Desmond Tutu Peace Lecture | Vanessa Nakate: Do not be silent on climate change crisis

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Matric pupil Raeesah Noor-Mahomed skips school every Friday to protest against climate change outside Parktown High School for Girls in Johannesburg.
Matric pupil Raeesah Noor-Mahomed skips school every Friday to protest against climate change outside Parktown High School for Girls in Johannesburg.
Nomvelo Chalumbira

On Tuesday night, Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate and Christine Figueres, who was the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from 2010 to 2016, delivered the 10th annual Desmond Tutu Peace Lecture. Both Figueres and Nakate addressed the subject: Climate Justice Globally, Now and for the Future. Here is the speech that Nakate delivered: 

Greetings to you all. My name is Vanessa Nakate and I am a climate activist from Uganda. I am happy to be speaking with all of you today at this 10th International Peace lecture. I would like to wish a Happy birthday to Archbishop Emeritus Tutu on his 89th Birthday.

I started doing activism in the first week of January 2019 after seeing and researching about how much climate change affected the people in my country. I went on to read more about how it specifically affects the African continent. I realised that the climate crisis is the greatest threat facing humanity.

Africa is the lowest emitter of CO2 emissions of all continents, but it is among the most affected by the climate crisis. Climate change greatly affects and threatens water resources, food security, infrastructure, ecosystems and the people. 

We have seen devastating impacts of the climate crisis in Africa for example floods and droughts. With the increasing global temperatures, we are seeing the weather patterns being disrupted, causing shorter and heavier rainy seasons and longer and hotter dry seasons. The heavy rainfall has led to floods in different parts of Africa leading to much devastation and leaving many people’s livelihoods destroyed. Many people have lost their lives while many more have lost their homes, farms and businesses.

Cyclone Idai was one of the worst cyclones to affect the African continent, leaving a lot of damage in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. The heavy rainfall and strong winds left more than 1 300 people dead and many more were recorded as missing. Everything was reduced to rubble. All that was left was an economic crisis. 

This year, we witnessed the water levels of Lake Victoria rise as a result of heavy rainfall in East Africa. The water flooded homes of people, displaced people, washed away farms, submerged toilets and led to a water and food crisis.

We also saw an invasion of locusts in East Africa and these were linked to the heavy rainfall experienced and the warm temperatures as a result of global rise in temperatures. The locusts led to massive destruction of crops as they ate everything that was grown. This threatened the availability of food for the people in the region. And in September, we saw massive flooding in Sudan that has killed nearly 100 people and made thousands homeless.

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The Nile regularly bursts its banks and farmers rely on the floodwaters to create fertile land, but people who live along the Nile have never seen anything like the extent of this year's flooding.

Drought threatens millions of people in Africa.

Southern Africa has experienced terrible droughts that have led to food insecurity and water scarcity. I remember talking to a friend and an activist from Zimbabwe who told me that water is very valuable to them because they have been at a point where they have struggled to get water.

The water levels of Zambezi River, Lake Chad, Victoria Falls are lower than they have been for decades.

Lake Chad specifically has shrunk to a tenth of its original size in just fifty years. Over five years of drought in countries like Somalia have left almost half of the population without anything to eat or water to drink. The droughts have left nothing behind for the people. They have only left pain, agony, suffering, starvation and death.

No rain means hunger for many people.

Most countries in Africa heavily depend on rain for their agriculture, for example, the Western Cape region of South Africa.

Unfortunately, this region has seen heavy droughts which have affected crop growth. These droughts have been caused by poor rainfall and this has led to water stress and scarcity in countries like South Africa and, because of this, we have seen many water use restrictions put in place.

People do not have to live in such a water crisis. South Africa is Africa's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But South Africa also has a rare influence for an African country. They need to use their position in the G20 and BRICS countries to fight for affected people throughout Africa on the global stage.

Food and water crisis

What does climate change mean for Africa? It means food crisis, it means water crisis. Half of Nigeria has no access to water.

According to Oxfam, 12 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are in dire need of food but, with the escalating climate disasters, the number is going to increase with many people struggling to eat. Remember that, for every 1% increase in drought, there is a 2.4% decrease in agricultural output and a family will go hungry and a child will sleep hungry. None deserves this. No child deserves to live this way.

Congo rainforest, which is the largest rainforest in Africa faces massive destruction and yet over 80 million people heavily depend on the existence of this forest. Over 10 000 animals call this region home and it has over 10 000 species of plants.

This forest is the only home for the forest giraffe also known as the Okapi. Through the Save Congo rain forest strike, we are demanding for the protection of the lungs of Africa.

Many of these communities are also being threatened by increasing conflicts as a result of climate change. With every decline in natural resources, such as water or food, there is going to be a struggle among communities for the limited resources.

Migrations as a result of displacement, increased exposure of women and girls to gender-based violence, child recruitment into army forces, is most likely going to be exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

The vulnerability of the most affected communities never seems to end. They are threatened by diseases as they face these climate disasters. Many children are most likely going to face malnutrition because of lack of food to eat. They face a risk of starvation and death. The floods exacerbate the spread of malaria in different parts of Africa.

When toilets were submerged by the rise in water levels of Lake Victoria, water sources were contaminated hence putting a risk of cholera and diarrhea in these regions. This increases the death rates of children below the age of five. Climate change is a nightmare that affects every sector of our lives. We need to actually wake up and see these things, see these realities and see how much people are suffering as a result of climate change.

We will not be able to achieve any of the sustainable development goals without addressing the issue of climate change.

