Updated: Dec 6, 2021
By Alfred Robert Hogan
At the opening session of the UN 2021 Youth4Climate meeting in Milan, Italy, climate activist and co-keynoter Vanessa Nakate of Uganda spoke quite frankly to the 400 young delegates, gathered there from 180 countries. She reminded them that even the limited pledges of 100 billion Euros (US $117 billion) in climate crisis aid from the wealthy nations had yet to be delivered to the poorer ones. “In fact, funds were promised by 2020, and we are still waiting,” she said. “No more empty conferences. It’s time to show us the money. It’s time, it’s time, it’s time. And don’t forget to listen to the ‘Most Affected People and Areas.’”
As Ms. Nakate, 24, told the three-day Pre-COP 26 summit, which began on Tuesday 28 September, "Climate action is not a pick-and-choose…[we must] deal with the loss and damage that is already happening" as well as future looming impacts. At one point, an emotionally overwhelmed Ms. Nakate broke down while addressing her audience. She was promptly comforted by her nearby friend and co-keynoter Greta Thunberg, who would go on to condemn the dominant “30 years of blah blah blah” greenwashing by world leaders, and fully supporting what Ms. Nakate had said. (The Y4C meeting was among the precursor events to the UN COP 26 meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, UK, which had been delayed one year by the COVID-19 pandemic. COP 26 was set to start in just weeks, on Halloween, Sunday 31 October.)
On Friday 2 October, the two young activist-friends from Uganda and Sweden teamed together to headline a Fridays For Future pandemic-compliant march and rally by thousands in Milan, dubbed Student Strike for Future. It marked yet another milestone in Ms. Nakate’s emergence as a leading young climate activist.
Nine days after the Milan conference ended, Ms. Nakate—wearing a "WE CANNOT EAT COAL” gray sweatshirt—visited Germany’s much-protested-against Garzweiler lignite coal strip mine, run by utility behemoth RWE. Environmental activists and residents noted that the ever-expanding mine undercuts even Germany’s commitment to end coal mining by far-off 2038, as well as any chance of meeting the country’s 2015 UN Paris Agreement commitments. Meanwhile, unless stopped, bulldozers and excavators will clear away ancient forests and villages, such as Luetzerath, to make room for yet more coal mining. As Ms. Nakate told the AP: “I came to see how much destruction is being done in Luetzerath with the coal mine and to see how much of this destruction is not just affecting the people in this place, but also the people in my country, Uganda.”
Directly inspired by Ms. Thunberg’s blunt addresses at the UN COP 24 meeting in Katowice, Poland, back in December 2018, Ms. Nakate had become Uganda’s first Fridays For Future (FFF) climate striker, and among the first in Africa. Just days later, that same month, and in four different locations in the capital city of Kampala, she sat outside in protest. She continued striking in front of the Ugandan Parliament in Kampala, week after week, month after month, in a country that, like so many, actively discouraged dissent.
“It is not easy to go out there, especially in the beginning when I was doing these strikes by myself. My family didn’t really understand what I was doing,” Ms. Nakate recalled to actor-activist Angelina Jolie, in a July 2020 online video interview for Time magazine’s Next 100 series. “Most of my friends found it very, very weird. But later on, many of them started understanding why I was doing this. And some of them decided to get involved.”
In Uganda, the climate crisis “is not really taught in schools, so we don’t really know it is a challenge,” Ms. Nakate had explained to Amy Goodman of DEMOCRACY NOW! at the UN COP 25 in Madrid, Spain, in December 2019. Ms. Nakate and hundreds of other climate activists had been “thrown out” of that December 2019 meeting, and had their badges confiscated, even as polluting industry reps—including from fossil fuel interests and the banks that back them—stayed inside. (Ms. Nakate received her badge back for the TV interview.) But Ugandans certainly suffer from negative effects of the climate crisis, Ms. Nakate said, even if they do not understand the causation. “Torrential rainfall in my country so heavy [it] cause[s] floods,” destroying farms and homes, she said. This alternates with extreme drought, she added, leading to high food prices and starvation in rural villages. One unusual consequence: child brides, as young as 15 years old, for old men, as families made desperate by total poverty sell their own daughters.
On two other African climate issues Ms. Nakate has been especially outspoken. Huge fires fueled by accelerating global warming trends have raged in and ravaged the Congo Basin rainforest in Central Africa, mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, once known as Zaire. That rainforest ecosystem is second in size only behind South America’s Amazon rainforest, both serving as planetary oases of nature acting as “lungs of the planet.” Ms. Nakate has also been a leader in the opposition to the more than 1400-km East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), proposed in 2016 and to be operational in 2025. The 61 cm-diameter EACOP is to run from Hoima in oil-rich western Uganda, around the southern shores of Lake Victoria, across more than 200 rivers and through various ecosystems, till it reaches the Indian Ocean seaport of Tanga, in northern Tanzania. In addition to the governments of those two countries, the project involves the French petroleum conglomerate Total SA and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation as financial partners.
