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Uganda's Vanessa Nakate says COP26 sidelines nations most affected by climate change

Climate activist Vanessa Nakate speaks during the Fridays For Future march on last Friday in Glasgow, Scotland.
Climate activist Vanessa Nakate speaks during the Fridays For Future march on last Friday in Glasgow, Scotland.

As young climate activists descended on Glasgow for the COP26 UN climate summit, Vanessa Nakate was faced with a familiar yet sad experience: Being pushed to the side.

"I think it's not just my experience. There are many activists from the global south who have been sidelined at the conference," she said.

Nakate is no stranger to the world stage or being erased from the record, having attended another summit last year in Davos, Switzerland.

While she was there she posed for a photo with other activists. She was the only Black woman among the five who were photographed, and when The Associated Press published the photo, they cropped her out of the picture.

After the photo was published Nakate tweeted: "You didn't just erase a photo, you erased a continent, but I am stronger than ever."

She also posted a video asking the question: "Does that mean that I have no value as an African activist, or the people from Africa don't have any value at all?"

Nakate is Ugandan and her experience in Davos influenced the title of her new memoir, A Bigger Picture. My Fight to bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis. She spoke with NPR about the role gender plays in climate activism, whether the COP26 summit feels inclusive, and her advice for other youth who want to get involved in climate activism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and includes some web-only highlights.


Interview Highlights

On how young people view the climate crisis

Many young people ... young adults, very many teenagers, very many children are worried about the reality of the climate crisis. They are worried about the kind of future that they are walking into. And sometimes it can be challenging for very many young people because they can get frustrated. They can get depressed because of the continuous inaction of leaders and the escalating climate disasters. I have experienced it as well. So it is sad because young people are seeing how much their lives are in danger. But again, it's also helpful because they are not keeping silent about it. They are speaking up. They are mobilizing and they are sending messages out, demanding for a future that rightfully belongs to them.

On the need to learn more about climate change from the perspective of those in the global south

There is so much to learn about the climate crisis, and learning about the climate crisis means learning from the voices that are on the front lines. And we have seen how continuously activists from the global south, who are speaking up from the most affected communities — their voices are not being platformed. Their voices are not being amplified. Their stories are being erased ... This is a problem. We can't have climate justice if voices from the most affected areas are being left behind.

On whether the COP26 summit has felt inclusive or exclusive

On my first day at the COP, I happened to meet [Nicola Sturgeon], the First Minister of Scotland ... with Greta Thunberg. And unfortunately, some media, the way they were reporting about it, you would see a picture, but then it would say, "Greta meets First Minister," [and not include my name]. And honestly, I just didn't have words for it, because this is something that I have already talked about. I think it's not just my experience. There are many activists from the global south who have been sidelined at the conference.

On what climate change looks like in Kampala, Uganda

Uganda, as a country, heavily depends on agriculture as an economy, and also for very many families, especially in the rural areas. So with the rise in global temperatures, the disruptions in weather patterns are causing extreme weather events like flooding, like landslides, like extreme droughts. So it means a loss of people's funds, drying of people's crops, destruction of people's houses. These are some of the visible impacts of the climate crisis in Uganda.

On the role gender plays in climate activism

This is a conversation that many people don't want to have. People don't like mixing climate and, for example, race or climate and gender. But it's evident that women and girls are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis in communities like mine. In many communities across the global south, where women and girls have the responsibility of providing food for their families or collecting water for their families or firewood for their families. So many times women are at the frontlines when these disasters happen. It is their hard work that is put to nothing when the farms are destroyed or when their crops are destroyed. It is women who have to walk very long distances to look for water for their families in case of extreme water scarcity.

On what to say to young people who don't know where to start with climate activism or those who feel they don't have any power

Well, I would say that no voice is too small to make a difference and no action is too small to transform our community. Many times, young people think that they need to have so many resources or they need to have a specific kind of voice or a specific kind of support. When I started my climate strikes, I only had like a marker, like a pencil to write my sign ... so that was the first thing that we used to go to the climate strike, and we just kept on sharing on social media. So I think it's really important for young people across the world to know that you are not too small to make a difference.

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