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12-year-old disrupted high-level session at COP28, frustrated by the lack of action on climate change

Born in the beautiful Northeastern State of Manipur, Kangujam, India, my village boasts lush green mountains, a serene atmosphere, and rich biodiversity. Yet, the people face an existential threat as a water crisis keeps the taps dry.

  • 2 months ago
  • April 19, 2024
8 min read
Licypriya Kangujam being dragged away by security after she disrupted a high-level session at COP28. | Photo courtesy shared with permission from Licypriya Kangujam's X page Licypriya Kangujam being dragged away by security after she disrupted a high-level session at COP28. | Photo courtesy shared with permission from Licypriya Kangujam's X page
Licypriya Devi Kangujam
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Licypriya Devi Kangujam, 12, was born October 2, 2011 and by six became a climate activist in India. She founded The Child Movement and works to protect, preserve, and nurture our environment by fighting for climate justice. She is one of the youngest climate activists globally and has addressed world leaders at the United Nations Climate Conference 2019 (COP25) in Madrid, Spain, calling on world leaders to take immediate climate actions to save the future. In 2023, she disrupted a UN high-level session at COP28 in Dubai, where she was detained by the UAE police.
background information
Member countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meet every year to measure progress and negotiate multilateral responses to climate change. Since entering into force in 1994, the UNFCCC has provided the basis for international climate negotiations, including landmark agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Agreement (2015).
The first Conference of the Parties (COP) was held in Berlin, Germany, in 1995. The 28th COP was held at the end of 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Activists usually hold protests at the conferences to assert their rights and raise their voices.

DELHI, India ꟷ At the age of 12, I disrupted an international, high-level session of world leaders. As I sat beside my mom in the audience, a sudden thought occurred to me: to run up on stage and create a scene.

[COP28 was the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was held on November 30 to December 13, 2023 at Expo City, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).]

I looked over and told my mom, “I’ll be right back. I’m going to do something. Please don’t be scared.” I quickly ran on stage, lifting my placard, which read, “End Fossil Fuel, Save Our Planet and Our Future.” This could have had severe consequences, but at that point, I did not care. I felt tired of the beautiful speeches and frustrated with the lack of political will amongst leaders. My planet sits on the brink I needed to do my part.

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As I approached the stage, no one stopped me. They must have thought I was invited to speak. Then, I began shouting at the top of my lungs. The sound echoed throughout the auditorium. As people watched in disbelief or admiration, an official approached and asked me to leave. I continued and two UAE security professionals came to drag me away.

The weight of their arms around me did not stop me from shouting louder. I raised my voice for the millions of innocent children and people of the global south and developing poor nations who become the victims of today’s climate crisis. I do not want future generations to face the same consequences we currently face.

She challenged the system at COP28 in Dubai

The COP events are one of the only platforms where activists and indigenous people can be heard. Yet, COP28 in Dubai took the wrong direction. I viewed it as a summit for fossil fuel lobbyists. When the officers took me, they seized my things and my placard, demanding to know who invited me.

I wondered, “How can they do this? I should not have to be the one confronting world leaders at the age of 12.” They went further, threatening that COP28 would be my last conference. Their actions angered me and I promised to return even stronger.

Security detained me at the registration desk while my mother searched for me. She became hysterical and posted on social media that her daughter went missing. That drew a lot of support from those attending and even from outside the UAE. After about 30 minutes, they called my mother on the phone. She finally located me and picked me up from where I was detained. 

COP28 is the not the first time security personnel confronted me as a child. I protested for several days before India’s Parliament. Since the age of six, I joined the revolt in preference to enjoying my youth and playing with friends. My actions cost me parts of my childhood. At COP27, I confronted U.K. Climate Minister Zac Goldsmith for not responding to my questions about the release of climate activists, arrested for protesting against fossil fuels. 

As a child, I experience the impact of climate change first-hand

Born in the beautiful Northeastern State of Manipur, Kangujam, India, my village boasts lush green mountains, a serene atmosphere, and rich biodiversity. Yet, the people face an existential threat as a water crisis keeps the taps dry. The water scarcity makes it difficult for even the rich to find water. A scramble for resources triggers bloody violence in my once peaceful Manipur. Money spares no one.

We moved to Delhi in 2016 but the toxic levels of air pollution messed up my life. We moved again to Bhubaneswar, Odisha but in 2018, our lives changed. A heavy cyclone struck the area, killing many people and causing massive devastation. We barely recovered when we got hit by another event in 2019. This time, we moved hack to Delhi to contend with the pollution and extreme heatwave.

Licypriya, now 12, has been protesting around the climate crisis since the age of six. | Photo shared with permission from Licypriya Kangujam’s X account

At school and at home, we lacked clean air. I spent a lot of my childhood visiting relief camps to support those most affected by natural disasters. I vividly recall the pain and suffering in the eyes of the children and adults I met. All these disasters I witnessed in my childhood prompted me to begin asking questions. In July 2018, at the age of six, my father, who is also a climate activist, took me to my first United Nations disaster conference in Mongolia.

That meeting opened my eyes to the meaning of climate change and its urgency. There, I met and listened to experts, scientists, and several leaders. Many people asked about the environmental challenges my country faced and what young people were doing. They encouraged us to raise awareness, plant trees, and organize cleanups. I learned I could become a climate activist, though I did not know what that word meant.

She started her activism at the age of six and has protested at the Indian Parliament

As I began to better understand climate change and how bleak the future looked, I needed to do something about it. This pushed me into climate activism.  I listened to my mentor and started my own organization called India’s Child Movement. Angered by the deaths of children linked to pollution, I headed to the gates of my country’s parliament. The leaders seated in the airconditioned rooms did little, and I needed to confront them.

The first day of my protest, in February 2019, I took my placard alone to the front of the Parliament. It read, “Dear Mr. Modi & MPs, PASS THE CLIMATE CHANGE LAW! ACT NOW!” I repeated this protest again, for a full week in July 2019. Each time, police and security guards asked me to leave. That always brought tears to my eyes. While some called me an actress, India’s media gave me visibility.  With my continued protests, people began to know my name. Later in 2019, the opportunity arose for me to address world leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid. 

In the beginning of my activism, my mother worried about the impact on my education and asked me to stop. I promised to maintain balance and not let my education suffer. Together, we worked out a plan. I do not work on my activism during school days, and if a project cannot be moved, my school and teachers graciously allow me to go and make up the work later.

Young people around the world are working hard toward climate justice

Even though I started my activism before Greta Thunberg, her success serves as an inspiration to many like me. I feel proud that because of me and many other youth climate activists, young people my age fight together.   We will continue until we achieve our goal of climate justice. We ask rich nations, historically responsible for the climate crises, to commit to financially support poorer nations which suffer the most.

Even though I can no longer protest in front of the Parliament because of heightened security, I hold onto our successes. In October 2020, India’s President Ram Nath Kovind approved a new anti-air pollution law to save Delhi. The support I receive from my parents, my sister, and people throughout the world makes me emotional and sustains me. I also feel driven by the faces of the children I saw, who survived the cyclone and violence in Manipur.

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