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TED: The Global Opportunity to Accelerate Africa's Sustainable Future

Mary Robinson: Vanessa, thank you so much
for inviting us to your home here in Kampala, in Uganda,
for this TEDWomen conversation,
I really appreciate that.
It's so much nicer to be in somebody's home
having a conversation.
So let's start with what prompted you
or what brought you to become a climate activist,
to become aware of the climate issue from the beginning?
You must have been very young, but you're still very young.
Vanessa Nakate: My journey started in 2018.
That is when I started reading about the challenges
that the people in my country, Uganda, were facing.
And at that point,
I found out that climate change was one of those challenges.
And I remember in school
studying about climate change in geography class.
It never made me realize that it was actually an emergency
or something that was happening at that time.
So I was really surprised to find that it is the greatest threat
facing the lives of so many people.
And what was it in 2018 that kind of prompted you?
I remember speaking to one of my uncles, Charles,
and asking him if he has seen any changes
from when he was much younger and right now.
And he explained to me that 20 years ago in a specific place,
he mentioned in Mitanya
that they would expect rains at a specific time.
But then he said now, 20 years later,
that the farmers cannot tell when the rains would come.
So he actually said there's been a change, but no one is talking about it.
So that really triggered me to start doing something about it.
I didn't know what exactly I had to do,
but after seeing Greta Thunberg from Sweden strike, I was really inspired.
You saw those photographs of her in front of the Swedish parliament.
Yes. In 2018, towards the end of the year.
So I was really inspired by her actions,
and I decided that I would start striking as well.
However, I was quite scared to go to the street.
Why were you scared?
I think I've always been nervous to face people, so many people.
Are you a bit shy?
A bit, yes.
Yeah, but I tend to manage it, I should say.
You were in Davos with Greta Thunberg
and some other well-known climate activists.
And there was a photo taken, I think, of five of you,
and the other four were white women, white young women,
you were all very young.
And you were cut out of the photograph.
You could have just, you know, accepted that, but you didn’t.
Tell us about why, how you felt
and then why you decided to react the way you did
and what you did.
When I first saw the photograph, I was, of course, really frustrated
because I remember one of the messages
I really emphasized at that press conference
was the need to listen to the voices,
you know, of different activists across the world.
And suddenly, you were cut out.
So it was quite disappointing to see and also frustrating for me.
But also at that point,
I just wanted to ask why I have been removed from the picture.
And that's exactly what I did.
I asked why.
And that really gave me the opportunity to talk about, you know,
some of the intersections of climate change, for example,
with racial justice.
Talk about this big long word that we use, intersectionality.
Yeah, so when when we talk about intersectionality,
it's just something that explains
that climate change is not just on its own.
Climate change is more than weather,
it's more than statistics,
it's about the people.
And when we bring in the conversation of intersectionality,
it makes us talk about, you know, things like poverty eradication.
It makes us talk about racial justice in our fight for climate justice.
And you know, you’ve been the face on Time magazine.
You have reached very high visibility as a voice for Africa.
How has that been?
How has the journey for you been?
How have you felt internally?
How have you managed to cope with, you know, being well-known,
presumably you get lots of social media messages, lots of everything,
and maybe some of them are negative.
How do you cope?
Well, I want to first of all say that, you know,
I'm not the voice of Africa,
yeah, there are so many --
You are one of the voices.
And the publicity or the fame, if I should say that,
comes with that.
It can be both positive and also negative.
And negative, it can be, you know,
the people who will say that what you're doing is not real
or you're exaggerating the climate crisis
or people who tell you you're, you know,
a young woman, you should get married instead of standing on the street.
So it comes with all that.
But one thing I realized that, you know,
the one percent is the negativity,
but the 99 percent,
it's the support from different parts of the world.
So amidst all that, I look at the support from the different people.
And you take steps to make sure
that your own self-care is, you know, going well,
that you've got a balance in what you're doing.
What do you do?
Apart from the activism,
I do many other things in my own personal life.
One, like you've talked about, self-care, I really love to rest.
And many times for me, rest is actual sleep.
Yes, so I really love to get good sleep.
