There Will Never Be Climate Justice If African Activists Keep Being Ignored

We travel to Kampala (Uganda) to meet Vanessa Nakate, climate activist, on the occasion her first book was published. A Bigger Picture: The Fight to Bring a new African Voice to the Climate Crisis. In an extended interview, she describes the challenges of being a young Ugandan woman from a continent that contributes less than 4% of the world’s carbon emissions yet suffers the worst consequences of the climate crisis and is often ignored by the Global North. “There won’t be climate justice if specific groups of people are being left behind,” says Nakate, founder of the Africa-based Rise Up Movement. “We are facing the same storm, but we are definitely in different boats.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As we look at the impacts of the climate crisis in the U.S., we now turn to the continent of Africa, a region whose 1.3 billion people are responsible for less than 4% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, yet Africa has already been battered by some of the most dire consequences of climate change, through no fault of its own — rising sea levels, deadly drought, hotter temperatures, water shortages and food insecurity. Recently, parts of East Africa were hit by the locust plague.

In October, the World Meteorological Organization warned the effects of the climate crisis in Africa will likely worsen if immediate action isn’t taken. Last year, the continent’s land mass and waters warmed more rapidly than the world average. This is the WMO’s Filipe Lucio.

FILIPE LUCIO:45.6% of people were more food-insecure and less well fed. And the predictions we have, the decade of predictions we have for the period 2020 to 2024, they’re indicating an increasing in terms of warming. We expect a drop in food production as a result of increased warming. … We also expect impacts in terms of disease and pests. We will also see impacts from flooding on the infrastructure for agriculture production, which is the primary source of livelihoods, and food security across the continent. So, all indicates that the continuing warming would probably worsen the current 45.6% increase in terms of undernourished people we’ve seen from 2012.

AMY GOODMAN:A person living in Africa emits only a fraction of the average amount of greenhouse gases as compared to people in the U.S., Australia, and U.K. Although richer nations are the world’s biggest polluters, the African Development Bank estimates Africa bears almost half the costs of adapting to the consequences of the climate crisis. However, richer countries have failed to meet their pledge to provide $100 billion annually in funding to developing countries to deal with the effects of the climate disaster.

All this comes as climate justice advocates from Africa, and other communities in Africa, have criticized the U.N.’s recent climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow as a failure. Next year’s climate summit is set to take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and advocates hope it will draw more attention to a region that’s been long overlooked in conversations about the climate.

One of Africa’s loudest voices in the fight against the climate crisis is Vanessa Nakate. She was featured on the cover of Time magazine. The Rise Up Movement founder and Ugandan climate justice advocate, now has a new book. It’s called A Bigger Picture: The Fight to Bring a new African Voice to the Climate Crisis. The book is a combination of memoir and manifesto. It presents a new vision for global climate justice movements that creates a livable future for everyone and is inclusive to all. Vanessa Nakate now joins us from Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

Welcome back Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Vanessa. Your speech was performed by us in Milan as a prelude to the U.N. Climate Summit. That’s the title of your new book. A Bigger PictureRefer to the image that motivated you to fight the climate crisis.

VANESSA NAKATE:Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.

First, I want you to know that I don’t represent the African continent. I am one among the activists who are speaking out and organizing and mobilizing on the African continent. So, it isn’t just one voice. I feel that if we put a face to, you know, the climate movement, or faces to the climate movement it can be very problematic in that it erases the voices of the other activists who are speaking up. For example, I may have a clue about what is happening in Kenya or in South Africa, but an activist from those countries, you know, they understand, or they have a bigger picture of what they’re experiencing. This is why I wanted to make it very clear.

Then, in A Bigger PictureI talk about many things people need to see beyond what society has shown them, including the climate crisis and climate justice. Climate change can often be seen as just statistics, but it is so much more than that. It’s more than data points. You know, it’s more than net zero targets. It’s about the people and how the livelihoods of people are being impacted right now. It’s about the intersections of the climate crisis with other issues that pertain to our living, to our survival, be it education or poverty eradication or achieving gender equality or having peace in our communities. All of these are connected with the climate crisis. It’s like we are in one system, and it’s an interconnected system. If one component of the system crashes, the whole system crashes. If it’s a puzzle, if one piece of the puzzle is missing, then the puzzle can never be complete.

In this case, A Bigger PictureI explain the climate crisis in detail, including the statistics and the impact it has on the lives of those living near the frontlines. It also tells stories of many activists, particularly from Africa. Every activist has a story, every solution has a solution, and every life can be changed. So I think it’s really important to have many voices listened to, platformed and amplified, if we are to have climate justice.

