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‘Open Your Hearts and Act’: African Youth Activists On Climate Apathy – OpEd

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It’s November 2021 and hordes of dignitaries from around the world are assembled in Glasgow, Scotland for the annual Conference of the Parties (COP), number 26. Billed as the last chance to do something to slow down climate change and reduce the vandalism being inflicted on the natural world by mankind, it proved to be yet another opportunity lost.

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The catastrophic impact of climate change is detailed in the latest IPCC report, described as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”, by António Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations. The report once again asserts that human induced “Climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting billions of lives all over the world….with people and ecosystems least able to cope being hardest hit.”

Its the second of three reports to be published by the IPCC since Glasgow (the first was descried as a “code red for humanity), and constitutes another impassioned plea for urgent action. Almost half the worlds population (3.5 billion) are currently living in countries vulnerable to climate impacts – mostly the poorest people in the poorest nations, the report says. If the impact of climate change is to be limited it is imperative that global warming does not go above 1.5°C (over pre-industrial levels), which requires global emissions to be cut by 45% by 2030 and net zero by 2050. But based on current commitments, António Guterres says,“global emissions are set to increase almost 14 per cent over the current decade. That spells catastrophe.”

One of the key aims of COP26 was to encourage countries to “come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century.” But, although some baby steps were taken little of real substance was achieved by the men and women in suits. They talked a lot, to one another, in the plenary, at various side shows, but, curtailed by self-interest, a political-economic ideology rooted in limitless consumption, and overtly influenced by corporate power, did, have done and will no doubt continue to do nowhere near enough: Cowards all, our political leaders are cowards, unprincipled, dogma-ridden, duplicitous cowards; and mainly white.

Inspiration and Hope however was present in Glasgow. On the streets The Young and not so young, but lots of The Young, assembled, and in the hall, where delegates sat laptops whirling, mobile phones dinging, young climate change activists from Africa and elsewhere pleaded with the powerful to act.

Elizabeth Wathuti, from Kenya, made a powerful, deeply moving speech, which summed up the feelings of many of us:

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“I have done a lot of soul searching about what to say here today….My truth will only land if you have the grace to fully listen. My story will only move you if you can open up your heart….your will to act must come from deep within. Over 2 million of my fellow Kenyans are facing climate related starvation. In this past year, both of our rainy seasons have failed….our rivers are running dry, our harvests are failing; our store houses stand empty; our animals and people are dying. Please open your hearts.

This is not only happening in Kenya. Over the past few months, there have been deadly heatwaves and wildfires in Algeria and devastating floods in Uganda and Nigeria. By 2025, in just four years time, half of the world’s population will be facing water scarcity. And by the time I’m 50, the climate crisis will have displaced 86 million people in Sub Saharan Africa alone.

Please open your hearts. If you allow yourself to feel it, the heartbreak and the injustice is hard to bear….it is our responsibility to ensure that the children have food and water……The decisions you make here will help determine whether children will have food and water. I believe in our human capacity to care deeply and to act collectively. I believe in our ability to do what is right if we let ourselves feel it in our hearts. So for these next two weeks, let us feel it in our hearts. The children cannot live on words and empty promises. They are waiting for you to act. Please open your hearts and then act.”

The seed of hope

We all need to “open our hearts and act”, especially those of us in the rich developed nations.

Those most at risk from corporate greed and western apathy are the developing nations of the world. They have done virtually nothing to cause the environmental emergency, but are feeling the impact most acutely and receiving barely any support. As Elizabeth Wahuti said, “Sub Saharan Africans are responsible for just half a percent of historical emissions. The children are responsible for none but they are bearing the brunt.”

It’s totally wrong, unjust, unfair, immoral; climate change injustice is one more shameful, violent example of The West’s indifference, arrogance and racism — it is no coincidence that most of those being sacrificed to climate change are black or brown: in this divided corrupt world, some lives are demonstrably of less value than others.

The rich industrialized nations of the world have caused the mess, and have what is routinely referred to as a ‘historic responsibility’ – (in 1900, more than 90% of emissions were produced in Europe or the US; by 1950, they accounted for more than 85%). What is not so often mentioned is that they, particularly the US, also have a massive contemporary responsibility; for, while it’s true that China produces more greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) in total than any other country, America tops the chart of GGE’s per capita.

In addition, it is western values of materialism and relentless consumption, that have now been aggressively exported throughout the world, that, with every shopping spree and irresponsible lifestyle choice (eating animal produce e.g.) are deepening the crisis day after day.

Climate change anxiety, and outrage over racial capitalism and Colonial Exploitation (and all are connected), including Covid vaccine injustice, has inspired an army of environmental activists across Africa.

Oladosu Adenike, 27, started the Nigerian “Fridays for Future” campaign. She was in Glasgow and made the point that environmental degradation and social instability are closely linked, telling VOA, “the peace and stability in this region (the Lake Chad region, the Sahel) depends on when we are able to restore the lake [so that] people can get sustainable livelihoods, [and] for them not to be….vulnerable to join armed groups of people. And this will likewise improve democracy in the region.” The Lake Chad Basin, which covers almost 8% of the continent has shrunk by 90% since the 1960s because of drought; the resulting competition for resources has caused poverty (10 million people are now dependent on humanitarian assistance) and conflict.

Another young African voice stirring the Glasgow malaise was Kaluki Paul Mutuku from Kenya; “We are constantly in the fear of losing our family members, losing our communities because the climate is dry — it is worsening by the day — there are droughts, there is extreme rainfall, and communities cannot bear it.” Some of the poorest communities in the world “cannot bear it”; communities that have done nothing to cause the problem — this fact cannot be stated too often. It is the greed, complacency and arrogance of the wealthy nations, in particular the richest members within those nations, that are overwhelmingly responsible. But, insulated somewhat from the most intense impacts of climate change, they care not and refuse to alter their lifestyle of excessive, irresponsible and largely unnecessary consumption.

After the weakness of COP 26, and the selfish short-term indifference of governments, including the ultra-nationalist Modi regime of India, which is simply the latest in a line of such tragedies, it is hard to be hopeful (hope based on action not sentimental wish making), particularly for those living in Africa and other developing regions. But these powerful voices and the many other young activists in Africa and across there world offer a ray of sunlight in the grey; as Kaluki Mutuku said, “We cannot afford to lose hope. And as long as young people, grassroots, and our front-line communities are leading the decade of change, then we are in the right trajectory.”

We must all hope and pray that he is right, and, whilst the major actions needed to combat the environmental emergency rests with governments and corporations/business, all of us individually can play our part to minimize the impact on communities that simply “cannot bear it”; communities in our own nations and in parts of the world that may be thousands of miles away. As Elizabeth Wathuti said, we must begin to “care deeply and to act collectively.” Therein lies the seed of hope.

Graham Peebles

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with acutely disadvantaged children and conducting teacher training programmes. Website: https://grahampeebles.org/

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