And literally everyone here at home knows that.
And also, I love getting involved in church activities.
I know you've talked about
capitalism as being part of a problem in degrading land
and extracting and degrading, etc.
What kind of structures would you like to see in a broad sense?
What kind of world would you like to see?
Yes, I would like to see a kind of world that respects people,
but also respects the planet as well.
And it's important to note
that we are in a system that has created the climate crisis
and many other challenges that people are facing.
And when we demand for system change,
we mean that the system actually has to change.
We cannot solve, you know,
the problems that are happening right now
with the very system that created them.
So we need something new,
something that will ensure that people are protected
and the planet is protected as well.
When it comes to consumption,
I think it's a place of governments
helping to make cities more sustainable for people.
Because it could be transportation.
For example, when you're in a country within Europe,
you can very easily use the train to get to so many places
to even go through, I mean, get to another country,
which may be difficult in some places or in some countries.
So I think it's really a place of making our cities
and our countries more sustainable
so that people can live more sustainably
when it comes to, you know, food, when it comes to transportation,
when it comes to clothing itself.
You know, the issue of population,
it is not the problem in our fight for the climate crisis.
I agree.
Because it's important to know that, you know,
while Africa has a huge population,
it is responsible for less than four percent of the global emissions.
And a family of maybe ten in Uganda
will emit way less than a family of four
in a country within Europe.
So it's really a place of understanding who has caused this crisis
and what needs to be done to make people live more sustainably.
And you've turned the focus, which I want to do,
on your continent, Africa.
There are so many crises at the moment.
There is, you know, a food crisis, a fuel crisis,
there was the COVID crisis
and a lack of equitable access to vaccines.
And behind that, and there all the time,
and much earlier, has been the climate crisis.
So how do you want the conference that we're going to see,
the African Conference in Egypt in November, COP27,
how do you see the priorities?
What do you want to see happen?
When it comes to loss and damage,
the climate crisis is pushing so many communities beyond adaptation.
When, you know, a family loses a family member,
you can adapt to a loss of life.
You know, you've talked about the food crisis,
for example, in the Horn of Africa
that has left more than 20 million people with no access to food.
You can’t adapt to starvation.
You know, when islands are being washed away
and being submerged by flooding or by the rising sea levels,
it’s evident that you can’t adapt to lost islands or to sinking coastlines.
So this is where loss and damage comes in.
One of the things about development is, you know,
industrialized countries built their economies on fossil fuel.
And African countries have wanted to go as green as possible,
but they haven't got the investment and support.
And some countries want to go more into the gas they found
or the coal they've found,
in particular, gas more recently.
And pipelines.
You've written about this.
You feel very strongly about this as a young African climate activist.
Tell us more.
Yes, there is a very big challenge
that so many African nations are facing right now.
There is a pressure to transition to renewable energy.
There's a pressure to lift people out of energy poverty.
But then there is no climate finance to do that.
So what is happening is that fossil fuel companies
are coming with all these deals for the gas or for the oil
in the different countries.
Because they're finding it harder in other regions.
But then if the climate finance that is very much needed
by these nations is delayed,
they are being pressured to lift their communities
out of energy poverty.
So, you know, that's what makes the climate crisis more than weather.
So now there is an issue of energy poverty.
And we know that millions of people across Africa
have no access to electricity.
So that's why the demands of climate finance are very clear.
We need the money to help communities, those that are on the front lines,
to help people, to lift people out of energy poverty.
But in a more cleaner way, while transitioning to renewable energy.
Would you make any exception for, you know,
the possibility of clean cooking gas as a temporary, just transition
to help, as one of the solutions,
there are other solutions to clean cooking
or getting, you know, electricity into homes.
I'm just wondering, I mean,
are you of the view that there's no room at all,
because many people feel
the developing countries should have some leeway.
Because of the very reason you gave,
Africa is such a low emitter internationally
and yet has real development needs.
I'm not talking about new infrastructure.
I'm talking about getting to people who need clean cooking
or who need electricity in their home.
Well, I think that when it comes to, you know,
clean cooking and getting electricity to people,
still we have to take the renewable way.
