Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate has addressed United States President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in an open letter.
Nakate's letter, which she published on social media, challenged Biden and Harris by asking if they were serious about their commitment to fixing the climate crisis. She went on to express the need for a clean, sustainable, and equitable planet.
“Are you going to do everything you must to fight the climate crisis? I ask because I really need to know,” she said in her letter. “Climate change is affecting many people’s livelihoods in my country especially children, girls, and women. Are you on our side?”
Nakate explained to Elle France that she was inspired by American peace activist Samantha Reed Smith, who famously wrote a letter to the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, in 1982, when she was just 10 years old.
She told the magazine that she has written letters before, most notably to her own president in Uganda, however these letters have had no impact. When Biden and Harris won the American election in October, Nakate wanted to address the need to act to make the changes in the world.
The purpose of this letter is to remind the elected President @JoeBiden and Vice President @KamalaHarris of the changes we really want to see in this world. We want a livable and sustainable planet for all: this is my message. https://t.co/6AlfnHSYadpic.twitter.com/QUzH7JxwcI— Vanessa Nakate (@vanessa_vash) November 16, 2020
When writing her letter, Nakate made a conscious decision to not make it a formal letter or produce it in a digital format. Speaking to Vox, the activist explained that she wanted the letter to be unexpected.
“I wanted to write it in the simplest way possible, and to write it with the purest of heart,” she said. “I wanted to write it in a way that people wouldn’t expect, because I’m sure many people would have expected a formal letter. I wanted to get across the demands of the people who want a livable and sustainable planet.”
Nakate has been consistently vocal about climate change not just affecting the Global North, and that the Global South needs to be better represented in discussions about climate change.
In January, Nakate participated in a workshop along with other young climate activists in Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum. Following the workshop Nakate was photographed alongside her activist peers, but when the Associated Press published the photo, she noticed that she had been cropped out. The published photo only showed the four other activists, who were all white.
In response, Nakate took to social media to ask why she had been left out. She then said in a tweet: “You didn't just erase a photo you erased a continent.”
You didn't just erase a photo— Vanessa Nakate (@vanessa_vash) January 24, 2020
You erased a continent
But I am stronger than ever pic.twitter.com/J34WMXvPAo
She went on to express that her erasure from the photograph was symbolic of what tends to happen in climate talks and negotiations: often the African continent is left out.
Her open letter to the US president- and vice president-elect is meant to remind them that Africa must not be left out, as its countries are heavily affected by climate change.
“I have seen it in my country, I have seen how the changing weather patterns have destroyed homes, have destroyed farms, destroyed businesses, and left people with nothing,” Nakate told Vox. “And that is what I want to change.”
She posted the letter to her social media on Nov. 16 and the very next day it was trending in Uganda. Unfortunately Nakate told Vox that there was a lot of negativity from the people in her country, especially young people, which she found especially hurtful.
“Some were saying that I have so much nerve to write to the president-elect. Some were saying, ‘We are tired of you making headlines like you did when you were cropped out of that photo.’ So it was very hard seeing those responses, especially from the people from my own country,” she said.
She explained however that although these comments were hurtful, she feels stronger and is motivated to keep going because of them.
The international response to her letter was the opposite, with people globally encouraging her and showing support by telling her that they hope the letter is read by Biden and Harris.