A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis | Vanessa Nakate

In a moment that captured the attention of the world, Vanessa Nakate posed in a photo at the 2020 World Economic Forum with fellow youth climate activists. When the photo appeared in media, Vanessa, the only person of color in the photo, had been cropped out. Brushed aside by many as “just a photo”, in her new book, A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis, Vanessa Nakate writes about the bigger picture of the global climate struggle often cropped out of the fight against climate change.

Vanessa Nakate is the founder of the Rise Up Climate Movement, which aims to amplify the voices of activists from Africa. Vanessa spearheaded a campaign to save Congo’s rainforest, which is facing massive deforestation.

Excerpted from A BIGGER PICTURE: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis by Vanessa Nakate. Copyright © 2021 by Vanessa Nakate. Reprinted by permission of Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Jacket art © Magdiel Lopez

Jacket photograph © Esther Ruth Mbabazi

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing—or rather, what I wasn’t. It was a freezing cold day in January 2020, and I was scrolling through my social media feeds. I’d just finished lunch with other climate activists, who like me were in Davos, Switzerland, to urge some of the three thousand business leaders, financiers, politicians, opinion formers, celebrities, and other globetrotters attending the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) to get serious about the climate crisis. We’d held a press conference that morning, before which I’d posed for cameras with four other activists, and I’d stepped away from the dining area to find out how the media was reporting our message. 

Within a minute, I came upon a link to an article that featured one of the photos that had been taken of us. My heart nearly stopped. It was clearly the picture I’d been in, since you could make out the edge of my coat on the far left of the frame. But I was nowhere to be seen. I’d been cropped out.

 I cycled rapidly through my feelings. I was frustrated, angry, and embarrassed. As I looked at the image, it became impossible to ignore that of the five women who’d posed for that photo, I was the only one who wasn’t from Europe and the only one who was Black. They hadn’t just cropped me out, I realized. They’d cropped out a whole continent. 

At the press conference that morning in Davos, I’d been the only climate activist from Africa (there were a few others at the WEF itself), and not only had I been cut out of the Associated Press’s photo but out of the AP’s article that reported on our press conference too. “Does that mean I have no value as an activist or the people from Africa don’t have any value at all?” I asked in a ten-minute video I streamed live later that day. I was struck by the cruel irony of the exclusion of the only African from the photo. “We don’t deserve this,” I said. “Africa is the least emitter of carbons, but we are the most affected by the climate crisis.” 

For a year, I’d organized climate strikes on the streets of Kampala, the capital and largest city in Uganda, in east-central Africa, where I live, to demand action on the climate emergency. I’d attended international climate conferences and been active online, and now I’d come to Davos to help more people wake up to the truth that global heating is not an abstraction or a theoretical event awaiting the planet in a few decades. 

My message was, and is, straightforward: People in Uganda, in Africa, and across what’s called the Global South are losing their homes, their harvests, their incomes, even their lives, and any hopes of a livable future right now. 

This situation is not only terrible, it’s also unjust. Although the African continent has just 15 percent of the world’s population, it is responsible for only between 2 and 3 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. The average African’s greenhouse gas emissions are a fraction of those of people living in the US, Europe, China, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, or many other countries. An Oxfam study concluded that a person in the UK will have emitted more CO2 in the first two weeks of 2020 than someone in Uganda or six other African countries will in the whole year. 

Nonetheless, Africa will, according to the African Development Bank, bear almost half the costs of adapting to the consequences of climate change, and seven of the ten countries most susceptible to the harshest effects of the climate crisis are in Africa: South Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad, Sierra Leone, and the Central African Republic. 

Those with fewest resources and who’ve contributed the least to the crisis are contending with the gravest consequences: more frequent and more serious flooding, longer droughts, periods of extreme heat, and rising sea levels. Increased food scarcity, forced migration, economic losses, and higher rates of death are also disproportionately affecting people of color, not only across Africa and the rest of the Global South, but in the Global North too. 

This is my world—a world where Earth’s temperature has already risen 1.2°C (2.16°F) above pre-industrial levels. A planet that’s 2°C hotter is a death sentence for countries like Uganda. Yet, as you read this, we’re on course for temperature rises that are much, much more than 2°C. That means many more millions of people will be displaced and extreme weather events will strain health and economic systems to the breaking point. At the same time, the world’s oceans are being depleted, biodiversity is collapsing, and species are going extinct at a rate greater than since the time of the dinosaurs. 

My video response was seen by tens of thousands of people around the world, including many in Uganda, who shared my outrage and disappointment. Like me, they realized that, quite literally, something was very wrong with this picture. Being cropped out of that photo changed the course of my activism and my life. It reframed my thoughts about race, gender, equity, and climate justice; and it led to the words you’re now reading.

