YAS Members Roundtable with Vanessa Nakate


COP27 is just around the corner, bringing to an end the United Kingdom’s year of chairing the global climate negotiations alongside Italy. Now the baton will pass to Egypt, with a keen expectation that the talks in Sharm-el-Sheikh in November will shine a light on the climate impacts being faced by African countries – especially the questions of how wealthier nations will fund their counterparts in the Global South for adaptation and for loss and damage sustained due to climate impacts. Scotland has become one of the first administrations globally to pledge funding for loss and damage, and other countries have been encouraged to follow suit.

Against this backdrop, a group of YAS members had the opportunity to meet with Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist from Uganda and one of a growing number of prominent youth voices globally calling for a fuller and faster climate change response. With YAS being an organisation that sits somewhere between youth and those in more senior and empowered positions, and which promotes evidence-informed dialogue and responsible debate on societal issues, we were very grateful to be able to listen to a young climate activist and get a sense of what YAS might be able to do in response to the climate crisis.

YAS members meeting with Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate. Left-right: Fiona Henriquez, Niki Vermeulen, Junaid Ashraf, Esther Papies, Helen Wade, Sandro Carnicelli, Leslie Mabon, Vanessa Nakate. Not pictured: James Rae.

One of the main talking points of our discussion was about the role and accessibility of science under a climate emergency. Vanessa told us that in her experience, climate activism is a combination of science and communities, and the interaction between them. On one hand, there is a critical challenge in getting the science to people in different parts of the world, which means translating the science into languages other than English and also transcending the language of professors and experts. An excellent example in this regard is Vanessa’s fellow youth climate activist Sophia Kianni, whose work has a focus on making climate change knowledge more accessible to different languages other than English. At the same time, however, Vanessa also reminded us of the importance of communities. It is the stories of communities, such as those currently dealing with severe drought in the Horn of Africa, that are at the face of the climate crisis, and which can powerfully show how different people in different parts of the world are suffering as a result of climate change now. Vanessa urged the need to ensure these voices are given a platform to share their stories, which strongly communicate the urgency with which we need to act on the climate emergency. She also highlighted that giving a platform to these voices shouldn’t be undertaken in a tokenistic way.

This topic led into a wider discussion on how traditional and indigenous knowledge, as well as social and cultural factors, feed into climate change science and action. As we saw with the floods in Pakistan recently, there is no such thing as a natural disaster. It is true that climate change makes weather extremes and their impacts greater. But it is also the case that existing structural factors mean that those who are least well-off and least empowered along lines of geography, gender, income and rurality are likely to be worst affected by extreme events, and have the least capacity to adapt. This is why an intersectional approach to climate change is so important. Within the room, we had experiences from Brazil, Chile, and Pakistan as well as Uganda, which sparked a discussion on the solutions that already exist in many communities. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the whole session was Vanessa’s story of the different clans that exist in Uganda, which take their names from different plants and animal species and act as a form of traditional environmental protection through care for the species they are named after and forbidding members of the clan from harming or consuming them. Passing these stories on over generations thus becomes a means of protecting biodiversity – but it is imperative that there are means of preserving and sustaining these stories.

A “live illustration” of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland round table with Climate Justice Activist Vanessa Nakate.

“The one who packages the stories is the one who has the power “, Vanessa summarised. This led into the third theme of our discussion: power, inclusion and exclusion. UN Climate Change Conferences and IPCC events are very privileged spaces. Even though they are open to delegates and activists from all countries, those from the Global South face significant financial and logistical barriers to participation. We talked with Vanessa about the need to genuinely ‘pass their voice’ to communities and activists who are under-represented in these spaces, and to highlight the work that activists may be doing already. There are already solutions out there in communities around the world. Vanessa highlighted that where that work is already being done, support should be given, rather than packaging solutions from the Global North that duplicate effort. For those of us that are privileged enough to be able to access COPs or high-level science meetings, we all agreed with Vanessa that talking about what we have seen in places that those in power might not get to, and passing our voices to the people who can’t be there, can be a powerful tactic. Beyond climate negotiations and specific events, we all agreed on the need for linking actions and initiatives in the Global North with those in the Global South, as perceptions of ideas such as just transitions differ between the two regions as a result of experiences and perceptions of climate change.

The last part of our discussion was more of an open-ended question, about how learned societies like YAS and the RSE can support youth climate activists. Vanessa reminded us first and foremost that youth activists are not experts, and that it can be difficult to have expectations placed on you to be an expert in climate change science, finance, and many other aspects. Especially in the Global South, as Vanessa pointed out, youth activists may not readily have access to computers or stable internet connections, and participation in global events may mean having to take time off work with an associated loss of income. Invites sometimes do not consider time zone differences either, which can be especially challenging to those calling in from different time zones. Vanessa also explained that having a burden of responsibility placed on youth activists by older generations for climate action adds to the anxiety, at a time when youth activists are having to contend with the challenges of managing their work, paying their bills and so on. It is worth acknowledging the good work of Callum Grieve, who joined Vanessa and the RSE team for the discussion. Callum and his network have made it their mission to work with youth climate activists the world over, to provide them with support by doing some of the ‘background research’ to make it easier for young activists to be briefed and supported when they talk to those in power.

We came away from the discussion with a reminder of the collective responsibility we have as early- to mid-career researchers, scientists, civil servants, and private- and third-sector workers. Namely, that whilst it is great to lift up young people and tap into the sense of urgency they bring to the climate crisis, this does not mean we can just leave it to young people or communities. Rather, it falls on all of us in learned societies to think about how we can better use our knowledge and expertise to urgently move forward action on the climate crisis (including our own students), and to work alongside people in the communities in which we all live. The next step for us in YAS specifically is to think about how to turn the many ideas we had during the meeting and subsequent discussions into concrete actions, and use this to guide our climate change actions and pass our voice to others beyond COP27.