Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate: 'We want climate action and our voices will not be silenced'

Living on Earth
Climate activist Vanessa Nakate, of Uganda, delivers her speech during a Fridays for Future demonstration in Milan, Italy, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.

Climate activist Vanessa Nakate, of Uganda, delivers her speech during a Fridays for Future demonstration in Milan, Italy, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.

 Antonio Calanni/AP

Three years ago, at the age of 15, Greta Thunberg started the Fridays For the Future climate strikes by sitting in front of the Swedish Parliament, and millions of people around the world ultimately joined her cause. One of them was Vanessa Nakate of Kampala, Uganda, who was just leaving college at the time.

Nakate was inspired by Thunberg to organize and start holding climate strike signs herself in front of the Ugandan Parliament. Thunberg soon heard of Nakate through social media and in January 2020, she was invited to join Thunberg for a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

But the Associated Press cropped Nakate, the only Black woman, out of a widely circulated photo that included Thunberg and three other white European activists. Comments citing that editorial decision as racist soon went viral.

Since that incident, Nakate has used her visibility to bring attention to the climate struggles in the what is often referred to as the "global south." 

In her book, “A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis,” Nakate points to how climate change is impacting Africa and the short shrift that she and other non-white people and nations receive at the UN climate talks.

“The climate crisis is a present reality in Uganda."

Vanessa Nakate, climate activist, Uganda

“The climate crisis is a present reality in Uganda,” Nakate says. “With the rising global temperatures, weather patterns are changing and we are seeing more extreme weather events. Uganda, as a country, heavily depends on agriculture for survival for many communities, especially those in the rural areas. But with the rising global temperatures, many people are threatened with floods, droughts and landslides, causing massive destruction, massive loss of lives, loss of homes, farms and businesses.” 

When Nakate joined Fridays for Future, she had no qualms about aligning herself with a movement of teenagers and led by teenagers. She says some of her friends felt it wasn’t for them, but, for her, age wasn’t the issue.

“The issue was talking about what was happening in my country,” Nakate says. “So, I didn't really pay attention to how the media would report about the movement, whether it's for teenagers or not for teenagers. I just wanted to demand for climate justice and to talk about the challenges that the people in my country were facing because of the climate crisis.”

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In 2019, Nakate started a project that installs solar panels and eco-friendly cookstoves in schools, to help drive the transition to renewable energy in schools in Uganda and reduce the firewood that schools use in food preparation.

“Almost all the schools in my country use firewood for food preparation,” she says. “But with these eco-friendly stoves, the number that is used is greatly cut. So, I hope that with this project, many schools can easily transition to renewable energy at no cost and also receive the eco-friendly cookstoves. So far, we've done installations in 13 schools.”

Nakate says the discrimination she experienced at the World Economic Forum and the UN Youth Climate Summit was demoralizing, but ironically, raised her visibility and helped her advocacy. Twice at the UN meeting, she was asked to leave her seat to make room for someone else and had to stand until a seat became available. She was also told she would have a speaking role at the conference and spent a great deal of time crafting a speech, only to have that opportunity taken away from her; and then AP cropped her out of its group photo.

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"After the photo crop incident, I started to get very many interviews that I can do, and many times I asked to give the interview to another activist who is also doing activism, either in Uganda or in another country. And media sometimes is always specific: 'We want you'; or if it's the other person, they want to know if they're eloquent enough or if they have done interviews before or if they've spoken at events before. So, it puts really a challenge on how the media is reporting the stories of the vast number of activists.”

“Media has a responsibility to report about the climate crisis, to point about the climate solutions, to report about the science, to report about the activists who are speaking up, especially activists from the most affected areas,” Nakate adds. “It’s important to listen to their stories. Every activist has a story to tell. Every story has a solution to give and every solution has a life to change.”

“[I]t’s important for people to know that, historically, Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions and yet Africans are already suffering some of the most brutal impacts of the climate crisis.” 

Vanessa Nakate, climate activist, Uganda

Nakate wants to use her increased visibility to send an urgent message to the world. She says: “My message is really a long message, but I will try to put it in very few words:

“I come from Uganda, and it's a country in Africa. And it's important for people to know that, historically, Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions and yet Africans are already suffering some of the most brutal impacts of the climate crisis. It's also important to know that while Africa, while the 'global south,' is on the front lines of the climate crisis, it is not on the front pages of the world's newspapers.

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“And it's also important to know that there are a number of activists in the African continent, in the 'global south,' who are speaking up, who are demanding justice from leaders, from governments, from corporations.

“So what I would want people to know is that the young people in Africa are speaking up and they're rising up for the people and they're rising up for the planet, and we want climate justice. We want climate action from the leaders, and our voices will not be silenced.”

This article is by Adam Wernick, based on an interview that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.