Behind the cheerful smile of Duke Kunshan Class of 2025 student Manal Bidar lies big ambitions and an indomitable spirit that at just 19 years old has already led her to address world leaders about political inaction in tackling climate change.
Bidar has been a committed climate activist since her early teens, a path that led her to speak on the subject at the United Nations and several international conferences. Now in China, she wants to continue to draw attention to climate change and has ambitions once she graduates to tackle the issue in the political arena.
“It’s been a journey of mixed emotions since I started campaigning against inaction on climate change, one of frustration and powerlessness, but also of empowerment,” she says.
“There is a growing awareness of the issue, especially among young people, that is cause for hope,” she adds.
In 2016, Bidar was a happy 13-year-old living in the coastal city of Agadir in Morocco with her mother, younger sister and aunt, when a teacher asked her and her classmates to pick an environmental topic to write about. Bidar chose climate change, and armed with her first ever computer began to do some research. What she found left her feeling “shocked and helpless”.
“I felt frustrated that politicians and decision makers were not taking it seriously enough and so faced with all this frustration, sadness and anger, all these negative emotions, I decided I needed to do something about it,” she says.
Bidar enlisted some school friends to form a climate activism club, which she called Friends of the Earth Agadir and they began a campaign to raise awareness of climate change amongst their peers, with weekly events such as local clean-ups.
Some months later the club took their activism outside of the school and onto the city’s beach, bringing around 50 people of all ages together to walk in protest against inaction on climate change. They called the event The White March.
“We had managed to pull this whole thing together and it just felt like a moment of strength, that you know, even 13 years old students can still do something about this,” she says.
Not long after that the club disbanded as Bidar and her friends separated to go to different high schools. In Morocco high school begins at 14 or 15 years old. Still passionate about tackling climate change, Bidar focused on engineering subjects at high school, with thoughts of becoming an environmental engineer later in life. She also joined an international youth program called Young Reporters for the Environment that engages students to produce journalism focused on environmental issues.
That was an “enriching experience” she says, that taught her more about what was being done locally and nationally to address climate change. It was also the catalyst to the next stage in her climate activism as her reports, in English, French and Arabic, caught the attention of the Mohammed VI Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, who selected her to attend the 2019 G20 Osaka Summit in Japan.
At just 15 years old and her first trip outside Morocco, addressing a hall full of global decision makers was an “overwhelming experience” says Bidar, but she rose to the challenge.
“Everybody else was an expert in their field, and I was just a young person who did not have as much knowledge, but I knew I had to do something because at the end of the day, it is our future – young people – that is also at stake” she says.
The event was a pivotal moment in Bidar’s development as a climate change activist, not just because she was suddenly thrust onto the world stage, but also because it opened her eyes to the political angles and obstacles to tacking the issue. It was ultimately responsible for her choice to major in Institutions and Governance with tracks in Political Science at Duke Kunshan University.
Soon afterwards Bidar turned 16 and demand for her thoughts on climate change began to snowball. Over the following months and years she would address the United Nation’s first ever youth summit in New York in 2019, the COP26 meeting in Italy in 2021, COP27 in Egypt in 2022 and the 2023 G20 New Delhi Summit in India.
The youth summit was a particularly “empowering” moment, says Bidar. “I always felt lonely in a sense that I thought I was the only one who cared about climate change in Morocco, or the world, because you don’t know what other young people are doing in other places,” she says.
“Then at the summit, I realised that there are countless other young people who care about this too, and if so many care like I do, imagine the power we hold and imagine the power we would have if everyone cared” she adds.
In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Bidar’s activism was suddenly curtailed. Unable to do any on-the-ground reporting, or attend global events in person, she turned to using social media to spread her message and quickly began to realise its power. Her Instagram followers increased rapidly, reaching 60,000, with thousands more on other platforms including LinkedIn and Twitter.
Bidar continued her social media activism as she joined Duke Kunshan University in 2021, initially studying from home in Morocco due to the pandemic, before moving to campus in January 2023, keen to begin spreading the message about climate action face-to-face once again. But just weeks into her time there, she was sent to hospital with a persistent pain in her side and diagnosed with an ovarian tumor. Bidar faced it with her customary bravery and after surgery at a local hospital was given an accessibility room on the DKU campus during her recovery.
“It was the most painful thing ever, recovering from surgery,” she says. “I couldn’t do the basic things easily, like walking or eating, and I just felt helpless. It sort of reminded me of how I feel sometimes about climate change, that like it’s much bigger than me and I cannot do anything about it. Those are my dark moments.”
Now, almost back to full fitness and ready to face campus life once again, Bidar plans a return to her early activism days with the launch of a climate action club that will encourage a holistic approach to the issue including ordinary people, politics and science. She also continues to work in a variety of roles including as an ambassador for the African Youth Climate Hub, communications lead for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification Youth Caucus, and as a INGKA Young Leaders Forum consultant for IKEA.
Looking to the future, beyond DKU, Bidar says she wants “to be a climate activist forever” and tackle the issue from a political perspective. That might be through working for an NGO or intergovernmental body like the United Nations, or through her own organization, she adds. Whatever route she takes, her determination to do something about climate change is inspirational, especially to other young people.
“I’m always trying to make it as positive as possible, but for many people who want to be involved in this there are times when there will be a lot of obstacles and challenges, a lot of times when people will tell you you’re too young to do this, that you don’t deserve to be here or that you don’t have as much experience or don’t know enough because you are 15, 16, 19, 20,” she says.
“But if you want to be involved, especially young people, don’t let that stop you, and not just in terms of climate change. Don’t let it stop you from pursuing things you want to do because nobody is too small to make a difference, and no action is too small to make a difference,” she adds.