Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate and peers from other African nations on Friday made an urgent appeal for the world to pay more attention to the continent that stands to suffer the most from global warming despite contributing to it the least.
The Fridays For Future movement and activist Greta Thunberg held a news conference with the activists to spotlight the marginalisation of African voices.
It comes a week after American news agency The Associated Press faced backlash for cropping Nakate out of a photo at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Nakate, Makenna Muigai of Kenya, Ayakha Melithafa of South Africa and climate scientist Ndoni Mcunu of South Africa pointed out the various challenges both in combating climate change on the booming continent of some 1.2 billion people and in inspiring the world’s response.
“African activists are doing so much,” Nakate said. “It gets so frustrating when no one really cares about them.”
The AP later apologised and acknowledged mistakes in sending out the cropped photo on January 24 and in how the news organisation initially reacted. The AP has said that it will expand diversity training worldwide as a result.
Nakate said on Friday she was very sad the photo incident occurred but added, “I’m actually very optimistic about this” as it has drawn global attention to climate activists in Africa and the various crises there.
Muigai pointed to a recent locust outbreak that parts of East Africa haven't seen in 70 years, which threatens food security for millions of people in countries including Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia and is moving toward South Sudan and Uganda.
Challenges include everything from deforestation to bad energy policies, Muigai said. They also include changes in storm intensity that brought two devastating cyclones to Mozambique a year ago, Mcunu said. And they include the recent drought crisis in South Africa’s Cape Town region, Melithafa said.
“The narrative we have is Africans can adapt to this. That is actually not true,” Mcunu said.
The warnings have been stark for Africa. No continent will be struck more severely by climate change, the UN Environment Program has said.
Africa has 15 percent of the world’s population, yet is likely to “shoulder nearly 50 percent of the estimated global climate change adaptation costs,” the African Development Bank has said, noting that seven of the 10 countries considered most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa: Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
And yet “to date, energy-related CO₂ emissions in Africa represented around 2 percent of cumulative global emissions,” the International Energy Agency said last year.
In some cases it is difficult to persuade people to care more about climate change because there are so many other pressing everyday issues such as poverty, unemployment and gender-based violence, Melithafa said. “That’s hard for the global north to understand.”
Instead people should work to hold more developed countries accountable for producing the bulk of emissions that contribute to global warming, the activists said.
“Every individual is needed in the fight against the climate crisis,” Nakate said. “Because climate change is not specific about the kinds of people it affects.”
For her part, Thunberg firmly returned the spotlight to the activists from African countries.
“I’m not the reason why we’re here,” she said, later adding, “We are fighting for the exact same cause.” And she noted that while whatever she says gets turned into a headline, that is not the case for many others.
“The African perspective is always so under-reported,” Thunberg said.
Nakate urged the audience to make 2020 the year of action on climate change after young activists in 2019 put the issue squarely at the center of global discussions.
It won’t be easy, she noted, “It is the uncomfortable things that will help to save our planet.”