Elizabeth Wathuti: Climate crisis needs to be ‘humanised’ to inspire more action
EXCLUSIVE: Elizabeth Wathuti, the Kenyan activist who gave an impassioned speech to world leaders at COP26, believes that businesses and society need to "open their hearts and listen" the communities that are experiencing the worst of the climate crisis already, in order to make informed decisions that benefit society at the next global climate summit.
COP26 was the showground for negotiations for world leaders in Glasgow in November last year. Some of the world’s most powerful decision-makers spent more than two weeks at the summit to thrash out the Glasgow Climate Pact.
However, one of the highlights of the two-week summit that went viral across social media was a speech given by 26-year-old Elizabeth Wathuti, who took to the main stage to encourage world leaders to “have the grace to fully listen” to her story and the frontline impacts of the climate crisis that she is witnessing in her home country of Kenya.
With the dust still settling on the Glasgow Climate Pact (and with some nations already renegading on statements regarding fossil fuels, edie spoke to Wathuti to get her views on the outcomes at COP26 and what needs to happen in the build-up to this year’s climate summit, which is set to be hosted in Egypt.
“One of my highlights from COP26 was seeing the energy that was out of the Blue Zone from the young people, civil society organisations and indigenous communities trying to put pressure on to what was happening in the inside,” Wathuti told edie.
“I think we need this pressure from those people who understand what is happening and who really feel strongly that so much needs to be done to address the climate and the ecological crisis. So it was great to see so much solidarity in the outside in the form of marches and protests, especially the involvement of the Global South, because these are the people who are most impacted by the crises.”
Wathuti claimed that the Glasgow Climate Pact, finally agreed after negotiations were extended to run into the second weekend of the summit, had “some bits of strength” to it, namely the discussions around loss and damage and that fossil fuels were mentioned in the final document, albeit watered down from draft texts.
The activist, who established the Green Generation Initiative NGO that runs tree-planting programmes in Kenya, did express hope that the nations would be required to consistently review their climate action plans, which Wathuti claimed would be crucial to ensuring that the climate crisis stays high up the political agenda.
Under the Glasgow Climate Pact, nations are mandated to formulate and publish updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement for 2030, by the time COP27 begins in Egypt next year.
These nations should strive to align their climate targets and plans with a 1.5C temperature pathway, the text says. Some nations had been pushing for this to be a requirement, others for its omission entirely. In the end, the document states that the UN will “take into account different national circumstances”. Nations including China, South Africa and Indonesia have stated they will likely need more time. There is also an agreement for nations to begin developing NDCs through to 2039.
Social justice is climate justice
With the next COP set to be an “African COP”, Wathuti believes that the communities that are experiencing the worst impacts of the climate crisis should have a greater presence at the discussions.
“We cannot really conclude that because COP is coming to Africa, then it’s an assurance that there’s an African representation, because the likes of the G20 are still the ones who take the lead in negotiations,” Wathuti added.
“If this is an African COP, let it be so not just because Africa is hosting the event, but that it is reflected by the people taking part in the decisions and processes. Africa is not waiting for the crisis to come. It’s already impacting them right now, and this has to be reflected during discussions. They do not need to watch from the sidelines. They need to be involved in their negotiations and their voices have to count in the outcomes.”
Indeed, Wathuti, now a UN Young Champion of the Earth and the head of campaigns at the Wangari Maathai foundation, believes that COP27 can act as an ideal event to ensure that society views the climate and ecological crises and social justice issues as well.
Much has been said about the need to ensure a “just” transition to net-zero emissions globally, but very few actionable steps have been put in place to ensure all nations and areas of the economy are equipped with the opportunity and skills to step into low-carbon markets.
The Prince of Wales’ Terra Carta commitment is one of the few movements seeking to changing this. Translating to ‘earth charter’ and launched in January 2021, the Terra Carta requires businesses to do all they can to play their part in the delivery of a just global transition to net-zero by 2050 at the latest. It also includes commitments on worker rights, future-ready skills and nature.
Wathuti believes that Africa can be one of the drivers of the net-zero movements, with many communities currently responding to the climate crisis through innovative measures. Some organisations are already forming partnerships with small-scale African farmers to rollout training and infrastructure that will improve climate adaptation and resilience on farms, and reports state that the continent has an “unlimited potential” for forms of clean energy. According to Bloomberg NEF (BNEF) analysis, however, around $9trn is required to enable emerging markets to derive two-thirds of their energy demand from renewables by 2050.
As such Wathuti believes that any investments into sustainability across Africa have to benefit society. She added that more needed to be done to make the climate crisis personal across other areas of the globe, which in turn would inspire more action.
It is really important for each and every country to actually make sure that we are addressing climate change as a social justice issue as well,” Wathuti said. “It is about the people that are the most impacted by the crisis when it comes to representation, the people on the front line of the impacts have to be on the front line of these negotiations and the kind of outcome that we come up with has to also reflect the direct needs of people who are facing the crisis right now.
“We need to join hands in humanising the climate crisis and by opening up our eyes and our hearts to the realities and then choosing to address them as they are. Every day that we do not listen to the people on the frontline of this crisis, we will not understand the magnitude with which the crisis is impacting people.
“Right now people have an imposed duty to act, because its what is required of them, but this has to become a natural cultural action where people are impassioned to act.”
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