In A Bigger Picture, I explain why that photo and that moment mattered, and why it’s crucial that the fight against climate change includes voices like mine. I describe how I first became a climate striker, and my eventual journey to the Alps and what has happened since. I show how what we must call the climate emergency is an immediate, even daily struggle for millions of people, including across Africa, and how the heating of Earth’s atmosphere is connected to everything: economics, society, politics, and many forms of inequality and injustice— racial, gender, and geographic.

Like many of the young climate activists I’ve organized with and been inspired by, I live in a profoundly interconnected world, with instant access to huge amounts of information (and disinformation) and more means of connecting to others than at any time in history. Those of us born at the end of the last century and in the early years of this one have grown up in the shadow of HIV/AIDS, terrorism, financial meltdowns, and huge technological change and disruption. We’ve witnessed greater concentrations of wealth and increased disparities of power. Many of us have experienced firsthand how our planet’s ecosystems are breaking down under climatic stresses unprecedented in human history.

Perhaps more than any other age group, we are questioning the premise of an economic, social, and political model that has led us to a precipice beyond which no economic or governance system will survive. These realities have shaped our recognition that we, and those that follow us, will bear the brunt of several Nakate_A-BIGGER-PICTURE_interior-ARC.indd 4 7/20/21 10:41 AM 5 Introduction centuries of burning fossil fuels and our calamitous failure to leave the remaining carbon in the ground. 

A Bigger Picture also showcases the work and perspectives of a fresh wave of activists from a new generation. Many of them focus their vision on and from Africa, a continent that has been ignored, silenced, and exploited for too long. We believe that at the center of this effort must be a genuine commitment not only to environmental, racial, and climate justice, but to the empowerment of girls and women, who are facing the crisis most acutely and are at the forefront of efforts to combat it. Without tackling climate change, we won’t be able to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or bring about a resilient and sustainable future. I also share the practical solutions that climate activists are applying to support communities in Uganda and other countries in Africa and around the world. 

Finally, I offer ideas for how you can become active in addressing the climate emergency wherever you live, and how you can amplify the voices and acknowledge the presence of those who’ve too often been left out of the picture.

I wrote A Bigger Picture in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and, like you, I am stunned and deeply saddened at the loss of so many people in so many countries to the virus. Across the world, families, communities, and nations are in shock and are mourning the livelihoods ruined, the families dislocated, the schooling interrupted or curtailed, and the businesses shuttered. We’re also shaken by other shameful effects of the pandemic: the lack of access to health care and vaccines for people of color; the upturn in the incidence of child marriage and domestic violence; and the delaying of urgent action on the climate emergency. Though these inequities existed before COVID-19, the virus has brought them to the fore and made many of them worse. 

In these multiple tragedies, we can find stark warnings and lessons. First, scientists are telling us that zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 will become more common in the future as we encroach on habitats where wild animals live; continue to use, raise, and sell wildlife in close proximity to human communities; and confine billions of domesticated animals in factory farms. Climate change is likely to increase the frequency and deadliness of such diseases. 

Second, throughout the pandemic, people around the world have paid special care to the elderly, who’ve proved more vulnerable to the virus. We’ve kept them safe by staying inside. But for decades, many people in these generations have made decisions that will leave their heirs vulnerable to the effects of global heating. Third, the pandemic has disproportionately affected those with fewer resources; less access to health care and enough nutritious food; more cramped living conditions; work that makes social distancing difficult; and underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk from the virus. A majority of these are people of color. This, too, echoes the climate crisis. 

Finally, governments have been telling us to follow the science on the coronavirus, but they aren’t following the science on climate change. They aren’t moving nearly as fast or as comprehensively as scientists tell us we must to meet—or exceed—the commitments made under the 2015 Paris climate accord. The pandemic has reminded us that climate change is not in lockdown. It has demonstrated that we live in a deeply connected world and that we need one another to survive. 

Even though the climate forecasts are terrifying, I still believe we can have hope. We have to. There isn’t any other option. The pandemic has shown that (some) leaders can listen to the science, and the international community can act together with a common purpose. And, no matter how disturbing the present and future may appear, we have neither the time nor the luxury to shut down emotionally, especially those of us who live in countries where the climate crisis is a daily reality. 

The stakes could not be higher: unless we take dramatic action now, whatever plans any of us have for the future—whether big or small—will fail. So, join me and some of the many young climate activists in Africa and around the world who are working right now to change that future. Let’s fight together for what is right and what is just.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.