Kampala, the capital of Uganda, coughs itself awake on weekdays under a soft-looking blanket of smog.
Its hills come into sharper focus as the morning rush of minibuses and motorbikes fades.
It is this East African city that one of the world’s most well-known climate activists, Vanessa Nakate, calls home.
The 25-year-old’s rise in profile has been quick.
Not even three years have passed since she set out with relatives in Kampala to stage her first, modest protest over how the world is treating its only planet
In an interview this week with The Associated Press — which last year drew international attention and Nakate’s dismay by cropping her from a photo — she reflected on the whirlwind.
She spoke of her disappointment in the outcome of the U.N. climate talks in Scotland and what she and other young activists plan for the year to come.
“We expected the leaders to rise up for the people, to rise up for the planet” at the talks known as COP26, she said.
Instead, the world could be on a pathway to warm by 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.3 degrees Fahrenheit), “which is a death sentence for so many communities on the front lines of the climate crisis.”
Many of those communities are in Africa, whose 1.3 billion people contribute the least to global emissions, less than 4%, but stand to suffer from it most.
That suffering, in some cases, has already begun: Deadly drought fells wildlife and livestock in parts of East Africa, water scarcity hits areas in West and Southern Africa, and hunger affects many millions of people, from Madagascar to Somalia, as a result.
And yet the $100 billion in financing per year promised by richer nations to help developing countries deal with the coming catastrophe has not appeared.
“We cannot adapt to starvation,” Nakate said, her voice soft but firm as the introvert in her gives way to the convictions that have brought her this far.
“We cannot adapt to extinction, we cannot adapt to lost cultures, lost traditions, to lost histories, and the climate crisis is taking all of these things away.”
The next big climate conference will be in Africa, in Egypt, a chance for the spotlight to fall squarely on the continent.
It will be a test for activists and negotiators from Africa’s 54 countries who have long jostled for space at global climate events.
“Many times, activists in Africa have been called missing voices. But we are not missing, we are actually speaking,” Nakate said.
“We are present, we are available, we are just unheard.”
She watched as some activists from African countries faced the challenges of securing funding, accreditation or even access to COVID-19 vaccinations as they sought to attend COP26 in the U.K.
But it is not enough to simply listen to Africa’s climate activists, she said.
Action on their demands is needed by people with the power to make change.
“We don’t want to just hear sweet phrases from them, sweet commitments, you know, hopeful pledges from them because commitments will not change the planet, pledges will not stop the suffering of people,” she said.
“And promises will not stop the warming of the planet.”
Specifically, Nakate said, drastic action is needed by the leaders in government and business that continue to fund the extraction of fossil fuels, like coal and oil.
She chose not to call out anyone by name, but when asked whether Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, had replied to a letter she wrote about a controversial oil pipeline project to ship crude from Uganda to an Indian Ocean seaport in neighbouring Tanzania, she said no.
In fact, the 77-year-old leader has never been in contact with Nakate, now one of the world’s most well-known Ugandans.
In her recently published book “A Bigger Picture,” Nakate reflects on how leaders’ decisions on climate have real-life consequences far beyond the data that often dominates the conversation on global warming.
She worries about how farmers who lose their crops to climate shocks will feed their families, and how lost income can force children out of school and young women into early marriage.
Asked how young climate activists can make sure that they are central to decision-making worldwide, Nakate expressed confidence that they are making themselves heard, creating their own platforms on social media and elsewhere.
“If the table is not given to you, you make one for yourself,” she said, a message she could well tweet to her 230,000-plus followers.
In 2022, Nakate’s work will be closer to home as she pursues a project to provide schools in Uganda with solar panels and eco-friendly cookstoves to reduce the amount of firewood consumed.
Nakate said she couldn’t believe how fast her journey had gone as she realized that within weeks it will be the third anniversary of her first climate protest in Kampala.
She said activism could be hard and also took a certain hope, adding that as a born-again Christian she finds hope in God.
It helps her believe that “what you’re fighting for, the future you’re fighting for, is actually possible and you can achieve it.”