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‘2.4C is a death sentence’: Vanessa Nakate’s fight for the forgotten countries of the climate crisis | Climate crisis

‘2.4C is a death sentence’: Vanessa Nakate’s fight for the forgotten countries of the climate crisis | Climate crisis

Nakate, Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, Isabelle Axelsson and Loukina Tille at Davos. When it first published the photo, AP cropped out Nakate.

In February 2020, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Vanessa Nakate had her point made for her in the most vivid and “frustrating and heartbreaking” way. Last month, the 25-year-old Ugandan climate activist had traveled to Switzerland to offer some perspective to the cosy consensus. “One of the things that I wanted to emphasise was the importance of listening to activists and people from the most affected areas,” she says. “How can we have climate justice if the people who are suffering the worst impacts of the climate crisis are not being listened to, not being platformed, not being amplified and are left out of the conversation? It’s not possible.”

Greta Thunberg was also present at the press conference. The photo was published by the Associated Press. it cropped out Nakate. It was, she said at the time, her first encounter with direct and blatant racism – and only reinforced her point and made her campaign more urgent. AP later expressed “regret” for its “error in judgment”.

If those discussing climate can’t even bear to acknowledge – never mind focus on – African activists, then their solutions will be incomplete and myopic. They will only compound the injustices already present in the crisis. “Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions,” Nakate says, speaking to me on a video call from Kampala, Uganda’s capital. “It’s important to recognise that the climate crisis was caused by the global northThe global south is the one that is suffering. This places a great responsibility on the global north to act and to ensure climate justice, especially for those living at the frontlines. But this conversation is a hot tea for many people.”

“Hot tea” is a phrase she uses a few times. It conveys something between “strong medicine” and “difficult, challenging idea”. The image is representative of her style: unflinching and trenchant, persuasive.

Nakate, Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, Isabelle Axelsson and Loukina Tille at Davos. When it first published the photo, AP cropped out Nakate.
Loukina Tille, LuisaNeubauer, Greta Thnberg, Isabelle Axelsson, and Luisa Neubauer at Davos. AP cropped Nakate from the photo when it first published it. Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

Three years ago, Nakate didn’t see where she was going. She wasn’t ready to start a difficult conversation about climate reparations or environmental imperialism on a global scale. At the start of 2019, she was about to graduate from Makerere University Business School, part of Uganda’s oldest university. “All my life, I knew what I was doing. I’m going to high school, then I’m going to upper high school; I’m going to university, then possibly do a master’s or professional course, get a job, get married and live happy ever after.” Her degree was in business administration and marketing and she was keen to do a postgrad in marketing. “It was all about having a greater advantage in the job market, living, being able to survive and take care of the basic necessities of life.”

It wasn’t that she was from an apolitical background. Her father, a businessman and father, were involved in local politics with a green, progressive bent. While her mother was supportive of those views, she looked after her siblings full-time. But Nakate never imagined becoming part of a protest movement: “I got to know the word ‘activism’ when I started doing activism. I don’t remember it ever being in my vocabulary, or even in my imagination.”

Students were allowed to take a few months off from graduation to volunteer in their communities. As Nakate started to research what challenges people were facing in their daily lives, she began “to understand what global warming means, how much impact it’s having”. While they had previously studied climate at school, it was in abstract terms. She didn’t have any experience with the crisis as it happened. Many of the active industrial and agricultural harms, “the coal and oil industries, the impact and the food we eat, all this I’ve been learning from fellow activists, from communities living on the frontline”.

As 2019 progressed, it moved from extreme weather event to other. Cyclones struck March and April 2019. Idai Kenneth struck south-east Africa and left 2.2 million people needing flood relief – this in Mozambique, where nearly 1 million people had already been displaced by floods. The summer saw a surge in floods. flooding in Niger threatened 200,000 people; in November, Djibouti recorded two years’ worth of rain in a single day. Nakate began to research the impact of the climate crisis on her region, and was pulled into the vortex destroying livelihoods across the continent.

The organisations she founded – Youth for Future Africa, Rise Up and the Green Schools Project – pan in and out from the micro to the macro. She visits schools to mobilize young people and help install solar panels. She has just published A Bigger PictureThis is a memoir that is partly about her life, but mostly a call to arms. She spoke at Cop25 and Cop26 – and alongside Ban Ki-moon, the former secretary-general of the UN, at the Forum Alpbach, which brings together major political figures and leading thinkers. It all began on the first Sunday in 2019, with what she least wanted to do: a protest in the streets.

Nakate and fellow activists campaign in a suburb of Kampala in September 2020
Nakate and other activists protest in a Kampala suburb in September 2020. Photograph: Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters/Alamy

“I was so scared to go to the streets and just hold a placard. I was afraid of people seeing me and worried about what my classmates would think. This is what many students would call a walk in shame. Who would do that?” she says. “And I wasn’t wrong about my fears. My fellow students were telling me what they thought about my activities. They were laughing, mocking. I was right to think it would be embarrassing.”

At the time, there was a protest movement against tuition fees, but it was considered fringe and Nakate didn’t consider herself countercultural. Students striking in Uganda face more obstacles in Uganda than in Europe or the USA. There are bureaucratic hurdles to clear; demonstrators require permits to gather near civic buildings. Nakate has not been arrested, but her friends have. She was intimidated by the amount of resources required for a movement to organize a muster point with microphones.

