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'We Know Who Caused and Who Needs to Pay for The Climate Crisis', Says Vanessa Nakate

Ugandan activist advocates for the creation of a specific fund for loss and damage, additional to the $100 billion/year already promised and not yet delivered by developed countries

Cristiane Fontes Marcelo Leite
Oxford and São Paulo

Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, 25, Christian, daughter of a Kampala businessman and politician, organized her first strike for climate justice in January 2019, inspired by Greta Thunberg.

Just over a year later, in February 2020, she was, alongside other activists, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to call on governments, companies and banks to stop subsidizing fossil fuels. A photo from the AP (Associated Press) news agency at the event cropped out Nakate, provoking global outrage and a public retraction of the company. "You didn't just erase a photo, you erased a continent. But I am stronger than ever," she said at the time.

Since then, Nakate has participated in several global climate events, such as the Global Landscapes Forum and Youth4Climate, and received extensive international press attention. The activist was also one of the highlights of COP26 (26th UN Conference on Climate Change), last year, speaking to thousands of people. "Humanity will not be saved by promises" was one of the sentences she used the most at the climate marches in Glasgow.

Nakate, who is part of Fridays for Future Uganda —an international movement of young people and school students who, among other activities, skip Friday classes to participate in demonstrations to demand action from political leaders against the climate crisis—, is the founder of the Rise Up Movement, aimed at amplifying the voices of activists in Africa, and part of the Vash Green Schools Project, which supports the energy transition in schools in rural communities of Uganda.

In this interview for Folha, she talks about the little attention being paid to the impacts of the climate crisis in Africa and about the historical responsibility of developed countries for greenhouse gas emissions —these nations, according to her, must finance a specific fund for loss and damage.

"There are certain things that we cannot adapt to. Communities cannot adapt to hunger. Communities cannot adapt to the loss of their identities, the loss of their cultures, the loss of their histories."

According to the latest IPCC (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, 2.6 million to 3.4 million new displacements related to the climate crisis occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 and 2019 and, with global warming of 2.5°C by 2050, 56 million to 86 million people will have to migrate from their countries.

Last week, Nakate returned to the World Economic Forum, this time to participate in two panel discussions. She also took part in a march to raise awareness of issues that climate activists believe are being largely ignored, such as the human suffering from extreme weather events, particularly in developing countries.

Climate activist Vanessa Nakate from Uganda speaks during an interview with Reuters in the Alpine resort of Davos, Switzerland May 24, 2022. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann ORG XMIT: PPP-AW427 - REUTERS

Two years ago your image was cropped out of one photo of climate activists at the World Economic Forum. What has happened since then in terms of the African voices being respected and amplified as part of the global climate debate? Since then we have been really working to demand for full representation of African voices in the climate movement, in the climate spaces and climate conversations. We believe that every activist has a story to tell and every story has a solution to give and every solution has a life to change. And we also know how the entire continent of Africa is responsible for less than 4% of global emissions historically.

So it is important to have the activists, the people, the communities on the front lines of the climate crisis anda on the front pages of the world's newspapers.

African countries have been seriously impacted by climate change. What is currently the main focus of the climate change debate in the continent and in your country? Yes, many communities in the continent are experiencing some of the worst impacts of the climate crisis. We have seen the unfolding of different climate disasters from flooding to cyclones.

For example, cyclone Idai, which ripped large parts of the African continent, leaving so many people displaced, leaving so many people dead and a lot of property destroyed. We have seen the Eastern Africa drought that has left more than 26 million people looking for food to eat, that has left many animals starving and leading to their death. And we have seen so many communities suffer with loss and damage.

As the climate crisis escalates, there are certain things that we cannot adapt to anymore. Communities cannot adapt to starvation. Communities cannot adapt to the loss of their identities, to the loss of their cultures, to the loss of their histories because of the rise in climate disasters.

So some of the key issues to address as we go to COP27 is the fact that loss and damage is here with us now, and it is necessary for the developed countries to provide climate finance for loss and damage, and climate finance for adaptation and mitigation. We are still waiting for the US$ 100 billion that was promised to be delivered for the vulnerable countries.

What are your priorities this year in terms of the loss and damage agenda, considering the outcomes of COP26? We know who caused the climate crisis and we know who needs to pay for it. We know the history of the rising global emissions that have been caused by developed countries, by countries in the Global North. It's the responsibility of these countries to pay for the loss and damage of the Global South.

