From an agreement to end deforestation to protestors calling out corporate “greenwashing”, it’s safe to say a lot has happened at COP26. But no moment has resonated with people on social media quite like the incredible speech by Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti.
Taking to the stage at the World Leaders Summit opening ceremony on Monday, Wathuti urged leaders to “open [their] hearts” and take action to protect the people of sub-Saharan Africa from the devastating effects of the climate crisis.
“I have done a lot of soul-searching about what to say here today,” she began. “I have asked myself over and over what words might move you. And then I realised that making my four minutes count does not rest solely on me. My truth will only land if you have the grace to fully listen. My story will only move you if you can open up your hearts. I can urge you to act at the pace and scale necessary, but in the end, your will to act must come from within.”
Going on to highlight how the climate crisis is already impacting people across Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa, Wathuti used damning statistics to stress the reality of the situation she and hundreds of people living in Africa are currently facing.
“Right now, as we sit comfortably here in this conference centre in Glasgow, over two million of my fellow Kenyans are facing climate-related starvation,” Wathuti pointed out. “In this past year, both of our rainy seasons have failed, and scientists say that it may be another 12 months before the waters return again. Meanwhile, our rivers are running dry, our harvests are failing, our store houses stand empty, our animals and people are dying. I have seen with my own eyes three young children crying at the sight of a dried-up river, after walking 12 miles with their mother to find water.”
She continued: “This is not only happening in Kenya. Over the past few months there have been deadly heatwaves and wildfires in Algeria, and devastating floods in Uganda and Nigeria. And there is more still to come. By 2025, in just four years’ time, half of the world’s population will be facing water scarcity. And by the time I’m 50, the climate crisis will have displaced 86 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone.”
After asking the room full of leaders to join her in a moment’s “compassionate silence” for the “billions” of people whose voices were not being heard at the conference, Wathuti went on to explain more about her work as the founder of the Green Generation Initiative – a project which works to grow trees and increase food security for young Kenyans.
“So far, we have grown 30,000 fruit trees to maturity, providing desperately needed nutrition for thousands of children. Every day we see that when we look after the trees they look after us – but these trees and the life-saving fruit they bear will not survive on a 2.7°C warmer planet.
“The decisions you make here will help determine whether the rains will return to our lands. The decisions you make here will help determine whether the fruit trees we plant will live or perish. The decisions you make here will help determine whether children will have food and water.”
Wathuti concluded: “I believe in our human capacity to care deeply and to act collectively. I believe in our ability to do what is right if we let ourselves feel it in our hearts. So, for these next two weeks let us feel it in our hearts. The children cannot live on words and empty promises. They are waiting for you to act. Please open your hearts, and then act. Thank you.”
While Wathuti’s speech is powerful enough in itself, her presence at COP26 – where voices from the Global South have been disproportionately marginalised – makes her words 10 times more significant.
In raising awareness of how global warming is affecting people in Kenya and across sub-Saharan Africa, Wathuti’s words are a poignant reminder to those in charge that the climate crisis isn’t some distant issue – it’s happening now, and the time for empty promises is long gone.
Image: taken from a COP26 video via Fridays For Future/Elizabeth Wathuti on Twitter