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In the Lead: Climate Activist Vanessa Nakate

As climate change continues to affect our communities and livelihoods, it's become increasingly important to change how we treat the planet on which we live. We have been inspired by climate activists all over the world doing just that, including Vanessa Nakate of Uganda. Originally part of our program in London, Vanessa and her fellow climate justice warriors have had to change how they fight for change in this new normal.

Vanessa was the first “Fridays For Future” climate activist in Uganda and Founder of the Rise Up Movement, which has since spread to other African countries. Her work includes raising awareness about the danger of climate change. In this edition of In the Lead, Vanessa tells us about how climate change disproportionately affects African nations, how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed climate activism and how we can sustain the environmental progress made so far. 

Tell us about the climate movement in Uganda. How does climate change disproportionately affect African nations?

The climate movement began in January 2019, when I started the Fridays For Future movement in Uganda. It is a movement that has grown over a year with amazing climate activists from different parts of the country carrying the same message with the same demands. We carry out climate strikes every Friday by going to the streets, in front of big malls, petrol stations or government offices. We also take these strikes to schools. Most students are not able to walk out of school for fear of suspension or expulsion, so we go to the schools – especially primary schools – and ask the directors to speak to the students. By doing this, we can tell them about climate change and hold strikes inside the schools. The movement is growing and we believe that it is causing impact in a number of ways.

Most African nations heavily depend on agriculture as a form of survival, especially for people in rural communities; they survive and depend on their natural resources. Climate change is threatening the availability of food and clean water for these people. Intense droughts are drying up water sources. People have to walk long distances to have access to clean water. For most African countries, water is very valuable. The uneven distribution of rainfall threatens the agricultural sector, and many are left with crops destroyed by dry spells or torrential rainfall. Most African nations are heading to a point of massive food scarcity and water stress.

The Associated Press famously cropped you out of a photo with other activists, all of whom were white, at a press conference at Davos. What is an important lesson you hope the mainstream media learned from that experience?

From the experience of Davos, I hope that mainstream media learned the importance of including all voices fighting for climate justice. We can't have climate justice without environmental justice. And environmental justice begins with amplifying the most affected communities. Every voice matters. Every voice counts. Every story needs to be heard. Every solution is needed in the fight against climate change.

What do you wish more people understood about the power of youth activism?

What makes youth activism so powerful is that young people are sure and certain about what they want. Young people are worried about their future. Climate change is a matter of life and death for young people – and we want life. We want to enjoy our childhood, our adulthood and our old age. Young people are focused about what they want. They are determined and can't be stopped or silenced.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way you and other climate activists spread your message?

This pandemic has changed a lot. We listened to the science and stayed home to avoid spreading the virus. We save many when we listen to the facts. During this pandemic, climate activism has been taken indoors through digital climate strikes every Friday. We literally take photos with our placards and post them on social media. We hold Zoom meetings that can accommodate around 100 participants. We host webinars and podcasts. We are trying as much as possible to keep the conversation moving, even when it feels like no one is listening. The climate movement has not been silenced.

What can we do to sustain some of the positive environmental effects that have occurred as a result of everyone staying home?

We should not go back to how we used to live. The world cannot go back to what it used to be. We need to build systems that are more inclusive for everyone. We need to address the issue of climate change and leaders need to take climate action. We need new investments in renewable energy. We need to build systems that ensure basic needs for everyone, such as food, education, health systems and shelter, among others. Now is the time to value lives like never before. We need a complete turnaround.

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In the Lead: Climate Activist Vanessa Nakate
In the Lead: Climate Activist Vanessa Nakate
International Women's Forum