People lose things that they cannot get back. I could use the easiest example: you've grown up in this home and you know this is your home, this is your village, this is your community. But when your community or when your home is submerged because of extreme flooding, that is not something that you get back. You will have to move to another place. You will lose the memories of that place. You will lose the histories of that place.

That's why it's really important that, as we go towards COP27, this is going to be one of the things that I'm going to put so much focus on, to demand for a separate fund for loss and damage.

How representative is Uganda in the African climate debate? We have a number of activists from Uganda that are really working and helping organise and helping mobilise when it comes to the climate movement. Most of the activists that I work with, from the Rise Up Movement, from the Fridays for Future Uganda, we are working so hard to demand for climate justice.

But I also have to emphasise that this is not something that we can do by ourselves. Even our government, even African governments, really have a role to play in working, you know, in working to ensure that the future generation has a secure planet, has a healthy planet. And not just in the future, but even in the present.

I haven't had any specific engagement with my government. I know that there are different things that they are doing in the country in terms of wetland and forest cover restoration, but I cannot forget about an oil pipeline that is going to be constructed from Uganda to Tanzania.

These are some of the challenges that we see when it comes to our governments, because to so many people this is a project that is going to bring money, profit or economic development, but when you look at the impact on the environment, we see how much the biodiversity, how many ecosystems are going to be destroyed because of this project.

Your life has changed a lot since you became a climate activist. Could you tell us a bit about your routine? As the Rise Up Movement, we do a number of things from helping to organise and to mobilise climate strikes.

We also have the solar project, the Vash Green Schools project, and with this project we installed solar panels and eco friendly cookstoves in schools to help drive a transition to renewable energy and also to provide eco friendly cook stoves that will reduce the fire wood that schools use in preparation of food.

We have also been working on projects of giving out solar lamps to individuals and to families.

How have you been including gender inequality as part of your activism? In our societies, especially in the rural areas, so many women, so many girls, they have the responsibility of providing resources for their families. When water sources are dried up, women have to walk long distances to collect water for their families, for example.

Many times, when climate disasters occur, they find women on the front lines. When farms are destroyed, it is hard work of so many women that is put to nothing.

We have also seen and read articles talking about "climate brides", whereby many girls face a risk and challenge of dropping out of school and being forced into early marriages because their parents have lost everything because of these climate disasters.

That's why people need to know that the climate crisis really exacerbated already existing gender inequalities in our societies. And it's really important for us, as we demand for climate justice, that we also demand for gender equality because there won't be climate justice without gender equality.

What should happen up to the next COP, one of the few to take place in Africa?

One of my main priorities for this year is putting an end to new fossil fuel projects, because this is what is exacerbating the climate disasters, because we cannot eat coal, we cannot drink oil, and we cannot breathe so called natural gas.

One other priority is that we should be educating girls and empowering women. Project Drawdown lists 100 things that we can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ranked #5 as the most impactful solution is educating girls and family planning.

So this year I'm looking forward to doing so much work around educating girls and creating as much awareness as possible around educating girls as a climate solution. Because in the end, when girls are educated, it doesn't just benefit the individual, it benefits the community and the world at large.

In your view, how could we transition to a clean energy model?

We need more people to join the movement and demand for climate justice, for a safer future for all and for a transition to a greener world. When it comes to developing countries, again, the issue of climate finance is really needed, for the transition to a greener world while ensuring that the people are not left in extreme poverty. A transition that pushes people into extreme poverty is also not justice at all.

You have said once that some of the issues such as the Amazon deforestation are the ones to receive more attention because they are prioritised by the Global North, while anothers equally important, such as the destruction of the Congo basin, do not. In your opinion, which of the climate change topics should receive more attention from the press?

I think that every climate issue in the communities or in the countries that are on the front lines of the climate crisis really needs to receive coverage. Not just the Amazon rainforest, not just Congo rainforest, but every other ecosystem, every climate issue.

While the African continent is on the front line of the climate crisis, it is not on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.

Have you had a chance to interact with activists from the Fridays for Future Brazil? Any plans to visit the country?

I would love to visit the country and I have friends from Fridays for Future Brazil that I have worked with. It would be great to come to Brazil.

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