AMY GOODMAN:Vanessa Nakate: You spoke out against racism after you were removed from a photo featuring you and other climate activists in Davos last year. The other youth activists were also white. Greta Thunberg was also included. The Associated PressThe photo was published by. It stated that the photographer had cut you out of the photo because he found the building behind you distracting. At the time, you said the move, quote, “erased a continent.” I wanted to go to you speaking in a video you posted on social media at the time.

VANESSA NAKATE: This is the first time in my life that I understood the definition of the word “racism.” … Africa is the least emitter of carbons, but we are the most affected by the climate crisis. But you erasing our voices won’t change anything.

AMY GOODMAN:Can you tell us more about the photo and how it influenced you.

VANESSA NAKATE: Well, what I can say is that, you know, the thought of a building being behind me and not being a perfect, probably, composition for the whole picture in the end, that is something that ends up erasing someone’s story or someone’s experience or someone’s solutions and what they’re doing in their communities.

I am from a country that emits the least CO2 emissions. It is also a continent that has historically accounted for only 3% of global carbon emissions. Yet, many people are already feeling the worst effects of the climate crisis. This is the awful reality of climate crisis: those at the forefront of the crisis are not responsible.

And the other horrible reality of the climate crisis is that while communities in Africa or in the Global South are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, they are not on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Many activists find it difficult to be heard or platformed. Many of us have been called “missing voices”, but we are not. We are not invisible. These are the terrible realities of climate crisis that not only those on the frontlines, but also activists who speak out from the frontlines.

I can tell you that climate justice cannot be achieved if the voices and experiences of the most affected communities continue to be filtered out, ignored, or not being amplified. During the conference in Glasgow, I felt the same thing, seeing myself constantly being erased from photos or being named. So, this is an experience that doesn’t just erase my story or my experience; it’s an experience that just literally erases the existence of the challenges that I’m seeing in my country and the problems that people are facing because of the climate crisis.

I can tell you that activists from Africa and the Global South face challenges in getting their voices heard, listened to, platformed, amplified, and shared. This is a challenge for climate justice. Again, there won’t be climate justice if specific groups of people are being left behind. Although we are all facing the same storms, we are in different boats. While many boats can still sail, others are sinking. Other boats are already on fire. It is time for people, activists, and communities to pay attention to the climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Vanessa —

VANESSA NAKATE: And when we —

AMY GOODMAN:Vanessa Nakate speaks to us from Kampala (Uganda). For not only young activists, but for all activists, first-time activists, can you tell the story of what motivated you to move forward — it took a lot of courage — and what these first climate strikes were about, you and a small group of friends, like your friend Elton John, an Ugandan climate activist like yourself, and what you faced at the beginning, even worried about your family’s reaction, though they ultimately deeply supported you?

VANESSA NAKATE:I do remember my climate strike. I had my siblings, and my cousins, join me. It took me a while before I could do my first climate strike. I was afraid to face the public or the people and I was also scared of what my friends, who I had been to school with, would think. These were some of the challenges I encountered before I began activism.

However, I can tell you that I faced more challenges when I began activism. I was worried about how my family would react to the reactions of others. My family has been supportive, which I am grateful for. My parents have been very supportive since I began activism. They didn’t really understand what a climate strike really meant. Many people didn’t understand what a climate strike really meant. They understood that I was advocating protection of the environment. So, they — I don’t remember any point where my parents said, “No, you shouldn’t do this.” So, I’m thankful that they were supportive and also the rest of my family was supportive.

However, I can tell you that the main problems I faced in the following weeks and months were the reactions or comments of people, especially on social networks. People said some of the most horrible things about my posts or tweets. And I remember some of those things were people saying that I was taking weed and that’s what was taking me to the streets, and some that I was going to the streets because I was looking for a husband so I wanted to be noticed while on the streets, and many more things that came in as I continued activism.

But what I can say is that a lot of, you know, hope that really came in that time, as a time when I felt like I didn’t have the strength to do activism anymore. This was a period when I felt frustrated at how we continued striking every Friday, and leaders refused to do anything. The climate disasters continued and people continued suffering. So, it was more of a place and moment of depression and feeling like I didn’t have the strength to go out and do the strikes anymore. After talking to Davis, my Ugandan friend and activist, I started to strike again. I felt more optimistic about what the future held and I felt more connected with the activists organizing. It’s always good to know that you are not doing activism just by yourself, but you’re speaking up and mobilizing and organizing with millions of people from different parts of the world. And that is something that can surely give you hope, to know that I can keep striking, knowing that I’m not alone, and to also know that when I need to rest, if I can — you know, if I don’t have the strength to strike this Friday, someone else in another place, in another country, is striking. That is what I find most beautiful about the global climate movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Vanessa Nakate, you retweeted Greenpeace, saying, “We cannot adapt to starvation. We cannot adapt to extinction, we cannot adapt to lost cultures, lost traditions, lost histories, and the climate crisis is taking all of these things away.” You subscribe to the principle “polluters pay.” Can you name the companies, the industries that you feel should be paying up or shutting down?

