WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
PHOTOGRAPH BY Pamela Elizarrás Acitores
Climate activist Saad Amer talks to The Frontline about being a Desi man, the heat wave affecting South Asia, and how the climate movement can protect his community.
I first met climate activist Saad Amer when we sat on a panel together back in 2021. I was immediately stricken by his clear focus on the intersection of voting and climate change. How can we respond to the climate crisis without a functioning democracy? How can we elect leaders who can create change without hitting the polls?
However, as Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month kicks off, I wanted to talk to him instead about his identity as a Pakistan American man. During AAPI Heritage Month, the South Asian community is often overlooked and forgotten—but they represent a portion of the globe that is among the most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis. We’re witnessing this reality in real time as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh broil under temperatures as high as 114 degrees Fahrenheit. These conditions can be deadly, especially in countries where many lack access to electricity.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re getting real for AAPI Heritage Month. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. I speak with Amer about his identity, the heat wave crisis, and what lies ahead. Voting is a big theme of our conversation (as it always is with Amer)—but so is the ongoing crisis of hate and violence the Asian American community faces. The only way we can get through this moment is by building community and taking action.
Saad, it’s always such a pleasure to talk with you. Can you just introduce yourself a bit for our readers and talk a little bit about your own connection to AAPI Heritage Month and the role you play in the climate space?
Totally. So, I’m Saad. I am a climate activist, environmental justice expert, expert reviewer for a recent IPCC report, and also the cofounder of Plus 1 Vote. For me, it’s really important to weave in the environmental justice realities of the climate crisis when organizing, writing policy, or consulting different businesses. A part of that comes from my background being Desi. Being Asian in America is its own very distinct identity. Growing up with that lens has informed a lot of my activism, as well as my sense of self. My identity impacts me every day—from the food I eat to the languages that I speak to even the research I’ve done and continue to do across the world.
There are so many complexities to the climate crisis. Whether that be the intersection of climate and democracy, or climate and gender, or climate and social justice, or climate and the economy. I find myself interested in a lot of those intersections.
I love your focus on voting and access to democracy. Can you talk a little bit about that part of your work?
For sure. I started working in the climate space when I was 12 or 13 years old. And one thing I realized was that efforts were not focused on building civic power and momentum toward larger climate policies. And voting is such a key component to that. It is one of the most direct levers that we have to pull to fundamentally change our entire system. This made clear to me the need to act in that space, so I cofounded Plus 1 Vote to mobilize young people and people of color to get out and vote on issues like climate change, voting rights, and social justice.
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You said earlier that a big part of how you approach your work is through that lens of being Desi—of being Asian in America. Talk to me more about how identity influences your climate work.
For so long, I was the only person of color in a lot of the rooms I was in. I knew there was something wrong about that even at a young age. I knew there was a clear lack of representation. In the context of how the climate crisis impacts people of color the most intensely, it didn’t make sense that those voices were left out of the conversation. They still are in so many ways. And so, for me, it became really important to ensure that those voices were represented. Any time a door was open for me, I would always be sure to keep my foot in the door to let in other young people or people of color, to create community in such a way that could help build the movement and help elevate the conversations that are so often overlooked.
When I was in college at Harvard, I knew that I had to do more work and research in South Asia given my connection there. I actually switched my major from evolutionary bio to environmental science and public policy after visiting Pakistan. I saw this large informal dump of garbage right by a waterway. As I was there taking photos, two school-age children were pulling forth a donkey-driven cart full of trash as this informal waste infrastructure. It made so clear to me how this environmental crisis is impacting the entirety of the world—and my own community back in South Asia.
What I realized from that experience was that this is not inherent to Pakistan or to the Global South. We have the same exact trash crisis in America, but we just do a better job of hiding it. The problem and the roots of those problems are the same. When I graduated, I moved to India and was living in Darjeeling in the northeast of India. I was doing research on the impacts of the climate crisis on 30 remote villages on the outskirts of Darjeeling.
How long were you living in India?
Like a year-ish.
But you yourself are of Pakistani descent, right?
We can often feel powerless in this larger system, but when we come together and organize, we can fundamentally change it because, at the end of the day, we are the system.
So, as a Pakistani American man who’s lived in India, I wanted to hear your thoughts on this heat wave scorching the region. We’re talking about record-breaking temperatures. Heat unlike anything people of this region have seen in over a hundred years, and summer hasn’t even hasn’t even started yet. How have you been processing this and thinking about this news?
When looking at the heat wave, a lot of the media attention is focused on India, but it’s also scorching through Pakistan and Bangladesh. That whole region right now is experiencing record heat. I think about it also in the context of the major heat wave in 2015 where many thousands of people died, the heat wave of 2019 where many more died. The highest peak usage of electricity was found in India during that same time as people were desperately trying to cool themselves.
