Climate activist Vanessa Nakate wants to hold Joe Biden accountable to his climate change plan

For 24-year-old Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, climate change is not an abstract concept — it’s personal. She witnesses the impact of it on her country every day.

“I have seen it in my country, I have seen how the changing weather patterns have destroyed homes, have destroyed farms, destroyed businesses, and left people with nothing,” Nakate said. “And that is what I want to change.”

In January 2018, after educating herself about the seriousness of the environmental issues facing her community, Nakate began staging climate strikes every Friday to raise awareness. Her efforts appeared to have paid off when the Arctic Basecamp, a team of researchers and scientists, invited Nakate to participate in a workshop with other climate activists in Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum in January 2020.

Following a successful and enjoyable week, Nakate was photographed alongside several other young climate activists, including Greta Thunberg. But when the Associated Press published the photo, Nakate saw she had been cropped out — leaving just the four other activists — all of whom were white — in the photo.

Her tweet asking why she had been removed from the photo garnered international attention.

Being cut out of the photo made Vanessa feel like “she wasn’t there” and was symbolic of what often happens in many climate talks and negotiations: the Global South, and the African continent, are often left out.

The Global South is a term often used in social science to refer to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and parts of Oceania — regions outside Europe and North America, most of which are low-income and often politically or culturally marginalized.

Many developing countries in these regions are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change. Nakate believes the Global South needs more representation, because “if there’s only going to be [climate] justice in the Global North, then it isn’t justice at all.”

Nakate recently wrote a letter to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, asking them if they were serious about their commitment to fixing the climate crisis and expressing her desire for a clean, sustainable, and equitable planet. Nakate’s letter gained a lot of international support, but it also opened her up to the worst online trolling she ever experienced.

I spoke with Nakate about her work as a climate activist; what she wanted Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the rest of the world to know by reading her letter; and how she remains strong in the face of Twitter trolls.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jariel Arvin

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview with me. I’ve heard a lot about your story in the past and I’ve read a lot about you. What does it mean for you to be a climate activist? What are the things that you really care about?

Vanessa Nakate

Finding solutions for the people who are being impacted by the climate crisis right now. Because I have seen it in my country, I have seen how the changing weather patterns have destroyed homes, have destroyed farms, destroyed businesses, and left people with nothing. And that is what I want to change. I want to see justice in my country. And also in the different parts of the world that are affected the most.

Jariel Arvin

What do you want people to understand about your movement?

Vanessa Nakate

Well, what I would want people to understand is that the climate crisis is not something that is coming in the future. It is something that has been here. So, I want everyone to treat it like an urgent crisis that we are all facing right now. Because at the end of it all, we are all affected by the climate crisis, though not equally, and that should be the motivation of many people to fight for those voices, for those communities that are affected the most right now.

Jariel Arvin

What’s the climate like in Uganda? Can you tell me a little bit more about how the weather patterns have been changing?

Vanessa Nakate

In my country we usually have two seasons: the dry season and the wet season. But now with rising global temperatures, there are times when we expect rainfall but we do not get it. It’s no longer reliable. And the disruption in weather patterns means that when we do receive rainfall, it comes in the form of short and heavy rainfall that causes massive floods. And when we are in the dry season, we find that the heat is hotter then it would be, hence bringing about the longer and hotter dry spells.

Jariel Arvin

How has this impacted people in Uganda?

Vanessa Nakate

Well, this year, during the pandemic, we saw a rise in the water levels of Lake Victoria. And this rise caused so much destruction in the areas around the lake because many people’s homes were submerged. Many people’s farms were washed away and their crops were washed away, meaning that many people were left homeless and with nothing to eat, and with no access to clean water. Even the available water was contaminated by the toilets that were submerged in the process.

Every time it rains, we expect it to flood in different parts of the country, even in the capital city. It’s quite dangerous to walk when it has just finished raining, because you never know where you could fall in a ditch filled with water.

Earlier this year, in May, there were floods in the western region of Uganda. And we saw very many people being displaced, over 90,000 people were displaced because of severe flooding and some people were killed in the floods.

Jariel Arvin

So, when these floods happen and there’s this such intense destruction, what is the relief process like? How do people get help?

Vanessa Nakate

Well, as I speak right now, most of the people who are displaced by the floods are sleeping in what I would call camps. So most of them haven’t completely recovered from the losses that they experienced, because they literally lost everything. And of course, we have seen some activists organizing Go Fund Me campaigns to try and get food for these people, to try and get food to them in these camps, where they are sleeping with their children.

Jariel Arvin

What do you say to people who think that we can solve the climate crisis in the Global North, or in the countries where the emissions are the highest? What do you say to people who think that the solution can be achieved without the input of the Global South?

Vanessa Nakate

Well, there is no climate justice if it isn’t global, and if it doesn’t include everyone.

If it is only going to be justice in the Global North, then it isn’t justice at all, because it erases the voices of the activists speaking up, and it also erases the suffering of the millions of people who have to sleep hungry, who have to walk long distances to have access to water, whose kids have to drop out of school because they can’t take care of them.

