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Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti joins youth voices at COP26

Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti speaks during the opening ceremony of the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit, in Glasgow, Scotland, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. (Alberto Pezzali/AP)
Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti speaks during the opening ceremony of the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit, in Glasgow, Scotland, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. (Alberto Pezzali/AP)

Young people from around the world are at this week’s global climate summit in Glasgow to advocate for urgent solutions to address the climate change emergency.

One climate activist at COP26 is Elizabeth Wathuti, a 26-year-old from Kenya who founded the Green Generation Initiative, a group that helps young people become environmentally conscious through growing trees. Wathuti spoke in front of COP26 leaders earlier this week and said 2 million of her fellow Kenyans are suffering from climate-related starvation due to drought.

“I have seen with my own eyes three young children crying at the side of a dried-up river after walking 12 miles with their mother to find water,” she said at the conference. “Please open your hearts. This is not only happening in Kenya.”

Wathuti says it’s “painful and heartbreaking” to see people who contributed least to the climate crisis suffer most of the impacts.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has praised Wathuti for her work to highlight the disproportionate impact of climate change on the African people. But Wathuti only feels young climate activists are being heard when the changes discussed at conferences like COP26 get implemented — which isn’t happening, she says.

Young people are carrying the burden of fixing the climate crisis, she says. On Friday, young activists will take to the streets to put more pressure on negotiations — but she says it’s a shame they have to because leaders selfishly don’t care about how climate change will impact the next generation.

“[Young people] don’t have to be put into such a situation where we have to beg and demand for action from the leaders,” she says. “Yet they are the ones who are in power, they’re the ones who have the resources that we don’t even have.”

Wathuti represents a country that is at the mercy of wealthier nations across the world that are creating most of the emissions. A new study from researchers in Japan found fossil fuel burning by the world’s richest nations causes half the global deaths from fine particle pollution. Most of those deaths take place in developing countries.

By planting fruit trees with school children, Wathuti’s organization takes a grassroots approach to making sure the people most impacted by the climate crisis get help. The Green Generation Initiative has planted more than 30,000 fruit trees to provide both shade and sustenance for kids in addition to absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.

“Food insecurity is one of the greatest impacts that is facing not just my country, but the entire African continent as a result of the climate crisis,” she says. “And so these are the kind of initiatives that governments can continue to uptake.”

At COP26, Wathuti wants to see countries commit to ending fossil fuel investments and increasing natural regeneration. So far, she hasn’t seen that, especially from rich countries.

Countries are trying to get out of commitments made as part of the Paris Agreement — but Wathuti says backing out of previous pledges won’t help the world stay under 1.5 Celsius of warming.

“We’ve not yet met the pledges we made as countries, and now we want to convince young people that we are listening by saying that we are making new commitments,” she says. “[Leaders] need to step up and begin to do more, more than what the young people are doing.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a project aimed at strengthening the media’s focus on the climate crisis. WBUR is one of 400+ news organizations that have committed to a week of heightened coverage around the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Check out all our coverage here.

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.