Greta-Thunberg model doesn’t work: activists are fighting for climate in Africa

Vanessa Nakate: Greta model doesn’t work in Africa – that’s how young Ugandan is fighting for the climate

Thursday, June 4th, 2020, 6:25 pm

Africa makes only a minor contribution to climate change – but suffers disproportionately from the consequences. Activists like the Ugandan Vanessa Nakate find that the continent is not given enough attention. But it should – especially in the Corona crisis.

“At school, climate change is taught as something that will happen in the future,” says Vanessa Nakate. “And that you don’t have to worry about that.” But then the 23-year-old started looking around her home in Uganda. “I noticed that the consequences can already be felt in my country.”

Nakate is often compared to Greta Thunberg. She is one of the best-known young climate activists in Africa. More than a year ago, she implemented Thunberg’s Fridays for Future climate movement in her home country for the first time; in the corona lockdown, she now continues on social networks. But Nakate is not only fighting against climate change, but also for more attention for the continent that suffers the most – and for more attention on the global stage of climate activism.

Droughts, floods and cyclones

So far, Africa has only contributed about three percent to global CO2 emissions. But the future looks disproportionately bleak: “No continent will suffer as much from the effects of climate change as Africa,” says the UN Environment Program (UNEP). In Africa, temperatures are forecast to rise faster than in other regions of the world. Droughts, floods and cyclones could increase. If global temperatures rise two degrees, UNEP will threaten malnutrition, according to UNEP.

The economic consequences will also be enormous. In the past 30 years, most African countries have already lost 10 to 15 percent of GDP per capita growth annually due to climate change, as a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) shows. Countries in which agriculture plays a major role are already suffering the most economically and will continue to do so in the future. “Most of the African economies are poorly adapted to their current climate,” it says.

Little attention

Still, it’s hard to get attention for their struggle, Nakate says – especially where the climate change discourse is loudest in Europe and North America. International media only became aware of the 23-year-old through a poorly tailored photo. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, the US news agency removed AP Nakate from a picture with Thunberg and other European activists. The Ugandan had spoken out against this and had been well received. But the hype – and the interest in their activism – has subsided again.

Nakate and her colleagues have no easier time at home. The challenges are great, but knowledge about climate change is poor. “People have so many other problems,” says Happy Khambule, a climate and energy policy expert at Greenpeace. And most still do not understand the link between climate change and their daily problems, such as the lack of access to clean water or the grasshopper plague in East Africa, which has been exacerbated by extremely heavy rain.

“The countries have to react and they have to be tough”

Although African countries make little contribution to global CO2 emissions, Khambule is demanding more action from governments on the continent. Climate change is like Covid-19: a problem that cannot be avoided. “Countries have to react and they have to be tough” – away from fossil fuel industries; stronger measures to arm the population against the effects of climate change. From the perspective of Khambule and Nakate, the corona crisis is a unique opportunity for this rethink.

But that must also happen in the population. “There is a certain privilege in the global north,” says Nakate. Most people would know what climate change is; the climate message from Thunberg and Co. meets there on fertile soil. According to Nakate, she often meets resistance when she talks to people in her homeland Uganda. “Why don’t you take care of other problems?” That’s why Nakate takes small steps: she goes to schools and talks to the younger generation. It is committed to solar systems and energy-efficient stoves. She organizes clean-up campaigns in her home town and talks to people. “We use a language that makes people understand that we are in a crisis.”

Khambule therefore believes that the Greta model of climate activism in Africa would not necessarily work. “Movement around a personality cult would be difficult here,” says the Greenpeace expert. People’s problems are too different for a big message to have any effect. “Activism here has its own approach”: no mass protests or speeches to an audience of millions; targeted campaigns that address people’s acute problems. So maybe Africa doesn’t need Greta at all, but many, many Vanessas.

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