Together, the African continent’s 54 nations and 1.2 billion people account for about 15 to 17 percent of the world population, yet just 2 to 5 percent of CO2 emissions. Seven of the 10 most vulnerable mainland countries are in Africa: Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. To cite one visually dramatic effect—as NASA images from space vividly show—Lake Chad, in the Sahel in north-central Africa, has shrunk to just one-tenth its previous size in 50 years, because of severe long-term droughts, as Ms. Nakate noted. Flooding, water scarcity, food scarcity from ruined farmland, intensified cyclones, and billions of locusts exacerbate the environmental plight of Africa, much of which could become uninhabitable within decades, unless we act now, she added.
FFF’s Ms. Nakate, who was born in Uganda, aptly enough on Friday 15 November 1996, graduated two years ago from the country’s Makerere University, with a degree in business administration and marketing. But as a progressive, she has soundly criticized the destructive environmental effects of capitalism. In addition, she has also advocated for some positive solutions, through FFF, her Rise Up climate nonprofit, and the Green Schools Project. The latter group strives to bring solar energy panels to school roofs, and install institutional stoves in schools, as a transitional measure to sharply reduce, by three-fifths, the current amount of firewood needed, and thus ease deforestation trends. For her climate activism in Africa, Ms. Nakate was named to the BBC’s annual “100 Women” list in November 2020.
On Friday 24 January 2020, just after an indoor news conference at the 50th World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland—at which Ms. Nakate had perched on a stool beside her friend Ms. Thunberg—those two plus three other climate activists stepped outside for Associated Press photographer Markus Schreiber to take their group picture. But when the AP soon transmitted that photo, Ms. Nakate, the only non-white person in the group, was missing. Ms. Thunberg and Germany FFF leader Luisa M. Neubauer, who were also in the photo, were among those quickly tweeting their outrage. The cropping made Ms. Nakate “sad” and “heartbroken,” as she later said, invoking the US-led Black Lives Matter’s core message of dignified equality. “I happened to be cropped out of a photo with other climate activists, and to me that was a form of racism, and it felt like I had been robbed of my space,” she recalled in a July 2020 online interview for Time magazine’s Next 100 series, with actor-activist and special UN envoy Angelina Jolie. “If we don’t address the issue of racial justice, we won’t be able to get climate justice…if your climate justice does not involve the most affected communities, then it is not justice at all.” (The AP wire service’s Executive Editor Sally Buzbee also issued a rare apology for the “terrible mistake.” And the AP scheduled bolstered diversity training for its staffers.)
On the following Friday, Ms. Thunberg arranged an hour-long news conference from Greenpeace Sweden in Stockholm highlighting the usually unheard voices of Ms. Nakate, linked from Uganda, joined by young female climate activists Ms. Ayakha Melithafa in South Africa and Ms. Makenna Muigai in Kenya, plus South Africa’s Ms. Ndoni Mcunu, a young female climate scientist. As Ms. Thunberg stated, "the African perspective is always so under-reported." From Kampala via video link, Ms. Nakate fully agreed: "This is the time for the world to listen to the activists from Africa and to pay attention to their stories... This is an opportunity for media to actually do some justice to the climate issues in Africa…If we continue the silencing of planet activists from different parts of Africa, it will be so hard for them to get their message across to our government leaders…The biggest threat to action is the fact that those who are trying as hard as possible to speak up are not being given the amplification, they're not able to tell their stories."
For more information, including videos:
· Vanessa Nakate https://vanessanakate.com
· DEMOCRACY NOW! interview of Vanessa Nakate by Amy Goodman at UN COP 25 in Madrid on Thursday 12 December 2019 (8 mins.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRoM1r_2uvA
· Time 100 Interview with Angelina Jolie, “Vanessa Nakate on Elevating African Voices, July 2020 (29 mins.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-MmNrcpnUQ
· AFRICAN PERSEPCTIVE, interview segment with Vanessa Nakate by Aldrin Sampear, SABC-TV News (South Africa), Wednesday 29 January 2020 (12 mins. at beginning) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoXeooV1DrY
· Stockholm news conference from Greenpeace Sweden linking to African climate activists, Friday 31 January 2021 (about 1 hour)
· The Limerick Post Show with Meghann Sully in Ireland, June 2020 (11 mins.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8plBpJ-qjQ
· “Young climate activists bemoan climate inaction, demand more say,” Colleen Barry/Milan, Italy, The Associated Press via online [US] PBS, Tuesday 28 September 2021, www.pbs.org/newshour/science/young-activists-bemoan-climate-inaction-demand-more-say
· “Climate activist Vanessa Nakate visits huge German coal mine,” AP/LUETZERATH, Germany, The Associated Press, via online Santa Rosa [CA] Press-Democrat, Saturday 9 October 2021, https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/climate-activist-vanessa-nakate-visits-huge-german-coal-mine/
Alfred Robert Hogan, a guest contributor to Green TV, a longtime science journalist and media historian based in Maryland USA, is researching and writing an in-depth bio book on Greta Thunberg and on the No. 1 climate crisis/6th mass extinction.
Video submitted courtesy WiredUK