So that really needs to be understood that we are not talking about a future disaster. We are talking about a present catastrophe that needs to be addressed now.

Jariel Arvin

How did you get started with climate activism? What made you get started?

Vanessa Nakate

In 2018, I wanted to do something that would cause change in the lives of the people in my community. So I started carrying out research to understand the challenges people were facing and what I could do to offer help or to offer my voice in finding help for them.

One of the problems that I found out about was climate change. And I was really surprised to find out about it, because in school climate change hasn’t been taught as if it’s something that is happening right now. I didn’t really get to learn the realities of the climate crisis. And yet, my research was telling me that this was one of the greatest threats facing humanity.

So I decided to read more about it, and I have realized that some of the challenges and effects of the climate crisis were already visible in my country. I had already seen them, but now I began connecting them to climate change. That’s when I decided that I could add my voice to the climate movement and demand action. So I started striking every Friday. That was in the first week of January 2018.

Jariel Arvin

And what was the reaction like from people in your community?

Vanessa Nakate

It wasn’t the best reaction, as expected. It began with quite a few negative comments from people saying that I was wasting my time. From people saying that I had nothing [better] to do, to people saying that I have to stand on the streets because I’m probably trying to sell myself. Or maybe I’ve started taking really dangerous drugs, and that’s what’s taking me out into the street.

There was so much negativity. Also, even my friends in the beginning, they could never really understand why I was going into the streets, including my family.

Jariel Arvin

How did you respond when you saw and heard those comments? How did you feel?

Vanessa Nakate

It was heartbreaking for me to see these comments because it made me realize how many people are ignorant about what’s happening. They do not know the danger they face. They do not know the challenges they face, because some would say, “We have much bigger problems than what you are talking about.”

And yet, this is something that is affecting lives right now. So it was painful to see the ignorance of people, and also how much negativity they can decide to throw at one person.

Jariel Arvin

How did you keep going?

Vanessa Nakate

I think the very thing that motivated me to start striking were the people that are being affected right now. I really wanted to keep working so that they can get the justice they deserve.

And seeing millions of young people from different parts of the world doing these climate strikes was very inspiring for me because I knew that I wasn’t alone, and there were different voices speaking up. And even if there isn’t support from your own country, there is support from the international community, there is this kind of global solidarity.

Jariel Arvin

Tell me more about that. How would you describe the international solidarity and the climate activist community more generally?

Vanessa Nakate

Well, to me, it has been one of the things that has kept me moving, because so many people have been so supportive.

Ever since I started my activism, people from different parts of the world have been saying how important it is that young people are speaking up. People have been sharing my work. That’s been a very supportive way of showing that they understand the challenges that we are facing. They understand the urgency of the climate crisis and they think it’s important for young people to keep speaking up.

I remember when I was cropped out of that photo, there was this global support that came in. That made me realize that I wasn’t alone and there were many people who were backing me up, many voices that were supporting my work. To me, that is a form of global solidarity.

Jariel Arvin

Who are those voices for you, who are those heroes that help you to keep going?

Vanessa Nakate

Wow, well there are so many activists, from those in my country and those in other countries. I would say people like Greta [Thunberg], people like Malala [Yousafzai], people like Licypria [Kangujam] from India. People like Elizabeth Wathuti from Kenya, or Edwin Namakanda from Uganda. There are so many who have incredible voices that I could list, and they help inspire me and keep me going.

Jariel Arvin

So what you were describing in Uganda — where there might not be a lot of support in your community, but there’s hope and support in the international community — kind of reminds me of the situation in the US, where we have half of our government that doesn’t support or perhaps even believe in climate change, but the international community is cheering us on. What do you think about the recent election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris?

Vanessa Nakate

Well, before the announcement of the results of the presidential election, the US left the Paris agreement. But when Joe Biden said that if he were elected then the US would get back into the agreement, it meant a lot for the climate movement. So it gives me hope that the US will be back on track in getting the climate action that we deserve and that we need.

Because we want all leaders to treat the climate crisis as a crisis, and to listen to the science, and to the scientists. To listen to the young people who are speaking up and to take the directions that we are asking them to take.

Jariel Arvin

And now that he’s won?

Vanessa Nakate

There was a ray of hope that this is something that could actually happen now that he has been elected president, and we hope to see that when he actually is sworn in and he actually gets to the White House. We hope to see that he fulfills his promises.

And of course, we are going to hold him accountable if he doesn’t fulfill those promises.

Jariel Arvin

And how will you do that, how will you hold him accountable?

Vanessa Nakate

By speaking up. By striking. By protesting. By writing letters. Because I feel like we need to do everything we can to ensure that the leaders treat this as a crisis.

Jariel Arvin

For the first time in US history, our vice president will be a Black woman of South Asian descent, Kamala Harris. Considering the importance you place on girls and education, how do you feel about her victory?

Vanessa Nakate

To me that speaks so much because representation has been lacking, and it really made me happy to see that she is the vice president-elect and is a Black woman.

As a Black woman from Uganda, it really inspired me to to believe in even greater things. To believe that certain spaces are no longer just for a specific or special group of people. We can all make it to those places now, because we have every right to be in those places. So, I was very happy to see the representation.

