January 31, 2020 / 4:46 PM / a month ago

African youth activists warn of 'great danger' from climate chaos

LONDON, Jan 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Africans are facing worsening food and water insecurity among other threats from climate and weather extremes - but few grasp how and why they are at risk, or see global warming as a top policy priority, young African activists warned on Friday.

“In school, it’s taught as something in the future (that) we do not have to worry about,” said Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan Fridays for Future protester, via live video at a Stockholm press event with school climate strike founder Greta Thunberg.

“If only the school institutions would teach the students it is something happening right now”, that could unleash a new generation of activists and drive the problem up the agenda of African leaders, Nakate said.

Thunberg lent her star power on Friday to an effort to focus attention on climate threats facing Africa after young climate activists who tried to spread that message at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week were largely overlooked, she said.

African perspectives are “always so under-reported” and boosting awareness is key “to get those in the most powerful positions to do something”, Thunberg, 17, told journalists.

Makenna Muigai, a young climate activist from Nairobi, said her continent was grappling with problems - from deforestation to poor energy policy - that are feeding climate change. “All of us, at the end of the day, will be affected,” she said.

But the push to limit climate change and deal better with its effects faces a range of roadblocks, the activists said.

In South Africa, for instance, where severe drought has hit harvests and water supplies, and power blackouts are common, “we are living through (climate impacts) every single day”, said activist Ayakha Melithafa.

Poor people who are “really struggling to make ends meet, to have a decent meal at the end of the day” now need to find money to buy water as their regular sources disappear, the South African said, even as richer residents dig private wells.

But persuading more people to push for climate action is difficult because they face so many other daily challenges, from unemployment to domestic violence and xenophobia, she said.

Nakate said she sees much the same thing in her country, Uganda. “It is hard to convince someone to fight as much as possible for the future when they have other current problems,” she said.

Other Africans fear speaking out, Nakate said, because of laws in some countries limiting freedom of expression, including the right to stage marches and street protests.

“It’s hard for people to really express themselves without fear of being arrested or other consequences,” she said.

YEAR OF ACTION?

Ndoni Mcunu, a climate scientist doing a PhD at the Global Change Institute at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University, said she was confident Africa could tackle some climate impacts through measures like improving irrigation on farms, growing different crops and using traditional knowledge.

“The narrative we have is (that) Africa can’t adapt to this. But that’s not true,” she said.

If global temperatures continue to rise, however, particularly beyond 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, “we are in great danger”, she added.

Global temperatures have already heated up by more than 1 degree and are on track for at least 3 degrees of warming by the turn of the century even if current national pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change are met, scientists say.

Nakate said burgeoning street protests around the world in 2019, led in part by Thunberg and the Fridays for Future youth movement, had made many more people aware of climate risks and had begun to exert pressure on global leaders.

In 2020, activists would need to keep up the pressure, and help more people understand that everyone will be affected and “all need to speak up”, she added.

"If 2019 was the year of creating awareness, let’s make 2020 the year of action," she said. (Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)

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