Unfortunately, gas is unsustainable,
and it can be very harmful to so many people.
I know that when climate finance is made available,
a lot of transformation can be made.
I run a project that I started in 2019,
and it involves the installation of solar panels
and eco-friendly cook stoves in schools in Uganda.
I don't have, you know, specific climate finance
that is coming in for that project,
but it's been different people that are supporting,
you know, online through our GoFundMe.
And we've done installations in 31 schools now.
They have access to electricity through solar.
You know, they have access to clean cooking
through eco-friendly cook stoves.
So I think the solutions are available.
We just need political will and money to be available.
So you would even say, you know,
that you wouldn't even have gas as a temporary, just transition solution
to help women, for example, in particular,
to get more choices of access to clean cooking?
We cannot bring gas.
I believe there are more sustainable ways to help women.
So you you are very firm.
I'd love you to talk more
about the Africa that could be there
if we move more quickly.
What would it mean?
How do you see, for example, in wetlands,
how do you see it in terms of what would change in cities?
What would change, I mean, yes, there would be electricity in households,
but how else could there be significant difference
in jobs as well as in better livelihoods?
Yeah, I'll start by sharing something I told a friend of mine
while I was in Europe,
and we were going to take the train from one country to another.
And I told him that if I had lots of money right now,
I would take this public transportation to my country, Uganda, as well.
So I think those are some of the things
that we could see happen if things start moving.
To see that public transportation is made more accessible,
is made more affordable
and also more sustainable for people.
Because when public transportation is made, you know,
sustainable and affordable for people,
it moves things very fast
because you can easily move from one place to another,
but in the most sustainable way possible.
So I think that when things start moving, actual money,
because here what we are talking about is political will
and making climate finance available.
This is what will enable African nations to build more sustainable cities.
Yeah, you mentioned the projects that you are working on
in rural schools
to have solar panels and a better cook stove system.
What other projects that you know of or that you've seen
or that you've heard of particularly excite you?
So this project is really to educate young people about trees
and also to grow these trees with them.
So what I've seen with her project is that she teaches, you know,
the students in schools to not only plant but to also grow the trees.
To nurture them.
Exactly, nurture them.
So I think that is something that I find very exciting.
And also here in Uganda, I've seen, you know,
different activists during different tree-planting projects,
especially fruit trees,
to help the communities where they're taking these trees
to not only have, you know, trees for environmental reasons,
but also for food because they are fruit trees.
And sometimes for health as well.
Exactly, yes.
So those are some of the things that I have seen here
that are very inspiring.
I remember being in a conversation at COP26,
and it was with some Indigenous leaders.
And one of the leaders said that usually before they make decisions,
they always sit in a community and ask themselves,
will this decision be good for the children?
And if they say no,
there is a possibility that it could harm the children in this way,
then that immediately would disqualify that decision.
So I do agree that there is a place of choosing the decisions,
like, making decisions that will ensure that children are protected
or the planet is protected.
And also, just to add something, in scripture I've read
that says, you know, I've given you a choice of life and death,
so you choose between life and death.
So when I bring it to the climate crisis,
we have a choice.
A choice to either walk into a world that is beneficial for all of us
or a choice that will take us into the world
that may harm some people earlier,
but in the end it would impact everyone.
So I do agree that we must make a choice.
But I like that wisdom
that you shouldn't take decisions
that may impact wrongly on future generations.
This gets back to oil and gas in Africa.
You know, it sounds, you know, short term,
but it's not actually short term
because putting in that infrastructure will take some years.
And by that time, and then we know it's actually adding to the problem.
Yeah, so it's a kind of very,
very good point to think about the future impacts of all actions
and the impact particularly on, as you say, children and grandchildren.
Yeah, I believe that all life on Earth is sacred,
and I believe that there is an intersection,
or interconnection of all life on the planet.
And just to really add on that,
in my tribe, I am a Muganda by tribe,
we have different clans.
And I mean, the Njovu clan, njovu means elephant.
So recently I got to learn that you know,
one of the reasons for putting the clans was to preserve wildlife.