“The other thing is education,” she says. “It is so valued in our families, in our country. You may not be able to go school every day, or every child will finish school. But you are taught that education is the key of success. [Thirteen years of education are free in Uganda, the first seven of which are compulsory, but dropout rates are high.]We value education and we know how hard our parents worked for it. Students can’t skip school or strike the climate, which is why it’s so difficult for them. They could be expelled.”

Boarding schools are more common (and affordable) in Uganda than in the UK, but students can go a full term without accessing the internet – and thus without knowing a youth climate movement has even started. “It’s much more difficult to build a social movement on the internet in Africa,” she says. “In Europe and the United States, students can have phones at very young ages. It’s not the same in my country. You might get a phone at 16 if you’re really lucky. More likely it would be 18.”

Initially, the protests comprised Nakate alone or with a sibling (she has two brothers and two sisters, as well as “a lot” of cousins). Her friends started to laugh at her and joined her in the protests. They were older than the school strikers across Europe, in their early 20s, which was part of the reason she founded Youth For Future Africa, because “school strikes” didn’t quite describe the growing movement.

She was inspired to do so by the Friday school strikesThere are many other places in the world. Nakate says they made her feel “so scared. I knew that I could not allow another week to pass without speaking up. It was actually Saturday, and I realized that Friday was gone. It gave me an overwhelming feeling of urgency. I felt like I should have started earlier. It wasn’t climate change – it was a climate crisis.”

So she began her Friday strike on the next day. The movement spread quickly on social media and in front of petrol stations and shopping malls. This became the focal point for many pressing issues such as the degradation and destruction of the Congolian forests. She was one the very few youth activists to Cop25 in Madrid at the end 2019

Vanessa Nakate and Greta Thunberg with Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, at Cop26 in Glasgow
Nakate and Thunberg with Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, at Cop26 in Glasgow.Photograph: Getty Images

Travelling to summits, engaging at close quarters with the speechifying of global leaders, often leaves her disillusioned – “with the feeling that things are speeding up in the wrong direction”. Her optimism is restored by grassroots movements. “I choose to believe that another world is not only necessary, but it’s also possible,” she says. “I have that hope because of the people who are organising in different parts of the world. If I ever stopped hoping, I wouldn’t have the strength to strike.”

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One of the things she has been trying to add to the global agenda is loss and damage – making a proper evaluation of how much the emissions of the developed world cost the developing world, in terms of extreme weather events and the destruction of habitats and livelihoods. While rich nations often pledge money for decarbonisation or building renewable infrastructures, it is often slow to materialize.

Nakate says: “We need a separate fund for loss and damage. Communities are unable to adapt to the loss and destruction of their culture and traditions. This means they can’t adapt to the loss in lives or starvation. We have to start this conversation about the climate crisis; who is responsible and who has to pay?” It is important to conceive this money not as aid, but as reparations, she says. At a practical level, the money must come in the form of grants, not loans: “We don’t want to see the climate movement adding to the existing debt of the global south.”

The international community is happy to have a conversation about adaptation financing, but avoids the idea of reparations. Researchers are paying for this cost. only beginning to piece together. But, says Nakate, a discussion that “won’t hear or recognise who has been harmed or affected in the past can’t recognise or respect the knowledge, wisdom and decisions of the people on the frontlines. There are many solutions that are already available in vulnerable countries. Every activist has a story to tell, and every story has a solution, and every solution has a life to change, but this change will only happen if every activist is listened to.”

Climate summits are at their most creative, offering solutions that seem like the future, but actually increase the problems of today. “You hear governments talking about tree-planting campaigns – these often mean that indigenous communities are going to lose their land. This isn’t what climate justice will look like.

“If governments are talking about transitioning to electric vehicles, that cannot involve dumping all unused petrol and diesel engine vehicles in already vulnerable countries. This is not climate justice. Some of the material that is used in the manufacturing of electric vehicles means that people – women, children, girls – are exploited in the process. If the cost of having electric vehicles means exploitation of people in specific parts of the world, that is not climate justice.”

By the time Covid-delayed Cop26 happened, the carelessness of the global north towards the south – and the absurdity of trying to reach international agreements without addressing that – had a new exemplar: vaccine inequality. “Many activists from the global south have challenges getting to Cop – accreditation, funding – but now the challenge was vaccination. It was impossible for activists to travel and share their experiences. Once you see the connection, how vaccine iniquity is hindering the centring and platforming of voices from the most affected communities, you then see the connection between vaccine distribution and climate justice.”

At the close of that conference – which had been studded with supposedly fruitful developments and last-minute pledges worthy of a soap opera – “the climate tracker showed that we were on a pathway to 2.4C”, Nakate says, soberly. “This is a death sentence for so many. It made me realize how promises will not stop suffering in different parts of the globe. Promises won’t stop the planet from warming. Pledges won’t stop the effects of the crisis. Only real action will bring about justice.”

A Bigger Picture by Vanessa Nakate is out now (Pan Macmillan, £20). Order your copy of the Guardian or Observer to support them guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges could apply

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