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

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Vanessa Nakate took the title of her memoir from something that happened at a climate conference last year. She posed for a photo with other activists in Davos, Switzerland. She was the only Black woman among the five. And when The Associated Press published the photo, there were only four faces. They cropped her out of the picture. Vanessa Nakate tweeted, you didn't just erase a photo. You erased a continent. But I am stronger than ever. Then she posted this video.

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VANESSA NAKATE: Does that mean that I have no value as an African activist or, if it's from Africa, don't have any value at all?

SHAPIRO: This week we're meeting young activists who've come to Scotland fighting for the future of the planet. Vanessa Nakate is Ugandan, and her book is called "A Bigger Picture: My Fight To Bring A New African Voice To The Climate Crisis."

It's so good to meet you in person.

NAKATE: Nice to meet you, too.

SHAPIRO: I wanted to meet you here in front of this wall because it's full of messages from the world's children about the climate crisis. And so when you look at this and you read these messages, what do you see? What does it make you think?

NAKATE: I think I really love this one. We need to learn more.

SHAPIRO: From a 12-year-old in the Maldives.

NAKATE: Yes, from the 12-year-old. I think it's really important because 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, activists who are, you know, speaking out from the most affected communities, their voices are not being platformed. Their voices are not being amplified. Their stories are being erased. And I think that, you know, this is a problem. We can't have climate justice if voices from the most affected areas are being left behind.

SHAPIRO: You write and you often speak about how the global south is excluded from these conversations. Has that been your experience at the COP26 summit here in Scotland? Have you felt excluded?

NAKATE: Well, I can say that I think on my first day at the COP, I happened to, you know, meet the first minister of Scotland.

SHAPIRO: Oh, Nicola Sturgeon.

NAKATE: Yes, and 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.

SHAPIRO: And so your name wouldn't even be included. Oh, it's like a repeat of what happened last year almost.

NAKATE: Exactly. And honestly, I just didn't have words for it because is something that I have already talked about. And I think it's not just my experience. There are many activists from the global south who have been sidelined the conference.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. As we know, climate change looks different in different places. Can you tell us what it looks like in Kampala, Uganda, where you live?

NAKATE: Yeah. Uganda is a country heavily dependent 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 that it's loss of people's funds, drying of people's crops, destruction of people's houses. So these are some of the visible impacts of the climate crisis in Uganda.

SHAPIRO: You began your climate activism a couple of years ago as you were finishing university. And you say many people around you at the time were telling you to get married and have kids. And we've been speaking with a lot of young women involved in climate activism this week. You write in the book about the role that gender plays. Would you read this section for us?

NAKATE: OK. (Reading) To my mind, it's no accident that a wave of young people has swept the world demanding action to address the climate crisis. It is also no accident that young women are leading many of these movements. We've seen what's happening on the ground. We have less access to resources and power. And so we feel more acutely what occurs when the little we have is taken from us, washed away in the rising waters or withering in the unrelenting sun.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about the role that you see gender playing in climate activism.

NAKATE: Yeah. This is a conversation that many people don't want to have. You know, 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, you know, 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 their funds 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, you know, water scarcity.

SHAPIRO: You've been involved in demonstrations here at the COP summit in Glasgow.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The last speaker is Vanessa Nakate...

SHAPIRO: We attended one midday at the center of this hub of thousands of people.

NAKATE: Finance for adaptation is critical, but for many of us in vulnerable countries, adapting to climate change is no longer enough. You cannot adapt to starvation. You cannot adapt to extinction. You cannot adapt to lost culture and heritage.

SHAPIRO: Vanessa Nakate, tell us what this was about, what you were protesting for.

NAKATE: Yeah. President Obama was coming to meet the French youth at the COP. And President Obama and other leaders, they made a promise of a $100 billion climate finance to be given to vulnerable countries. But we are in 2021, and that promise has not yet been delivered. So our, you know, demonstration was to ask the leaders, to ask President Obama to show us the money that was promised.

SHAPIRO: You speak a lot about the way climate change increases inequality and hits the most vulnerable people the hardest. And at the same time, in your book, you write, in some way, we are all Africa. What do you mean by that?

NAKATE: You know, we may be in different worlds right now. And I can say that many communities or many countries on the African continent, they could be in boats that are much weaker or boats that are already sinking or boats that are already on fire. But since we are all facing the same storm, definitely, eventually, all of us will be affected by the climate crisis. So when I say that we are all Africa, the impacts that, you know, people are seeing unfolding on the African continent, these are impacts that are going to start unfolding in different parts of the world if the leaders don't do anything about it.

SHAPIRO: This wall that we're in front of has messages from youth all over the world who know about climate change and care about climate change and want to do things about climate change. But there are also young people who don't know or who feel that they have no power. What would you say to those young people?

NAKATE: 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, you know, 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 and also a paper from my sister's art book. 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 like greater things.

SHAPIRO: Vanessa Nakate, it's so good to talk with you. Thank you very much.

NAKATE: You're welcome. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Her new book is called "A Bigger Picture: My Fight To Bring A New African Voice To The Climate Crisis." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.