We cannot eradicate poverty because most of the people in these communities that are affected the most by climate change are already living in poor conditions and climate change only makes their situations worse. So how can we eradicate poverty without looking at this crisis? How can we achieve zero hunger if climate change is leaving millions of people with nothing to eat? How can we protect the life on land and the life under water without climate action? We cannot have gender equality without addressing this crisis, this catastrophe?

Child brides

Most of the rural communities have women do and handle most of the family chores of putting food on the table and fetching water for their families but with all these disasters, they must work double to recover what has been lost. They must walk long distances to collect water in case of a water crisis. This puts them at a risk of getting backaches, gender based violence as they walk long distances to fetch water. This is a challenge.

I read an article that was talking about child brides in Africa. It was stating that when a family is hit by a climate disaster and they lose everything, they are forced to give up some of their children for marriage and who else but the girl child since they can receive a bride price in return. Our girls are being given up for marriage because their families are losing everything to climate change.

We cannot have any more child brides.

We cannot have women walk long distances for water. Women and girls should and must not be exposed anymore to gender based violence. Leaders must do something about the climate crisis.

Many students stand at a risk of their education being affected since they have to drop out of school to help their parents recover all that has been lost to climate change. Many have to leave school to work in the farms while others have to leave school since their parents are not able to take care of their school expenses.

How can we have a future without education? Every child deserves to go to school. Every child deserves to be in school. Enough is enough. This must change. Everything has to change.

READ | Barbara Creecy: Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change response

I know that we need to find new solutions. I know that there are clean energy technologies that need further research and development and funding. 

But we also need to massively increase funding for the things we know will help. 

Project Drawdown lists the top 100 activities that would contribute most to the goal of reducing emissions. Ranked number six is an initiative that is rarely talked about in environmental circles – educating girls. Just beneath it is the connected issue of family planning at number seven. The education of girls and family planning can be considered as a single issue involving the empowerment of women in communities across the world. 

Project Drawdown calculated that, by taking steps toward universal education and investing in family planning in developing nations, we could result in a massive reduction in emissions of 51.48 gigatons by 2050.

That’s roughly 10 years’ worth of China’s annual emissions - and it’s all because the world's population won't rise quite so rapidly.

Educating girls has an impact beyond the individual, cascading into her family and her community. Research shows that women with higher levels of good quality education marry later and have fewer and healthier children, live longer and enjoy greater economic prosperity.

Why is no one talking about this? Why are we not doing this?

We need to be as excited about educating and empowering girls as the next shiny technological solution. We need to fund education for girls and family planning. And we need to do it on a massive scale. And we need to start now.

The current crisis is not something that is coming in the future. You must treat this as a crisis.

Leaders must realise that climate change is an urgent issue. It is a serious issue and now is the time to face the climate emergency. We are in the anthropogenic age and we are going to see disaster after disaster, challenge after challenge, suffering after suffering, extinction of species, destruction of ecosystems and communities if nothing is done about this.

You must be asking yourself how we are going to survive this and build a better future for the world. First of all, leaders must acknowledge that we are in a crisis and treating it as a crisis. The people and the planet must come first before anything else. If you don’t treat climate change as a crisis, then you will not do what is necessary for us to get out of this mess.

It is time for leaders to leave their comfort zones and see the danger that we are in and then do something about it. This is a matter of life and death. We are showing you the direction. There are two choices we present to you today, life and death. Choose life for the people. Choose life for the ecosystems. Choose life for the planet. 

We must rise up if we want to see a peaceful and healthy planet. We will have to address these issues. Now is the time to stop sugarcoating the climate crisis. It is real and dangerous for us all and it is here now.

Protect ecosystems

Many leaders will say that if climate action is taken, then economic development will be affected because they will have to give up on the fossil fuel industry and coal but I am here to tell you that a country’s economy cannot thrive with climate change disasters.

If we want to have successful economies, we will have to fight and stop climate change. The two go hand in hand. We must build systems that ensure that people’s lives are protected, ecosystems are protected and the planet is protected.

This is an issue that threatens human survival. So how can we go past all this? Am telling you today that we can do this. We can change the story. We can rewrite the paragraphs. Everyone is needed. We must create awareness. When people understand the challenge that they are facing, they will be inspired to demand for action.

People must be educated about what is happening. How can anyone run out of a burning house if they do not know that it is on fire?

But you and I know that our planet is on fire. Let us tell someone else that our home is burning. We cannot survive when the planet has a fever. We must cut down emissions of carbons to the atmosphere by stopping any activity that is contributing to this. Stop the addiction to the fossil fuel industry. You cannot serve fossil fuels at the dining table. We cannot eat coal and we cannot drink oil.

READ | Cyril Ramaphosa: Critical issue of climate change must not be relegated due to Covid-19 crisis

When you realise this, you will understand that money is nothing if we do not have any life support systems.

Now is the time for countries and their leaders to move towards sustainability, resilience, cleaner transportation, mass transit, improved agricultural systems. We need to clean our air and water by stopping pollution.

We need to drive towards renewable energy. Start embracing activism in Africa, support the work of activists and amplify their voices. Many are speaking up but the question is are you listening? If you say that you care, then listen and take the action that we are asking for.

Earth is our home and our responsibility and everyone must play apart in making sure that it is healthy and livable for everyone.

Leaders must face the climate emergency and address the challenges affecting people’s lives. We must put an end to the floods, droughts, water crisis, food crisis, diseases, conflicts, gender inequality and all the challenges that come with climate change so that people can live happily.

We need to move towards an equitable and sustainable future for all of us. The climate crisis is here but what are you doing about it? Be part of the change. Be part of the transformation. Use your voice, use your platform, use your resources, and use your position.

Do not be silent at a time like this.

This fight needs everyone.

If we are united, if we work together and if we demand climate justice, we will be able to transform the world and make it a better place.

Thank you

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