Vanessa Nakate addressing a demonstration by climate change activists in Kampala, Uganda
‘We can see the world for what it is’: Vanessa Nakate at a climate change protest in Kampala, Uganda © Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters

In September 2019, more than 6m people around the world joined climate protests organised by school and university students, according to the organisers. And these organisers — in most places — were teenagers. It was one of the biggest mass protest events that the world has seen in recent years, and it was organised by kids.

That protest came out of decades of hard work from climate activists. But it also happened because of a new, widespread sense of fear.

To my generation, the climate crisis is all-consuming. A recent global study showed that three-quarters of young people think the future is frightening. More than 45 per cent said their feelings about climate affect their daily lives.

However, for people in countries like mine, Uganda, our anxiety is not about the future. Since I started a solo protest on the streets of Kampala in 2019, Uganda has been hit several times by flash flooding, droughts and even swarms of locusts linked to extreme weather that has been blamed on climate change.

Global movement: millions of young people around the world have joined protests demanding faster action to address climate change — Mike Hutchings/Alamy
Global movement: millions of young people have joined protests demanding faster action on climate change © Mike Hutchings/Alamy

After four years of drought in Madagascar, half a million children are on the verge of acute malnourishment in what the UN is calling a “climate change famine”. Deadly typhoons are affecting my friends in the Philippines. Young people in the Pacific Islands will soon lose their homes and cultures to inundation by the sea. And a report, earlier this year, showed that air pollution caused by the burning of coal, oil and gas was responsible for 8.7m premature deaths globally in 2018. Fossil fuels are literally killing us already.

For these reasons, this global youth climate movement will keep taking to the streets. As long as emissions are not cut drastically, we will be around.

Filipino rescue workers helping villagers hit by floods after Typhoon Vamco last year
Typhoon Vamco: Filipino rescue workers help villagers hit by floods last year © Dante Diosina Jr/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Many governments and corporations might have found it convenient if we had disappeared during the difficult months of the pandemic, when we could not meet, protest together, or in some places even go outside. Yet almost a million young people returned to the streets in 99 countries around the world in September, according to organisers, to make world leaders understand their historic responsibility ahead of COP26.

The truth is, our determination does not only come from the fact that young people’s futures are at stake. Everybody’s future is. Destructive extreme weather events have been increasing in the most affected areas for years. Even in northern countries, these events are now accelerating, and they are terrifying people of all ages.

Aerial view of the forest damaged by deforestation, pests and prolonged droughts in Guatemal
Deforestation in Guatamala: land clearance and droughts have damaged the ecosystem © Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images

I think our strength is that we can see the world for what it is. We are not distracted by what some people say is “politically realistic” — especially when this realism means more and more flooding, drought, loss of homes, forced migration, starvation and death.

We see through the rhetoric and the small steps that other people celebrate because we know there is no time for incremental change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need to halve emissions by 2030 to have a chance of limiting temperature rise to what they say is a safe level: 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. In February, the UN said that, even with the current pledges, by 2030 emissions will only decrease by 2 per cent from 2017 levels.

We will not celebrate any country’s faraway “net zero” targets as progress when that country is still building coal power plants or drilling for oil. We will not celebrate companies pledging to become “net zero” with no real plans for decarbonisation. We will not celebrate dodgy offsetting schemes that steal land from people in developing countries and destroy existing biodiversity to plant new trees.

We will not celebrate empty words and corporate greenwash.

We see the loss and damage that is already happening in our countries, and we call for the biggest historic emitters to compensate the most affected countries. This should not just comprise finance for mitigation, but also money for adaptation and compensation for what we have already lost. Africa is responsible for less than 3 per cent of historic global emissions from energy and industrial sources, yet Africans are already suffering among the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Rich countries fulfilling their promise for $100bn in annual climate aid to the poorest countries is just the start.

Young people understand what justice means and what a just world might look like. We also know that, through mobilising together, we can awaken the world to that. For many of us, this is a life-long fight.

Many accredited activists from the most affected areas could not make it to COP26 because of hurdles with vaccines. But those of us who will be in Glasgow will be holding politicians and corporations to account if they cannot use this historic opportunity to ensure the safety of current and future generations.

The writer is a 24-year-old climate activist based in Kampala, Uganda. She is the author of a new book, ‘A Bigger Picture’

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