VANESSA NAKATE:We know that the Global North is responsible for the current climate crisis and the increase in global emissions. Therefore, we know who the climate crisis is. We know who isn’t responsible and who’s suffering the most. It is loss and/or damage that I discuss, and there is a separate fund to cover it.

The pressure on developing countries to transition to renewable energy and to sustain their development is immense. And, you know, you find that this pressure is coming from the Global North countries telling the developing countries, “You have to do this. You have to do this for the sake of the climate.” And, of course, even us as activists, we face these challenges, maybe when we are advocating for an end of [inaudible]In a country such as mine, or in any other country. So there is always these challenges of people saying, “But you seem to be an enemy of economic progress,” because this pipeline or this coal power plant is going to pull people out of poverty.

The pressure is on developing countries to achieve sustainability first. The Global North has a huge responsibility to provide climate finance. Climate finance that will allow developing countries to easily transition from fossil energy to renewable energy. This will also enable them to transition to sustainable communities and countries without burying their people in extreme poverty. Climate justice should not be interpreted as allowing people to continue to suffer. That’s why if we are to look at climate justice, it has to go beyond — you know, it has to go beyond manufacturing of electric vehicles. It has to go far beyond the manufacturing of solar panels. It has to be about the people. We have to think about the solutions that are coming in — you know, that are being implemented in communities, that if this solution is being implemented, is it going to exacerbate inequalities, or is it going to increase poverty, or is it going to increase the suffering of the people? Climate justice must place the heart and wellbeing of the planet and people at the center of all decisions.

So, what I’m trying to say is that we need Global North countries to act responsible and provide climate finance in form of grants, and not loans, for developing countries, because developing countries need to easily transition to renewables. They must easily transition to more sustainable economies. This can only be achieved if climate finance is available. But we have seen — we have seen the promised $100 billion for developing countries, it has been delayed, I think, to 2022. The climate conference revealed that no separate fund for loss and/or damage was established, but many countries in crisis are already suffering from loss and/or damage. So, the climate crisis is taking away people’s cultures or lands or traditions. So these are things — we cannot adapt to the loss of these things. Many communities are finding it difficult to adapt to the climate crisis. Yes, we want climate finance to adapt and mitigate, but we also want separate funds for loss or damage. Because loss and destruction is already affecting millions of people across the globe, it is now that we need separate funds for loss and damaged.

AMY GOODMAN:Vanessa, you write in your book about Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah (a 9-year old girl from Africa) who died from a fatal asthma attack. And you write, “I learned about Ella’s story in December 2020. That’s when the international media reported that a UK court had, for the first time in British history, allowed air pollution to be recorded as the cause of someone’s death.” Can you talk about the significance of this, and how it relates to your activism on the continent?

VANESSA NAKATE: Well, if I’m to talk about this, the case of Ella, you know, it talks about, again, some of the horrible realities of this climate crisis. You know that we are seeing more water pollution and air pollution because of the burning of fossil fuels. We can see that these communities, or the people who live in these residences, that are prones to air pollution or residences prone water pollution, are communities of Black people or communities of Brown people. These are communities of people of colour. They are the ones who are exposed to areas with high levels of air pollution, incinerators, or landfills. This is why I believe that it is important to have a conversation about the environmental injustices in relation to climate issues.

The climate crisis doesn’t affect everyone equally. Although we may be in the same storm, we are all in different boats and the climate crisis is not going to affect everyone equally. If we are seeing an increase in air pollution, it is likely that there are communities where the air pollution is more severe. This could be because of their housing or their schools. Recently I’ve been reading about something called redlining. And it talks about how residences of Black and Brown communities, they were marked red because they were — this is historically — because they were a high risk for mortgages, so meaning that communities of Black and Brown people, they weren’t able historically to — they weren’t able to get housing that is safe for them or housing in safe spaces, in healthy spaces, spaces that we could see having more parks or more —

AMY GOODMAN:Vanessa, the show is over. Thank you so much for being here. Vanessa Nakate just published a new book. It is called A Bigger Picture.