We’re getting to a point where it seems as though these are not quite heat waves anymore—but rather the changed climate in the region. This heat in conjunction with large droughts is causing so much stress and death. These stories that we’ve been told about the climate crisis and how it’s going to generate war and violence as a result of people fighting for resources are no longer stories. It’s not a prediction of the future—it’s happening now.
And I don’t want to overlook the reality in Pakistan, where the prime minister was recently ousted. We’re also seeing the intersection of democracy and climate change. A lack of continuity of leadership is never a good sign when trying to address long-term climate issues.
Have you read the book The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson?
Someone just recommended that to me two or three weeks ago. I think this means I have to read it.
It’s so good. And it’s scary because the book opens up with a heat wave in the same region and follows the devastating ripple effects. You talked about violence, and the book shows the way that violent extremism can be born out of climate change. Folks become so desperate for things to change that they turn to violence to push leaders to act on the climate crisis. The connections you’ve made are important to recognize because the climate crisis runs so deep, right? The web of the climate crisis touches everything.
I know that in your own time in India, you experienced some of the fear and terror of a disaster. Tell me about how that shaped the way you navigate this space.
When I was in India, I was living in remote villages. To get to them, I would have to hike miles. A lot of the time, they had very informal infrastructure. There was one time I was walking and went to the edge of a road to take a photo—and the ground beneath me collapsed. I was grasping for my life in a landslide. I fell two or three stories. In that moment, I could see and experience the impact of the climate crisis because the destabilizing monsoon rains are degrading soil quality between intense floods and intense droughts.
That one experience was so representative of what’s happening to the region. I could see scars on the mountain side where landslides had occurred. A local told me that there was a landslide the week before and that it happened while school was in session. Four kids died. There’s already so little access to education in that area, so it was disheartening and saddening. We often talk about how climate change impacts young people the most, and that’s particularly so for a region like this. These innocent kids trying to learn were killed by a crisis that so much of the rest of the world continues to ignore.
I think a lot about your work around voting and, especially in a country like the U.S., the power that our votes have—not only for us but for the globe. How do you see these real-world impacts connect back to your work around voting?
The other day, I led a giant March for Science. I’m chanting things like, Tell me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like. Kill our climate? No, they won’t. We are gonna vote, vote, vote.
We can often feel powerless in this larger system, but when we come together and organize, we can fundamentally change it because, at the end of the day, we are the system. When I’m in a space like that, I can really feel that community and see how much desire there is to effect change. There’s so much momentum, particularly at a moment where we’re seeing attacks on our democracy. There are over 400 bills in 49 states attacking voting rights.
We’re getting to the brink. And people are paying attention right now to the intersections of climate change, democracy, and social justice. I’m excited to continue working on the midterm elections, as well as beyond for the longer-term climate policy that we need to see domestically and internationally.
How can the climate movement support the Asian American community, especially Desi people? How can the movement protect people from the extreme situations they’re now living through? And when I say climate movement, I don’t just mean advocates. I also mean our elected officials who claim to care about climate change.
We need to see better allocation of resources to these communities here in the U.S. And we need to stop the hatred.
First, I want to say there is no climate action without democracy. There is no democracy without climate action. These two things are tied so tightly together in the way we have established our system. If we don’t push for larger policies, then we’re going to see the collapse of ecosystems and governance. As we see collapse of governance and of civic institutions, it will be impossible to implement meaningful climate policy.
Also, I grew up in post 9/11 America and experienced racism from a very young age. Now, I see the hatred the Asian community is facing as a result of the targeted bigotry that has arisen throughout the pandemic. Part of the nature of being Asian American is having that common experience of facing that othering. The Stop Asian Hate Movement really brought together a lot of the AAPI community to organize, build that civic power, and stand up against hate and violence. That’s really important.
When thinking about the South Asian community, it’s interesting because even despite the fact that our vice president is a South Asian woman, we are still so often overlooked. I’ve barely seen any coverage of this heat wave in South Asia. People need to do a better job of paying attention. We need to see better reporting on these issues. We need to see better allocation of resources to these communities here in the U.S. And we need to stop the hatred.
We see this bigotry and hatred at the same time as we see younger generations adopting and clamoring to different Asian cultures—whether that be Hikaru Utada performing on the main stage at Coachella or K-pop taking a huge wave across the world. Squid Game is a great example, as well as this health and wellness culture that focuses so much on spices and ayurvedic practices or yoga. These things are directly taken from Asian cultures. We see the picking and choosing of what people want and then rejecting a lot of the other things—whether that be darker-toned Asian Americans or people with accents (even though these people speak multiple languages).
There is this constant othering and desire for people to fit you into a box. I stopped trying to appeal to the idea of what an Asian person is supposed to be. I started living more in my truth and in my culture the way that I live it.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.