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25 May 2019 | News

In conversation with a climate leader

Bindu Bhandari, currently working in the Knowledge Management and Communications unit at ICIMOD, was recognized as one of the “25 female climate leaders shaping 2019” by the renowned British environmental magazine The Ecologist.

Kinley Lham

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Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD.

Bhandari has been engaged in climate action and activism since 2013, working with youth groups and organizations. She has been involved in climate activism with local communities across Nepal and has also taken part in a number of international and global conferences, including the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COPs).

In addition to finding out what this recent recognition means to her, the following interview was an opportunity to learn a little more about her climate activism experiences and plans for the year ahead – and beyond.

Below are excerpts of an interview conducted on 15 May 2019.


First and foremost, congratulations on being named one of the “25 female climate leaders shaping 2019”! How does it feel to be named alongside the likes of Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Jane Goodall, among other equally awe-inspiring names?


It’s surreal! Firstly, I couldn’t believe that people have begun recognizing the efforts of grassroots, community-level activities related mostly to the youth, and that too in a country like Nepal. I certainly feel proud. However, I am also acutely aware that along with this recognition and pride comes huge responsibility, which I continue to mull over.


How did your interest in climate change start? Why was it important for you?


My interest in climate change began by chance, actually. Throughout my school and college days, I was always interested in extracurricular activities, which I felt gave me an opportunity to explore my potential outside of academics. During my undergraduate studies, I was recommended by one of my seniors to join a youth network called CliMates. This network really helped me learn more about climate change and its contributing factors and impacts on people and communities.

I guess this was an important step for me because I started realizing the vulnerability of people in underdeveloped countries like Nepal, where most people are already struggling in their daily lives. To add to this, they are now facing the brunt of climate change impacts. However, most people do not yet understand how and why they are facing these harsh changes.

These realizations about both the vulnerability as well as ignorance of communities in Nepal regarding climate change appalled me. But I also saw great opportunity for young people like me to do so much more, to think outside the box – be it in the field of research, policy, or innovation – to address some of these problems and be a driver of change in our society.


How did this interest in climate change transform into activism for you? What was the process like?


After I joined CliMates, I was able to engage with young people from over 30 countries, learning from their experiences, knowledge, and most importantly their enthusiasm to do something and be the change.

That whole experience kind of propelled me into activism. I was aware that I needed to learn and apply myself to contribute to climate solutions, but I always knew I had my communications skills as my strength. So I made that my asset and got into activism – to create awareness about climate change and empower more people to take action at the grass roots.

The process in itself was initially quite arduous. Not everyone I approached was very positive. Plus, I come from a veterinary science background so people asked a lot of questions about my reasons and qualifications for climate change activism. There were many doubts about my career and long-term goals, but with increasing understanding of climate change people eventually became more supportive and more encouraging of the grassroots-level work I was involved in. This motivated me to keep empowering the people around me.


What do you think are your roles as an activist? What is the difference between someone who is concerned about climate and someone who is engaged in activism?


With climate change, you have the ongoing climate crisis but also the opportunity for change which this crisis presents. Most people who are concerned about climate tend to only see it through the scary lens of “crisis”. People then tend to be more afraid and focus on the dangers. But we should also be able to see the opportunities to change our traditional paths and course of action for a better future. We can start thinking about what we can do, which could be something completely new and inspiring.

As an activist, I need to lead by example to shed light on both the consequences of and opportunities in the situation we find ourselves in.


What motivates you to continue on this path of climate activism?


What motivates me the most is the opportunity it brings. I know a lot of people, especially the youth, want to bring about change. The gap between wanting to be the change and actually being the change is taking action. And the action I am taking not only brings positive response from around the world but also contributes to our fight against climate change. This really keeps the fire in my belly going.

I am lucky to be part of the incredible global network dedicated to climate activism, through which I have been able to meet many people from around the world who are doing inspiring things at the community level. Interacting with them and seeing how they are able to effect change continues to motivate me to do even more.


What would you consider a success when it comes to climate change and activism? Is there ever an end point to climate activism?


When I interact in programmes and discussions, people often ask me questions along this line: how can I make a difference? Does one person’s small effort even matter given the scale of changes and impacts that we are facing? My response has always been that not everyone is equally equipped to make an impact in fighting climate change at the same level, but I believe that everyone has something to offer. So for me, success is when an individual does something based on the resources that she/ he has or can make available. Everyone has their own ways and limitations, but everyone also has the liberty to contribute. So I would consider encouraging people to do their best to be a success.

