Young people are becoming more vocal and fighting harder for their survival as the impacts of climate change intensify. Tired of broken promises and inaction by their leaders, they have decided that since they are the ones who will suffer the consequences if nothing changes, they must act.
Determined not to be victims, they are leading the discussions around the phenomenon with the aim of spreading awareness and motivating others to take action.
This became clear at a session held at COP27 in which youth activists spoke out. UNICEF goodwill ambassador and climate activist Vanessa Nakate from Uganda and Kenya's Eric Njuguna were joined by four other activists: Luisa Neubauer from Germany, Mitzi Jonelle Tan from the Philippines, Sophia Kianni from the United States and Nicole Becker from Argentina.
The group discussed their experiences at COP27, their calls for action from world leaders and a new UNICEF poll of global youth on how climate change has impacted them and how they are responding.
Nakate said that she traveled with UNICEF a few months ago to Turkana in Kenya, the epicenter of a historic drought in the Horn of Africa resulting from failed rainy seasons. At a hospital treating the worst cases of malnutrition, she met a young boy whose mother had not been able to access the help her son needed. By sunset that evening, he had died.
“Thirty million more people in the Horn of Africa are on the brink of starvation,” Nakate said. “This is what the climate crisis looks like already at 1.2 degrees of warming for the African continent. Two weeks ago, the United Nations said that we are on track for 2.5 degrees of warming.”
The situation is “unimaginably frightening”, she added. “Countries like mine will struggle to survive amid the shocks such a climate would bring, and young people are very frightened."
“This UNICEFpoll shows us that almost half of young people in Africa said they have reconsidered having children due to climate change – the highest proportion in the world. The IEA [International Energy Agency] says to have even a chance of a stable climate for current and future generations, we cannot have any new fossil fuel infrastructure. And the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has repeatedly said that any new investment in fossil fuels would be economic and moral madness," Nakate continued.
Nakate rejected the views of those who promoted the use of natural gas as an alternative to oil and coal. Gas found in Africa would be shipped to countries in the Global North, she said, and profits from its exploitation would end up in the pockets of multinational companies.
“I say no, we will not let you gas Africa,” she added. “Gas is a dangerous distraction for Africa. Decades of fossil fuel development have failed to help the 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa without access to basic electricity. What is more, this infrastructure [used to retrieve gas] is set to soon become stranded assets, leaving African countries with debt piled upon debt.
“Instead of burdening Africa with fossil fuels for their own profit, we need rich countries to stand up and start paying money for the loss and damage fossil fuels have caused. The suffering I saw among the children of Turkana cannot be adapted to and neither can the recent floods that covered one side of Pakistan, a country that has contributed 0.3 percent to historic global emissions.”
“We young people from Africa and across the Global South are frightened,” she said. “But we are here to tell leaders in the global north that they cannot get away with this. We cannot let these injustices unfold. Children cannot eat coal. Children cannot drink oil and children cannot breathe gas.”
UNICEF warns that millions of children caught in climate-induced disasters are at risk of starvation, disease, exploitation and death. At least 27.7 million children in 27 countries worldwide have been impacted by flooding so far this year, it says. The floods have contributed to the spread of major killers of children such as malnutrition, malaria, cholera and diarrhea.
According to UNICEF, “natural disasters, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss can devastate agriculture, cutting children off from nutritious foods and safe water. They can lead to dangerous environments and disease outbreaks, and destroy the safe shelter, quality health care, and education systems children need to survive and thrive.”
UNICEF's global communication and advocacy director, Paloma Escudero, told the meeting that children in Africa are paying the price for a climate disaster not of their making. “From the extreme drought and risk of famine in Somalia to the erratic rains across the Sahel, UNICEF is being challenged to respond at an unprecedented scale to emergencies that have all the markings of climate-induced disasters,” she said.
Kenya's Eric Njuguna is a UNICEF consultant and an organizer with Fridays For Future, the international, intersectional student movement which arose from the protests initiated by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. He said that with livestock dying in their millions, “what looks like something that comes out of a dystopian storybook is the reality for many Kenyans right now.”
Njuguna also pointed out that Russia's invasion of Ukraine had repercussions for Kenya, since the country depended on the two countries for agricultural imports. “As a climate solution, we need to ensure that we have our own autonomy and are able to depend on food grown on the African continent,” he said. “Climate justice is food justice.”
Pointing out that only 60 percent of Africa is covered by systems which give early warning of weather events, he cited with approval the appeal by the World Meteorological Organization for financing to expand such systems.
He also called for “loss and damage finance”, which unlike finance which helps countries stave off climate change, or that which helps them adapt to climate change, is designed to help compensate nations for the loss and damage already caused. “We're at a point where we can no longer adapt to the climate crisis,” Njuguna said. He also urged that climate finance should not be provided in the form of loans, because this simply drove countries into debt.
The international anti-poverty group, CARE International, reported earlier this year that much of what is declared by donor nations as climate finance actually comes from international development budgets, which means that there is less support for meeting the sustainable development goals in other areas such as education and alleviating poverty.
The message from proceedings at Sharm el-Sheikh is that climate change financing, including loss and damage finance should be new and additional finance, not a repackaging of previously-promised assistance.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published in AllAfrica on 10 November 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: A Turkana man stands at a severely damaged sorghum crop part of his community farm providing food for 100 households in Loima, Turkana County, Kenya. An increasing number of second-generation immature swarms continue to form in northwest Kenya / Credit: Luis Tato/FAO.