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‘This is not climate leadership’: Vanessa Nakate says Biden must choose sides after youth support tanks

US President Joe Biden is failing to show “true climate leadership” by greenlighting new fossil fuel development, says one of the world’s leading climate activists.

Mr Biden, who recently announced he would seek re-election, has seen his approval rating on climate issues slump among the 18- to 29-year-old voters who propelled him to the White House in 2020.

Climate-conscious voters have been particularly angered by the president’s decision to approve new oil and gas drilling like the vast ConocoPhillips’ Willow project in Alaska.

“We don’t want President Biden to sit on the table of fossil fuels and also on the table of renewable energy,” Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate told The Independent, in an interview on the sidelines of the Global Citizen NOW summit in New York, last week.

“I think that he needs to make a choice whether to go one way, or the other way. And we hope that it’s the pathway to a just transition to renewable energy.”

Ms Nakate recently penned an op-ed with Greta Thunberg, of Sweden, and Sofia Kianni, an Iranian-American activist, on the Willow project, which they described as a betrayal of Biden’s campaign promise to halt drilling on federal lands.

“It’s a betrayal of our generation’s future and of the millions of people suffering the impact of the climate crisis,” they added.

The activists’ demands are based in science: the influential and independent International Energy Agency has warned that there can be no investment in new fossil fuel projects if the world is to meet its 2050 net-zero target. That finding was reinforced by the latest UN climate science report which called for rapid cuts in fossil fuels across the board, and no new infrastructure for oil, coal and gas.

In just a few years, the 26-year-old has become one of the world’s most recognisable climate justice activists. She founded the RiseUp Movement, aimed at amplifying the voices of African climate activists, along with Vash Green Schools which provides schools in Uganda with solar panels and eco-friendly cookstoves to reduce their reliance on firewood.

She is also a respected voice on the global stage, where, alongside world leaders and Hollywood stars, she drives home the message that the climate crisis is not a future problem for Africa – but happening in the here and now.

From left to right: Barbados PM Mia Mottley, Vanessa Nakate, and Dr. Rajiv Shah attend Global Citizen NOW on April 27, 2023 in New York City (Getty Images for Global Citizen)
From left to right: Barbados PM Mia Mottley, Vanessa Nakate, and Dr. Rajiv Shah attend Global Citizen NOW on April 27, 2023 in New York City (Getty Images for Global Citizen)

Last Thursday, she joined Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin and Rockefeller Foundation president Dr Rajiv Shah to discuss how the climate crisis impacts the world’s most marginalised communities.

She pointed out that Africa, home to 1.3 billion people, accounts for less than 4 per cent of global emissions but is seeing some of the worst climate impacts.

“We are seeing all this imbalance not just in Uganda but across Africa,” she told The Independent, referencing the recent catastrophic flooding in her home country, which killed dozens of people and left hundreds more displaced, and Cyclone Freddy which left more than 1,000 people dead in Malawi.

Ms Nakate, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, also recalled visiting the Kenyan region of Turkana last year. The Horn of Africa is in the grips of a severe drought which has killed tens of thousands and left millions of people on the brink of famine. A recent study found that drought in the region is now around 100 times more likely due to the climate crisis.

“Mothers are trying to keep their children alive,” Ms Nakate said. “I remember one of the children I met, by the time the sun had set that evening, he had passed away. He was suffering from severe acute malnutrition.”

She added: “The climate crisis is an existential threat. It is not coming in the future, it is robbing people not just of their present but [of] their very survival.”

Activists like Ms Nakate have been scathing of events like the UN climate summits and Davos gatherings, which they see as paying lip service to meaningful action. But she says that young people, particularly those from the Global South, cannot afford to become disheartened.

“We need to survive right now,” she said. We need our communities to thrive right now. I think the urgency of the crisis leaves us with no choice but to keep fighting.”

From right: Climate activists Greta Thunberg of Sweden, Vanessa Nakate of Uganda, Helena Gualinga of Ecuador, Luisa Neubauer of Germany, and Fatih Birol, Head of the International Energy Agency, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
From right: Climate activists Greta Thunberg of Sweden, Vanessa Nakate of Uganda, Helena Gualinga of Ecuador, Luisa Neubauer of Germany, and Fatih Birol, Head of the International Energy Agency, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

While they continue to push for political and business leaders to take greater accountability, youth activists have been successful in drawing more people into climate action and raising awareness of the crisis.

Three in four people now view climate change as a major threat, according to a 2022 survey of more than 24,000 people in 19 countries by the Pew Research Center.

They have also targeted media organisations, demanding that they increase and improve their climate coverage. Analysis of nearly 5,000 newspaper articles on climate change, written from 2005-2019 in English-speaking countries, found that 90 per cent accurately represented the issue. Accuracy was found to improve over time except in right-leaning newspapers like Canada’s National Post, Australia’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, and the UK Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.

But even as climate impacts become more severe, the shift by some governments, including the UK, US and Australia, has been to crackdown on peaceful protests. Governments have latched on to the civil disobedience to introduce harsher, punitive measures.

In authoritarian states, the consequences are even more chilling. Ahead of the Cop27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh this past November, more than 300 anti-government protesters were rounded up and arrested by Egyptian authories.

And more than 1,700 environmental defenders have been killed around the world in the last ten years, according to a report last year by human rights non-profit Global Witness.

The risks to activists is something that Ms Nakate is keenly aware of in Uganda where authorities continued to criminalise protest without legal basis, according to Amnesty International.

“We've not been the kind that has been able to organize big marches or big strikes,” she said. “We've had to find different ways of doing activism – reaching out to communities, carrying out education, reaching out to schools running different projects.

“For us, it was really understanding what will ensure that activists are kept safe, especially those who are young and students.”

She said that it left her saddened to see activists, along with environmental defenders in indigenous communities, being arrested or even murdered.

“They’re trying to hold leaders accountable, not just for future generations, but also for the present generation,” she said.

“It’s really sad that those who are trying to ensure that we have a better world are seen as the enemies and yet we are not.”