words by vanessa nakate (as told to daphne chouliaraki milner)
The Ugandan climate justice activist breaks down what it will take to hold the Global North responsible for the climate crisis and make it pay up.
In school we were taught that climate change referred to the changes in weather over the course of many years. We were not taught about the reality that it is already affecting so many lives.
It was when I started reading about the impact of climate change that I realized it was already happening in my country. For example, there are floods, landslides, and droughts—people are being impacted by them all the time. That’s when I decided I would do something about it, that I would use my voice by organizing climate strikes. I became inspired after seeing Greta Thunberg at the climate strikes in Sweden.
I held my first strike in the first week of January in 2019. I spoke to my siblings and my cousins, who were visiting at that time, and asked them to join me. But, as some of them were at boarding school, they had to go back and prepare for school shortly after. When they left I had no one else to organize the strikes with. When the next one started taking shape, I texted friends to tell the details, like location and time, and asked them to come. I remember going to the strike location and holding my placard up for around 30 minutes by myself. It was only half an hour in before one of my friends, Elton, joined me at the strike.
From then on, I would strike mostly by myself—and sometimes Elton would join, too. I also started going to school, especially in the lead-up to the first global climate strike. I reached out to a local school that was close to home and spoke to the school principal. I requested to come in and speak to the students so we could organize together. That was the first time I reached out to schools and organized with them.
I remember when I got my first invitation to a climate conference: the UN Climate Summit in New York. I was very surprised to receive the invitation. So much so that my father told me he would check to see if it was authentic. Once he confirmed that it was, I spoke to the people who were working at the Summit and asked why I’d received the invitation. They told me that they’d been following my work for six months, since those first few weeks of strikes. I was really surprised—it was then I realized that many more people were seeing the work that I was doing than I had realized.
“It was when I started reading about the impact of climate change that I realized it was already happening in my country.”
It’s really motivating to be in spaces where important climate decisions are made. It’s also a place where I get to meet different activists. That’s really important to me because, within the climate justice movement, one of the things that has given me the strength to continue organizing is the knowledge that I am not alone. There are millions of activists from different parts of the world that are doing incredible work. And it’s through these climate conferences— from the UN Youth Climate Summit to COP25 in Madrid—that I’ve stayed motivated. I’m excited by the prospect of meeting other activists and organizing with them; to be a part of widespread climate strikes bigger than I could imagine seeing in my country.
The very first group I formed with my friends was Youth for Future. It was coming to the end of 2019, almost a year since I first started striking. I was speaking with my friends and they told me they didn’t feel a part of the movement because, at the time, the media was reporting on the climate strikes as organized and led by and for teenagers. Most of my friends were either finishing university or they had already graduated. I suggested we continue to organize strikes, but call ourselves Youth for Future instead. It worked—people joined from various different locations and started sharing information on social media. Soon after, we changed the name to Rise Up movement. This became a way for us to platform and amplify voices from the African continent because of the challenges African activists face just to have their voices be heard and listened to in climate spaces.
With the Rise Up movement, we seek out opportunities that allow for every person to be listened to because everyone has a unique story and experience that matters. Every activist has a story to tell. Every story has a solution to offer. Every solution has a life to change. Then, within the Rise Up movement, we also have a number of grassroots projects that are led by different activists.
One example is the One Tree UG Project, led by Evelyn Acham Omonuk which involves planting fruit trees and giving out food trees to different households. There is also the Girl On The Move Project, led by Isaac Ssentumbwe, which is a skills development programme for women and girls, especially those who have had difficulty finishing school. We know that one of the ways to tackle the climate crisis is educating girls and empowering women. Another is, of course, climate education. And that is also something we are working on within Rise Up. We’ve reached out to a number of schools in Uganda to install solar panels and eco-friendly cook stoves. So far, we’ve finished installations in 17 schools.
These are just some of the issues we are working on as part of Rise Up—especially as we are heading toward COP27 in Egypt—to ensure every activist in every community is listened to and platformed.
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It’s very clear that the communities on the front lines of the climate crisis are not responsible for the rising global temperature. And, to be specific, the African continent is historically responsible for less than 4% of global emissions. Yet many Africans are suffering some of the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Just recently, we’ve seen the Eastern African drought leave over 28 million people with no access to food or water. Tropical Storm Ana left over 80 people dead in southern Africa, followed by Cyclone Batsirai in Madagascar that caused the destruction of homes, schools, and power lines.
The climate crisis on the African continent is not something that is happening in the future. It’s happening now; communities are being impacted right now. Communities are experiencing loss and damage because of the climate crisis. And as the loss and damage escalate, cultures are lost, identities are lost, histories, and memories are washed away.
But while the African continent is on the front lines of the climate crisis, it is not on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. There is so much that needs to be done to hold the Global North responsible for the climate crisis.
The first is ensuring that the voices of those on the front lines are platformed. We need to tell our own stories. We need to document our own experiences and what is happening in our communities. That is one of the ways we can ensure that what is happening on the ground is listened to—it doesn’t just become statistics. Climate change is more than statistics. It’s more than data points. It’s about the people.
There is also a need for people from different parts of the world to rise together and demand climate finance for communities that are on the front lines. Climate finance for adaptation, for mitigation, and a separate composition fund for loss and damage. One hundred billion dollars has been promised to vulnerable countries, but it has not yet been delivered.
“Every activist has a story to tell. Every story has a solution to offer. Every solution has a life to change.”
Climate finance is what is going to enable communities on the front lines to build more sustainably, to build greener economies, and to recover from climate disasters. It’s important that this finance be in the form of grants, not loans. We can’t have any more debt. The fact is that many developing countries on the front lines are facing pressure to transition to renewable energy while leaving people buried in extreme poverty, food insecurity, and suffering. This is why finance is so important—because it will provide alternatives for nations in, for example, Africa transitioning to renewable energy to not leave people in extreme poverty. And that’s what climate justice will look like. Because if our transition is leaving those on the front lines in extreme poverty, or in a worse state than they were before, then it’s not climate justice.
There is also a need for Global North countries to stop exporting their emissions to other nations. Countries in the Global North are claiming to be climate leaders, yet they are funding fossil fuel projects in African countries. And also there is a need for the Global North to walk the walk and not just talk about promises. We’ve seen how natural gas is now being branded as “sustainable” or “green,” and yet we know that it is not. We know that it is harmful. So, we have to keep reminding governments that we can’t eat coal, we can’t drink oil, we can’t breathe so-called natural gas.
All of this to say, it is good to know we’re not alone because therein lies the strength for us to keep going. We are part of the many people fighting for a better world; a more climate-friendly world’ a world with climate justice. It’s important that we retain the hope that the future we want is not only necessary, but it’s actually possible.