Akao and Ms Wanjiku, she’s been able to attend COP28 with the support of Our Kids’ Climate, an organisation that empowers parent leaders and activist groups around the world.

Miriam Wanjiku (right), Aydah Akao and Bhavreen Kandhari
Image caption,Miriam Wanjiku (left), Aydah Akao and Bhavreen Kandhari all came to COP28 in Dubai with the support of Our Kids’ Climate, an organisation that unites parents to protect their kids from the climate crisis

Mrs Kandhari has been to many COP summits since her activism began but since Glasgow in 2021, she says parents – and mothers specifically – have increasingly found themselves coalescing around the same message.

“I think we’ve all been joining hands and I think that is what makes it so powerful.”

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