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“I want to see the frontlines of climate change on the front pages”


Interview: Robert Langkjær-Bain
Main image: Esther Ruth Mbabazi

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For Ugandan green campaigner Vanessa Nakate, climate activism is not just about fighting for a better future, it’s about fighting for a better present.

The most famous photo of Vanessa Nakate doesn’t have her in it. In 2020 the Associated Press took a group shot including the Ugandan climate activist together with Greta Thunberg and others at the World Economic Forum – then they cut her off the edge, leaving only white faces. They could hardly have found a better way to prove Nakate’s point about how the world sees – or doesn’t see – people from the places hardest hit by climate change. 5 spoke to 25-year-old Nakate about how she’s making sure her voice gets heard, and how we can all help.

How do you see the effects of climate change in your home country of Uganda?

For Uganda, I can say that the climate crisis is not something that is coming in the future. It is something that is happening right now. When we talk about people losing their homes and their livelihoods, it’s actually happening right now. We’ve seen changes in the weather patterns really causing shorter and heavier rainy seasons and disruptions also in the dry seasons. We are experiencing longer and hotter dry seasons in some parts of the country. We’ve seen flooding and landslides because of heavy rainfall affect regions in the eastern part of Uganda and we’ve seen extreme flooding as well in the western part of the country. So when we speak from Uganda, we are not only demanding the protection of our future, but we are also demanding the protection of our present.

You can follow Vanessa Nakate on Instagram and Twitter.

“Not every form of climate action is climate justice”

What does climate change mean for you personally?

To me climate change is more than weather, it’s more than statistics, it’s more than data points. It’s really about the people. We are seeing families being impacted, people losing their homes, people losing their farms, people losing their businesses, schools getting flooded, and hospitals as well. So for me, climate change goes beyond the rise in global temperatures, to what’s actually happening in the lives of the people right now.

Nakate used this incident to draw attention to discrimination in discussions of climate change.

In one sentence, what’s the most important message you want to get across in your activism?

I think it would be to have the heart of the people in conversations on climate justice.

Tell us more about that.

It’s important for people to know that not every form of climate action is actually climate justice. A corporation may suggest the planting of millions of trees, but then this may come at the expense of indigenous communities having their land taken away. Someone may talk about electric vehicles, but this means more women and more children are going to experience extreme labour conditions to provide the necessary minerals for the electric vehicles. It doesn’t make sense to have solar installed in a certain community, and yet that community doesn’t even access the electricity that is being provided. In whatever decisions the governments or corporations make for the planet, they should inquire from the people in those communities, because they know what solutions work best for them.

Nakate at a Fridays for Future protest in Stockholm, June 2022. Photo: Getty Images / Jonas Gratzer

What can people do to help elevate voices like yours?

One of the ways is to platform the activists or the people from the most affected areas, so that they can tell their stories, their experiences, and also talk about the solutions that work for their communities. We need to get the people on the frontlines of the climate crisis on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.

You began your strike outside the Ugandan parliament in 2019, and you’ve been campaigning on the climate since then. What have you learned along the way?

In the journey of activism, there is a place of learning and also a place of unlearning. When I started activism, I was finishing my bachelor’s in business administration. I didn’t have much information about the planet and climate issues. I was completely switched off from that. So it has been a place of learning for me.

It’s also a place of unlearning. Some people need to unlearn that climate change is not coming in the future, but it’s actually happening right now. Sometimes you also talk about how climate change impacts the efforts of poverty eradication – someone may not know that or may think that it’s not true. So there is a place of unlearning and understanding that actually the climate crisis impacts efforts to eradicate poverty.

You don’t need to be an expert to be an activist. I think what is really needed is that will to fight for the protection of our planet and not the necessary qualifications.

“No action is too small to transform the world”

How does it feel to do what you do? Do you feel better about the climate since you became an activist?

I feel good because I was able to speak out. It wasn’t a very easy decision… but to feel and think that I actually stepped out and did my very first climate strike, and I continue to organise with different young people here in Uganda and across the world, I feel like we are doing something about it. I believe that no action is too small to transform the world.

Starting that first climate strike must have been a really daunting moment. Has it been easier since then?

It’s getting easier! The first time is always the hardest. The good thing is that even for those coming challenges, whatever they are, in my mind, I’ve already overcome them.

What you can do

Learn more about equality and the climate crisis from Intersectional Environmentalist

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Get Nakate’s book A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis

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