And what happens with the clans
it means if I'm in the elephant clan,
I can't eat an elephant.
I cannot harm or kill an elephant.
So it will be the same for another person who is maybe in a lion clan.
And there are different clans,
you find that there are different clans of tree species
or plant species or animals or marine species.
And in that way,
that was the wisdom to preserve the different animals
and the different plants and the different trees.
So I do believe that in a way there is a connection between, you know,
the different kinds of life on this Earth.
And what I wanted to ask you about is the importance, if you think so,
of intergenerational conversation.
So I do believe that we need an intergenerational conversation
to address the climate crisis,
because I am not the first climate activist in the whole world.
And I know that, you know,
the movement is not the first movement in the whole world.
I know that there have been people who have been organizing and mobilizing,
you know, for so many years,
demanding for, you know, climate justice or a better environment for all of us.
I know that you've been doing incredible work as well,
you know, for the environment.
So I believe I have something to learn from you
and many other people
who started this work way before I did.
And I also believe there is a place for them to learn from me as well.
So I think it's a place of bridging the different wisdoms
of the older generation and the younger generation
to come up with that one conversation.
Because, you know,
the fight is not just for the younger generation.
The fight is for everyone.
So Vanessa, how do you see the increasing climate shocks basically,
and impacts impacting on the rights of people in African countries?
I will first of all mention something I remember in school
that was taught about rights.
So being told that people have the right to clean air
or people have the right to water or to housing,
and these are the very things that the climate crisis is destroying.
When it comes to water sources,
we know that for so many people, so many communities,
when they experience dry spells,
they have to walk long distances to look for water.
And, you know, when it comes to housing,
we know that many people have lost their homes
because of flooding, because of landslides.
We've had recent floods in Mbale region here in Uganda.
And thousands of people were displaced, and their homes were destroyed.
So it's really a place of understanding
that the very rights that we were taught in school, you know,
they are being affected by the climate crisis.
Many times women are on the front lines of the climate crisis.
And this is because for many communities,
women have the responsibilities of providing food,
providing water for their families.
Many are farmers.
Exactly. So when, you know, crops are drying
because of, you know, too much heat,
it's the women that are on those farms.
When the farms are destroyed or washed away,
it's the women that are impacted,
they are the ones working on those farms.
When water systems dry out,
it's women that have to walk very long distances.
For some communities, it's even worse for, you know, children,
especially girls, who have to drop out of school.
Some are forced into early marriages,
because their families can't take them to school anymore.
And when they get them married off,
they expect a bride price
that can help them recover from the climate impacts.
So it's really evident
that the climate crisis disproportionately affects so many girls
and so many women across Uganda,
across Africa and across the world.
I wonder what kind of message you would give
you know, just at the end of this conversation,
a final message of what action everybody can take.
And now I'm not talking about Africa.
I'm actually talking more about the world
that needs to move more quickly
out of fossil fuel, for example.
But what message would you have
for those who are listening to this conversation?
Yeah, I would first of all, say that many times, you know,
the climate crisis seems very complex.
And many people want to do something,
but they don't know exactly what they can do.
But there are so many things that can be done.
And you know, we all won't do everything.
But it's finding that thing that will transform something.
You know, no one is too small to make a difference
and no action is too small to transform the world.
It's like we are all one body,
and every part of that body has different actions.
So it's a place of finding your part and lot in the body and say,
I would do this.
That if you are in law,
we did an event about law together --
Yes, at COP26.
At COP26.
So if you are in law,
you can find your place in what you're doing
that as a lawyer or as a judge,
you're going to support different activists
because you've seen activists take, you know,
different cases to court in regards to climate issues.
That if you're a teacher,
you're going to use your space as a teacher in school
to teach the students,
to tell them not only about what is happening,
but about what they can do.
So it's really a place of finding your part in the body
and just doing your part,
because in the end,
when we put all the different actions
of the different members of the body,
we actually transform the whole world.
Well, Vanessa, all I can say is I have really enjoyed this conversation.
And I hope you have.
Yes, I have, thank you so much.
It was a lovely conversation, and I had so much to learn from you.
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