Climate Crisis: Why Must the World Make Way for Young Activists?
Nigeria’s Kelo Uchendu on activism, COP26, and how young people are redefining climate leadership.
While the world must cut its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 to limit the potential devastation of climate change, we’re already seeing these impacts realised — with flooding, droughts, heatwaves, and more, sweeping the world.
These impacts will be felt most severely by those populations across Africa whose economies depend heavily on agriculture.
Nigeria, for example, has seen dramatic changes to its weather in recent years, according to the Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NiMet). These changes are causing extreme weather events to become more likely and more regular.
While Africa as a whole is responsible for just 2-3% of the world’s carbon emissions, Nigeria is one of the top six greenhouse gas emitters on the continent — making its climate leadership key for Africa.
Meanwhile, with agriculture accounting for around 23% of Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP), climate change poses a serious threat to the country’s development plans to meet the UN’s Global Goals, potentially even reversing much of the progress already achieved.
To find out more about climate change in Nigeria and across Africa, and how young people are leading the way on tackling the issue, Global Citizen spoke to Kelo Uchendu, founder of the youth-led Gray2Green Movement — which mobilises communities to fight climate change.
Uchendu was also one of the organisers of the Mock COP26 climate summit, which saw young activists from 140 countries gather virtually in November 2020 to drive forward climate action, after the real COP26 climate summit was postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19.
Global Citizen: Can you give us a general idea of how climate change is affecting Nigeria right now?
Uchendu: Nigeria’s climate has seen rapid changes: increases in temperature, unpredictable rainfall, land degradation, etc. There are also more frequent extreme weather events, rises in sea level, erosion and flooding in the southern region, and drought and desertification encroaching in the northern region.
[What’s more], compromised fresh water resources and loss of biodiversity are all evidence of [the impact of climate change on Nigeria]. This has direct detrimental implications for some sectors — the agricultural sector being the most directly affected — and catalyses risks for others, like the health sector.
What is the biggest impact of climate change on Nigeria, in your opinion?
In my opinion, the biggest impact of climate change on Nigeria is the impact on rural agriculture — which contributes about 23% to the nation’s GDP.
For instance, despite growing a wide range of crops, Nigeria is a major importer of food and struggles with malnutrition and food insecurity due to low yield levels, which are largely due to rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall patterns.
[There is also] reduced livestock productivity, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions, due to stressed grazing lands and direct impacts of heat on livestock health; crop failure or reduced growing season due to unpredictable rain patterns, intense storms, and floods; increased damage to crops and livestock from pests and diseases — all the ill consequences of climate change.
Also, a recent report by UN food agencies shows that Northeast Nigeria is one of the four regions (alongside Burkina Faso, Yemen, and South Sudan) in the world which are food shortage hotspots.
How is climate change affecting the informal economy?
Climate change is a multiplier of many threats and poses a very complex challenge to all sectors. The informal sector is however disproportionately affected as climate change is threatening the ecosystem services that these businesses depend on to blossom.
How do you think climate change affects the average Nigerian?
The fact that climate change affects the nation’s agricultural sector and is characterised by increased flooding should remind the average Nigerian that the probability of famine and destitution is increasing — it’s imminently closer than ever.
And this, we’ve not discussed the economic toll of climate change. Food shortages lead to scarcity of commodities which in turn leads to a surge in prices of foods.
Also, the drought and desertification encroaching in the north is causing the Fulani, who are predominantly herders, to migrate southwards in search of pastures for their cattle to graze. This internal migration has led to a series of communal clashes and violence that has claimed over 2,000 lives.
What are the things you think Nigeria must do immediately to limit the impact ofclimate change?
In my opinion, I suggest: ensuring all school children have access to comprehensive and up-to-date education, because I believe climate education leads to climate action; also supporting sustainable agriculture and the regeneration of forests.
The government should also foster an ambitious collaboration with academia, industry, and the community to champion a transition to more sustainable pathways; and embracing clean and renewable technology, because no matter how slowly we ride the technology wave, it counts that we are doing so. And we should identify a warming limit and a clearly defined emission reduction pathway to get to net zero.
What do you think about young people's climate activism across the world?
I think the work young people are doing globally to build the political will needed to solve the climate crisis is inspiring.
For us to solve a global problem like climate change, all options need to be put on the table and we should let youth activism have its own space because that, and pressure from citizens, will help build the political will needed to turn words into action.
What was it like organising Mock COP?
To be honest it was quite challenging to work and collaborate across different time zones and language barriers. But we are very motivated and passionate about the work and that made it much easier for us to deal with the stress.
Why did young people around the world decide to unite to host the event?
Mock COP26 was born of young people’s increasing frustration at years of inaction from global leaders on the climate crisis, exacerbated by the postponement of COP26.
So in August 2020, a group of young people from across the world decided that we wanted to create an event that would replicate COP26 and continue the climate conversation, not just to fill the void created by the postponement of COP26, but also to show world what will happen if young people are allowed to make decisions.
What do you think of the outcome and what is Mock COP doing next?
I think the outcome of Mock COP was quite impressive and ambitious, we were able to facilitate some high level partnerships with COP26 and the UNDP [UN Development Programme] and also had the Italian government reach out to us to understand how they can implement our demands.
After two weeks of negotiations, young delegates from 140 countries agreed on a formal treaty setting out the realistic, yet progressive, climate policies that we want world leaders to adopt.
These policies cover five themes which are: climate education, climate justice, health and well-being, climate resilient communities, and national carbon reduction targets.
The second phase is to get as many countries as possible to adopt and implement our treaty. And from now until the run up to COP26 we will be supporting delegates to lobby their respective countries and to help raise awareness for COP26. I personally believe COP26 should mark an end to business as usual.
How do you think young people can drive forward action on climate change?
Young people have marched in the streets in their millions demanding climate action and, even if I acknowledge that it is a very necessary means to build political will, I believe that we as youths need to redefine youth climate leadership. We need a seat at the table, we need to have a say and be part of the decision-making process because it is our future at stake.
We have to lead change in our various communities, either by running for political offices or pioneering breakthrough innovation, we must become the drivers of sustainability. Only then can we truly solve the climate crisis.