NEW YORK – Vanessa Nakate's climate activism over the past three years has propelled her to the world stage.
Since 2019, Nakate has worked to amplify the voices of African climate activists through a platform she created called Rise Up Movement, spearheaded an initiative to stop the deforestation of African rainforests and launched the Vash Greens Schools Project, which aims to install solar panels in remote areas of her home country, Uganda.
These endeavors led UNICEF to announce her as their new goodwill ambassador this week, with UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell saying Nakate's appointment to the role "will help ensure that the voices of children and young people are never cut out of the conversation on climate change — and always included in decisions that affect their lives.”
Despite the global recognition, Nakate says it’s not enough — not enough to save the planet or to save the people in the global south she says are suffering significantly from the effects of climate disasters.
“For so long the world has ignored what happens in the global south," the 25-year-old Ugandan native told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
Fresh off a week-long trip to Turkana County, Kenya with UNICEF, Nakate saw the effects of food and water insecurity caused by the worst drought in eastern Africa in four decades.
“To go back to the Horn of Africa — where I was in Turkana — there was a time people talked about it, but now people have forgotten,” she said. “It’s no longer being talked about, but does that mean that situation has come to an end? No. The drought situation is much worse and many people are suffering right now.”
Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development warned that higher temperatures and less than normal rainfall were recorded across the African continent by weather agencies, and rains were further expected to fail — indicating that countries in East Africa, as well as the Horn of Africa, could be facing the most severe drought in 40 years. Over the years, droughts have led to crop failure, livestock deaths and millions of cases of malnutrition.
Countries like Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya could see current famine conditions intensify.
“When it comes to the climate crisis, it has different, horrible realities. One of them is that those being impacted the most right now, they are the ones the least responsible,” she said.
According to the Global Carbon Project, a team of scientists that monitor countries’ carbon dioxide emissions, Africa — which accounts for about 16% of the world’s population — is responsible for only 3.2% of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere since 1959.
Carbon dioxide is the primary contributor to climate change. As a natural greenhouse gas, it traps heat in the atmosphere, which in turn causes global temperatures to rise. Where the African continent is a minor contributor to global carbon dioxide emissions, more industrialized countries such as the United States, Russia and China are greater contributors.
For activists like Nakate, tackling the climate crisis isn't just about raising awareness or urging global leaders to make swift policy changes addressing climate change that is devastating countries like Pakistan and Kenya — it also requires amplifying the voices of non-western climate activists, who she said are largely ignored in international conversations about climate change.
Looking ahead to COP27 — the United Nations' annual climate summit — which is being held in Egypt this November, Nakate said she notices a significant deficit during these global discussions: the lack of real human experience.
“I think what really misses in these conversations is the human face of the climate crisis and I think its really the human face that tells the story that, tells the experiences of what communities are going through,” she said. “It’s what also tells the solutions that communities need because many times there’s a disconnect between what is being discussed and between what communities are saying.”
To Nakate, that is a failure of global leadership. She believes that leaders, specifically western leaders, would take immediate action if they understood and saw the hardships people experienced as a result of the climate crisis.
Ultimately, she said, the responsibility and burden of tackling climate change and ensuring the numerous, nameless faces of the climate crisis are not ignored needs to fall on global leaders — not solely the youth that have built a global movement.
“The question should be like, what should the leaders do? What should governments do? Because this whole time I’ve done activism, I have realized the youth have done everything,” Nakate said.
Still, she tries to look for hope in the situation.
"In all this, you try to look for the hope because it's in that hope that you find the strength to keep saying we want this or we don't want this," she said.