Jariel Arvin

I read the letter to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris that you posted to Twitter. Why did you write it?

Vanessa Nakate

I was inspired by one specific activist named Samantha Reed Smith. I don’t know if you’ve heard about her, but she was a peace activist [during the Cold War], and she wrote a letter [to the leader of the Soviet Union at the time, Yuri Andropov] talking about how this world is for all of us, and how we can live in peace without having any trouble, without having any wars. And I guess that is why she was called a peace activist. I love reading about different young people who did incredible things to demand change.

I decided that if Samantha Smith wrote a letter, and she got a response, and it was a positive response, then I could do the same for the climate crisis. I wanted to write it in the simplest way possible, and to write it with the purest of heart. I wanted to write it in a way that people wouldn’t expect, because I’m sure many people would have expected a formal letter. I wanted to get across the demands of the people who want a livable and sustainable planet.

Jariel Arvin

What was the reaction like when you posted the letter?

Vanessa Nakate

Good and bad. Literally the following day, after posting my letter it was trending in my country, and people were sharing it on different platforms, and there was so much negativity from the people in my country. There was so much trolling. So, that is the bad side of all the reactions — from most of the people in my country.

Jariel Arvin

What kinds of things were they saying?

Vanessa Nakate

Some were saying that I have so much nerve to write to the president-elect. Some were saying, “We are tired of you making headlines like you did when you were cropped out of that photo.” So it was very hard seeing those responses, especially from the people from my own country.

And most of them were young people, probably in their 20s or early 30s, so it was really hard to see all those negative comments coming from people who were around my age.

But when it comes to the international community, there was so much support. Because some of the comments were saying, “Thank you for writing this letter” and “This is a letter written from a very sincere heart” and “These are really powerful words. I hope that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are able to read it.”

Jariel Arvin

How do you continue to fight so hard into your activism when you get comments like that or when people troll you for, for speaking out?

Vanessa Nakate

Honestly, I do not know how I am able to do that because it is very, very hard. And it even makes it hard to walk out of the house because you never know who might confront you and say, “Who do you think you are that you can write a letter to the president of the US?” Some may say, “You haven’t written to your own president.” I wrote a letter to our president last year, but I don’t think it was ever received.

But I think I’m stronger than the trolls and it really keeps me going.

Jariel Arvin

I know you did a ton of interviews after the incident earlier this year where you were cropped out of that AP photo, and I won’t ask you to tell me once again how you felt.

But I do want to ask you: You said at the time that the incident was symbolic of the lack representation of Black people and the Global South more generally in discussions around climate change. Do you think anything has changed with representation since then?

Vanessa Nakate

Well, I really can’t say anything has changed, because even after that, we saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. We saw all these protests. So I think there is a lot that needs to be done when it comes to racial discrimination. A lot needs to be changed in the system that enables this kind of discrimination. That really needs to be destroyed. Like, right now.

Jariel Arvin

How do you think we should do that?

Vanessa Nakate

Well, I believe in the power of the people. And I think people are able to destroy that kind of system through the organizing of protests, through the organizing of strikes, through signing petitions, through voting and selecting the right leaders into leadership who are able to shut down that system. So, I believe people power can do that.

Jariel Arvin

You mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement and racial discrimination. What do you see as the links between racial discrimination and your climate activism?

Vanessa Nakate

It’s quite obvious that communities of Indigenous people, communities of Black and brown people, are the most impacted by the climate crisis.

We know that Black kids and brown kids and Indigenous kids are exposed to the most polluted air and polluted water. In the United States, we know about the Flint water crisis, and how many people were exposed to the poisoned water.

When you come to the Global South, you find that the people in these regions, for example on the African continent, are some of the lowest emitters of CO2, but then they are the most affected by climate change. So I think there is really a great linkage between climate justice and racial justice, and I believe that we cannot have climate justice without racial justice.

There is an element of environmental racism and an element of environmental injustice that must be dealt with in the climate movement, if you want to get justice for everyone.

Jariel Arvin

So besides the strikes, and writing letters, what else are you working on? What’s next for you?

Vanessa Nakate

Last year I started a project of installing solar panels and eco-friendly stoves in schools, to drive a transition to renewable energy in rural communities and to reduce the amount to firewood that schools use in the preparation of food. Literally 90 percent of the schools in Uganda heavily use firewood for the preparation of food, and they do not have any other alternative.

And, of course, the students cannot go hungry. So, with these stoves, they are able to cut down on the amount of firewood that the schools use in a term. And it also brings a form of climate education to the students, to the teachers, and to their parents.

I would love to cover as many schools as possible. But what really keeps this project moving is the funding that comes in and the support that comes in from donations. But I hope to cover as many schools as possible. This month, I already have two installations because we already received funding for two schools. By the end of this month, I will have covered eight schools.

Jariel Arvin

That’s great. I’m going to include a link to your project so people can donate if they want to help.

Vanessa Nakate

Thank you so much.

If you would like to contribute to Vanessa Nakate’s solar stove project, more information can be found here.

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