Then there is change at the policy level. Success here would mean a sustained collective effort from all individuals and sectors to influence policy.

The foundation of climate action revolves around how to make things, our lifestyles, and our economy sustainable. So I don’t think there is ever an end point.


What is your opinion on the role of youth in climate change activism? What do they bring to the table that is different from other groups?


The youth are the present, and they can make each other realize their important role in shaping the future. So I strongly believe the youth are important stakeholders, not only in terms of their significant population globally but also their energy, innovative ideas, and ability to change or adapt their mindsets. They are the ones who will live in the world shaped by climate change, so the onus is on them to think in the long term and focus on collective efforts.

I believe the youth also bring a remarkable honesty and dedication to the fight. They have this freedom of expression – the freedom to take on anything and everything. They have the freedom to be very independent, speak out, and take action without thinking twice.


How challenging (or easy) is it to organize the youth in this day and age, in your experience?


It really depends on how you understand them. Sometimes, organizing can be easy when it’s reactive or reactionary, but this is often short-lived. Organizing towards the goal of long-term sustained action or with the aims of educating and raising awareness on a deeper level can be trickier.

For me it’s really about understanding the perceptions and experiences of the youth at that particular place and time – what are their experiences, hardships, needs, priorities, and values? Once you understand that, it becomes quite easy to effectively organize and mobilize the youth. So it’s more about understanding than anything else really.


What advice would you give to a young person living in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region who is thinking of becoming a climate activist or champion?


Over the years, it’s been so encouraging to see a lot of young people from the HKH region getting more involved in climate action and activism. My only real suggestion or advice would be to just get started. Start from where you are and with whatever you have.

I never knew I would be here today. I never knew I would be recognized as a climate leader. This was not what I imagined when I started. But once you start, you will find your own way. I can’t define the path for others, just like how I never really followed one set by others. I think everyone will eventually find their own way, and it’s important to not delay it.


What is the role of institutions like ICIMOD in climate activism? How can they better support people and groups who are championing the cause of climate like yourself?


It’s been a privilege to be a part of ICIMOD, which is of course doing a lot for the people and mountains in the HKH. I would however like to see organizations like ICIMOD engage and reach out to the public more. We do a lot of scientific work and put a lot of effort in communicating science, but I think many people, especially the youth, are looking for better opportunities to get started in climate action-related activities and activism in general. I think organizations like ICIMOD play a big role in providing a platform for regional knowledge sharing and building climate action activism. I also see a role in amplifying the collective voices of marginalized groups, women, and the youth.

Such organizations can mobilize people at the grassroots and also directly influence policy in the HKH region and beyond. So I think ICIMOD plays a crucial role in bottom–up and top–down action. Working on just one of these approaches won’t suffice. There needs to be a fine balance between the two.

From my experience as a young climate campaigner, all we are really looking for is a platform where we can raise our voice and be heard. Institutions such as ICIMOD can serve as spaces which can easily provide such a platform through greater engagement with and integration of the youth into their activities.


Based on your experience in global forums like the COPs, how much space and agency is really given to the youth to put forth their climate change agenda?


I took part in COPs 21 (2015) and 22 (2016). In these two conferences, following the official climate change negotiations, I saw an increasing level of openness, even among the people at highest level of policy and decision making, to listen to youth voices and support their action and demands on carbon emissions. Over the years I have seen more receptiveness of people at the global level towards the concerns of the youth. It is a gradual progress that I am confident will only improve.


Lastly, what would you like to see happen in terms of climate change awareness/negotiations in 2019? And what are your personal goals for 2019?


For 2019, I’d of course like more awareness to be created, with more stakeholders joining the movement at the global and national levels. I would really like to see more involvement of the finance and private sectors on the climate change front. Climate action has to go beyond the realm and domain of what is considered the environment sector. We can see this greater involvement from different sectors gradually, but we need to accelerate it, and involve people from diverse sectors, institutions, and backgrounds. The climate change agenda should be moved forward with everyone’s involvement.

My personal goal for this year is to reach out to more people, especially in the mountains of the HKH. Having worked at ICIMOD for one-and-a-half years now, I realize the extent to which the people in the mountains are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Elevation-dependent warming – that is, temperatures rise faster in higher elevations than in the plains – is an alarming issue for the mountains. However, most of our communities in the mountains, including the youth, still do not understand this or what it potentially means for us all. I am focused on reaching out to more youth groups this year, particularly in mountains areas, so they can understand the reality, science, and implications of climate change and act and advocate for meaningful change themselves.

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