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As young climate activists descended on Glasgow for the UN COP26 climate summit, Vanessa Nakate faced a familiar but sad experience: being put aside.
“I think it’s not just my experience. There are many activists from the Global South who were left out of the conference,” she said.
Nakate is no stranger to the world stage or has not been erased from the record, having attended another summit last year in Davos, Switzerland.
While there, she posed for a photo with other activists. She was the only black woman among the five who were photographed, and when The Associated Press posted the photo, they cropped it out of the photo.
After the photo was posted, Nakate tweeted, “You haven’t just erased a photo, you wiped out a continent, but I’m stronger than ever.”
She also posted a video asking the question, “Does this mean that I have no value as an African activist, or that Africans have no value at all?”
Nakate is Ugandan and her experience in Davos influenced the title of her new memoir, A bigger picture. My fight to bring a new African voice to the climate crisis. She spoke to NPR about the role gender plays in climate activism, if the COP26 summit seems inclusive, and her advice for other young people who want to get involved in climate activism.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity and includes some highlights only from the web.
On the way young people see the climate crisis
Many young people … young adults, many adolescents, many children are worried about the reality of the climate crisis. They worry about the kind of future they are heading into. And sometimes it can be difficult for so many young people because they can be frustrated. They can be depressed due to the continued inaction of leaders and the escalation of climate disasters. I experienced it too. So it’s sad because young people see how much their life is in danger. But again, it’s also helpful because they don’t keep quiet about it. They speak up. They are mobilizing and sending messages, demanding for a future which is rightfully theirs.
On the need to learn more about climate change from the perspective of people in the southern hemisphere
There is so much to learn about the climate crisis, and learning more about the climate crisis means learning from the voices on the front lines. And we have seen to what extent activists in the south of the world, who speak out in the communities most affected, do not make their voices heard. Their voices are not amplified. Their stories are fading … It’s a problem. We cannot have climate justice if the voices of the most affected regions are left behind.
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On whether the COP26 summit was inclusive or exclusive
On my first day at the COP, I met [Nicola Sturgeon], the Prime Minister of Scotland … with Greta Thunberg. And unfortunately some media, the way they were talking about it, you would see a picture, but then it would say, “Greta meets the prime minister”, [and not include my name]. And honestly, I just didn’t have words for it, because it’s something I’ve talked about before. I think it’s not just my experience. Many activists from southern countries were excluded from the conference.
What climate change looks like in Kampala, Uganda
Uganda as a country relies heavily on agriculture as an economy, and also for very many families, especially in rural areas. Thus, with the increase in global temperatures, the disturbances in weather conditions cause extreme weather events like floods, landslides, extreme droughts. So it means loss of people’s funds, drying up of people’s crops, destruction of people’s homes. These are some of the visible impacts of the climate crisis in Uganda.
On the role of gender in climate activism
It’s a conversation a lot of people don’t want to have. People don’t like to mix climate and, for example, race or climate and gender. But it is evident that women and girls are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis in communities like mine. In many communities in the south of the world, where women and girls are responsible for providing food for their families or collecting water for their families or firewood for their families. So many times, women are on the front lines when these disasters happen. It is their hard work that is damaged when farms are destroyed or when their crops are destroyed. These are the women who have to travel very long distances to collect water for their families in times of extreme water scarcity.
On what to tell young people who don’t know where to start with climate activism or those who feel they have no power
Well I would say no voice is too small to make a difference and no action is too small to transform our community. Often young people think they need so many resources or that they need a specific type of voice or a specific type of support. When I started my climate strikes I only had a marker, like a pencil to write my sign on… So I think it’s really important that young people around the world know that you are not too small to tell the difference.
The audio version of this interview was produced by Noah Caldwell and Jonaki Mehta and edited by Ashley Brown. Wynne Davis adapted it for the web.