For too long, advocates and activists from developing nations in the “Global South” have been shut out and actively erased from crucial climate conversations. It’s inexcusable now, it was inexcusable before, and yet it’s continuing to happen on a global scale.
The continued failure to acknowledge one of Africa’s most prominent voices in the climate activism space is a major indicator of the way the world continues to ignore the "Global South" and the activists who represent these regions. Vanessa Nakate, from Uganda, made headlines in January 2020 after she was cut out of a photograph depicting young climate activists in attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, leaving just four white faces in the picture.
“I cried because it was so sad not just that it was racist, I was sad because of the people from Africa,” she told Buzzfeed when it happened. “It showed how we are valued. It hurt me a lot. It is the worst thing I have ever seen in my life.”
This happened well over a year ago. That’s long enough for the world to learn the lesson of not erasing Africa’s voices. Yet we saw it happen again at COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference held this month in Glasgow, to the same voice, and to the same region.
Vanessa Nakate was again cropped out of media coverage this year — brought to the internet’s attention through a series of tweets by Twitter user, @Lorna_TVeditor.
Who's the third person, The Scotsman? The butcher? The baker? The candlestick maker? pic.twitter.com/aVEg7Ux3FA— Lorna_TVeditor (@Lorna_TVeditor) November 2, 2021
On Nov. 1, as the conference began, 24-year-old Nakate, alongside fellow young change-maker, Greta Thunberg, met Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The meeting rightly made international news and yet, somehow, Nakate’s name was either misspelled or entirely left out of headlines and articles — despite her being pictured alongside Sturgeon and Thunberg.
How did the same error, involving the same person, from the same region, standing up against the same issue, happen again a mere year later? To quote a few wise words from Youtube creator Nella Rose’s now-famous internet meme: “Are you not ashamed of yourself? Are you not embarrassed?”
What’s evident in the media treatment of Nakate is that erasing the “Global South” from the discussion, or conveniently forgetting to acknowledge us when we’re there, is so much easier to do than actually hearing us out and taking us seriously. It’s also so much easier to do than admitting that the “Global North” has had the heaviest hand in creating our biggest climate issues.
What’s sad about this convenient ignorance, however, is that it forgets the bigger picture, it forgets that a climate crisis in the “Global South” is a climate crisis everywhere. Not recognising our climate struggles, our activists who are working tirelessly to bring them to an end, and our need for funding so that we can stitch up a wound that was torn open by the “Global North”, means not recognising that there’s a global climate crisis to begin with.
It’s not enough anymore to leave us out of the conversation, or to send us pity invites only to ignore us when we attend, or to comfortably accept that we don’t exist so long as we stay out of your view. Our climate crisis is everyone’s climate crisis, especially since our climate crisis did not begin with us.
As a result of climate change Africa has faced locusts ravaging essential crops, extreme drought conditions that have made food and water scarce, and disasters that have destroyed livelihoods and led to mass displacement. Latin America and the Caribbean too have seen their forests light up in flames, a great deal of biodiversity being lost, and a rise in sea levels that directly affects coastal-bound populations. South Asia is living through high levels of polluted air, blazing temperatures, and increased flooding and monsoons.
These, and many more that are not spelled out here, are dire issues that need to be addressed by every person interested in fighting the climate crisis, and not by the “Global South” alone, so no, it’s not enough to ignore us anymore.
It’s not enough that COP26 moved forward despite vaccine nationalism standing in the way of African delegates and activists being able to attend. It’s not enough that only a handful of Indigenous people had access to the conference, but also struggled to get their accreditation approved. It’s just not enough to forget our existence for your convenience.
Another important thing to note is that pitying the “Global South” and the issues we face, is not the same as recognising us and standing with us in the fight against climate change. Nobody asked for pity, what we really want is change. It’s too easy to feel sorry for our increasing hunger rates, devastating natural disasters and rates of displacement, and losses of biodiversity — as if these were not preventable to begin with.
What if, instead of pitying us, you intentionally invited us to the table and stopped forgetting that we’re here?
The problems that you pity, dear “Global North”, were caused by you in the first place. You can’t slap the ice cream out of our hands and then cry from a distance for our loss, all while refusing to take responsibility, walking away from the problem as if it never happened, and looking the other way when we call for your attention to make things right. Come back here and clean up the mess that you caused, and stop ignoring us and our activists when we call on you to do so.
The climate crisis is at “Code Red”, and while everyone will feel the effects of climate change, the “Global South” is already experiencing the worst of it, despite contributing the least to it.
COP26 was the world’s “last best chance” to come together and strategise on how to tackle the climate crisis head on, but what we’ve actually seen is wealthy countries shaking hands on vague promises and getting photo-ops for their ambiguous pledges — all while the “Global South” was, once again, cropped out of the picture.
If we really want to see significant change, we need the narrative to not be driven by the main perpetrators of climate change, we need to put the voices of those most affected first, and for goodness sake we need to credit Vanessa Nakate and all that she stands for.