She might have heard about the climate crisis before, but it had never really hit home until she overheard an intense conversation between her father and his friends about how the changing weather patterns were affecting agriculture and livelihoods.
Little did Vanessa Nakate, who is turning 25 tomorrow, know that this was an epiphany which would change her life. A few years later, there she was addressing international gatherings, including at UN events, on the climate crisis.
Last weekend she was at the forefront of one of the biggest climate protests, which she also addressed, in Glasgow in Scotland where the UN COP26 climate crisis summit was held for the past fortnight.
Nakate added her voice to the loud chants that echoed through the city known for its well-preserved Victorian architecture, where tens of thousands had gathered and were calling for immediate action on the climate crisis.
Nakate and others chanted:
This week the Ugandan climate justice activist shared the story of her humble beginnings in one session she addressed at the summit.
She remembered her father and his friends’ conversation on the impact the lack of rain was having on agriculture production and job security.
“I was only 21 [but] I could sense the urgency in his voice, and I knew I needed to find a way to help make things better. I started to carry out research about changes in weather patterns,” Nakate said.
“As I grew older, I studied more and more on how the climate crisis was already ravaging parts of the African continent, which is tragic and ironic, given that Africa is one of the least emitters of CO2 emissions of all continents except for the Antarctica … The entire continent of Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions and yet Africans are already suffering some of the most brutal affects fuelled by the climate crisis.”
Climate and justice are two words almost always on Nakate’s lips whenever she speaks. Having seen and experienced the impact of the climate challenge in her own country, she believes African and many other developing countries are not being seriously considered despite the plight they are already enduring in the face of the climate crisis.
For almost two weeks, Nakate echoed her own frustrations and reiterated others’ misgivings on how the climate crisis was already ravaging Africa. She cited the “rapidly intensifying hurricanes, the devastating floods and the withering droughts” and the fact that many Africans were already losing their livelihoods due to the severe impact on agriculture.
Now counted among the leading young climate crisis activists in the world, Nakate has rubbed shoulders with powerful heads of states and other global heavyweight climate justice campaigners.
Last year she made the cover of Time magazine when she was interviewed by Hollywood star, Angelina Jolie. She has grown from a lone protester on Fridays in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to big platforms where she continues to address international gatherings such as COP26.
Yet she has remained humble, though unapologetic, about her activism. Like many other activists, Nakate does not have much confidence in the COP summits to reduce the impact of the climate crisis, especially for the most vulnerable countries.
“Let us be honest, we have been here before … there have been 25 COPs before this one and, every time, leaders come to these climate negotiations with an array of new pledges, commitments and promises. And as each COP comes and goes, the emissions continue to rise. Nakate said:
Promises will not reduce CO2; promises will not stop people’s suffering and pledges will not stop the planet from warming. Only immediate and drastic action will pull us back from the abyss ... The truth is that the atmosphere doesn’t care about commitments, it only cares about what we put into it or stop putting into it.”
Unapologetic about her scepticism of the decisions coming out of the COP summits and their implementations, Nakate made a heartfelt appeal for public and private sector leaders to do things differently this time.
“Show us your faithfulness, your trustworthiness; show us your honesty, prove us wrong … God helps us all if you fail to prove us wrong,” she said to big applause.
In Glasgow, Nakate was seen with Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg. The 18-year-old straight talker is known across the world for accusing global leaders of inaction when it comes to addressing the climate crisis, and this was the case in Glasgow.
“It’s not a secret that COP26 is a failure … this is no longer a climate conference, this is now a global north greenwash festival, a two week-long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah [while] the most affected people in the most affected areas still remain unheard.
“The voices of future generations are drowning in their greenwash and empty promises, but the facts do not lie, and we know that all emperors are naked,” Thunberg told protesters in Glasgow last weekend.
Meanwhile, being an activist has not been without challenges for Nakate. Last year, she went viral after an international news agency cropped her out of a picture with Thunberg and two other young activists, an action she later described as “racist”.
When Trevor Noah asked her later on his Daily Show, she appeared to be over it but still has a strong interpretation of the incident.
“I think that is the horrible reality of the climate crisis. Africa is responsible for only 3% of the world’s emissions, we are not on the front pages of the world’s newspapers, but we are seeing continuous underrepresentation of activists from the most affected areas,” Nakate said. She said:
“Climate justice is only justice if every community, if every voice is listened to and is amplified – especially the people from the most affected areas.”