“As we sit comfortably here in this conference center in Glasgow, over two million of my fellow Kenyans are facing climate-related starvation,” 26-year-old Elizabeth Wathuti told global leaders assembled for the COP26 climate summit. Wathuti’s Green Generation Initiative works with young Kenyans to plant food-giving trees. At the summit’s opening ceremony, she summoned the devastating drought, heatwaves, wildfires and floods sweeping Africa. “Please open your hearts,” she implored. “If you allow yourself to feel it, the heartbreak and the injustice is hard to bear.” The appeal moved a gathering where bureaucratic talk of 2050 targets and trillion-dollar funding gaps can feel… abstract.
Wathuti is among the young, largely female, leaders from the Global South providing a counter-narrative to the mostly older, male officials inside the Blue Zone at this year’s COP, by some accounts, the least accessible climate summit ever, as COVID restrictions and exorbitant costs kept many activists away. Protests are planned for Glasgow this weekend. “You can not adapt to lost cultures, you cannot adapt to lost traditions… You cannot adapt to extinction,” said Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate, 24 years old, who urged rich nations to pay for climate-related losses suffered by communities that have contributed little to the climate crisis. Nakate’s Rise up Climate Movement has campaigned to protect Congo’s rainforest and installed rooftop solar on schools in Uganda. Asian Pacific youth “are not drowning, we are fighting,” Samoa’s Brianna Fruean, 23, told leaders. Vinisha Umashankar, a poised 15-year old from India, said simply, “I want to act.” Umashankar won an EarthShot Prize, awarded by Prince William, for her solar-powered ironing cart, which can replace thousands of charcoal-powered street irons. “I’m not just a girl from India,” she said. “I’m a girl from Earth.”
If COP26 is humanity’s last, best chance to act, these young women and their allies inside and outside the hall, may be our best hope to lead. World leaders can join global youth to build a sustainable planet, Umashankar said, but warned, “We will lead even if you don’t. We will act even if you delay. And we will build the future, even if you are still stuck in the past.” – Amy Cortese