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Uganda activist fears climate talks aren't doing enough for the Global South

NOEL KING, HOST:

Next week, world leaders meet to negotiate new climate agreements - high stakes for developing countries. Many contribute little to climate change but are severely affected by it. NPR's Lauren Sommer talked to a young activist from Uganda.

(APPLAUSE)

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: At 22 years old, Hilda Flavia Nakabuye stepped onto a very big stage. It was the middle of global climate negotiations in 2019, the last time countries met about plans to cut their emissions. The room was filled with hundreds of delegates from all over the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILDA FLAVIA NAKABUYE: As I speak to you right now, extreme weather events are killing people in my country.

SOMMER: Nakabuye is from Uganda, a country that's contributed very little to climate change. It doesn't produce many greenhouse gases, but it's still facing devastating impacts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAKABUYE: We need leadership on climate action, not talks. For how long will you keep negotiating? You've been negotiating for the last 25 years, even before I was born.

SOMMER: She got a standing ovation.

(APPLAUSE)

SOMMER: Nakabuye says she didn't mince words because the voices of young people from Africa are rarely heard in those halls of power. But that doesn't mean she likes public speaking.

NAKABUYE: Wasn't really my thing. I was always shy in school. So it wasn't easy.

SOMMER: University was where Nakabuye first heard about climate change. As a speaker described it, she realized that she'd already experienced it.

NAKABUYE: When I was young, we were farmers.

SOMMER: The crops they grew - bananas, corn, cassava - brought in money and fed her family. She has 10 brothers and sisters. But then, extreme weather hit.

NAKABUYE: We started experiencing these heavy rains. Crops started breaking, you know, falling down. The plantation was flooded.

SOMMER: That year, she couldn't attend school since her family didn't have enough for tuition. They had to sell much of the land. It was years later that she learned climate change is making storms more intense.

NAKABUYE: It's at this moment that I felt very angry. I felt very annoyed that people know about it and they are doing nothing.

SOMMER: Nakabuye helped start Fridays For Future Uganda, organizing protests and school strikes with other youth activists.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: What do we want? Climate action. When do we want it? Now.

SOMMER: She visits schools, giving talks about climate change, which she says often isn't taught. But the impacts on Uganda are becoming clear. Extreme rain displaced tens of thousands of people when Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, flooded last year.

Nakabuye says she felt hopeful after speaking at the last climate negotiations, but little has happened since. Under current plans, countries aren't cutting emissions enough to avoid extreme climate change impacts. Heat waves, droughts and floods could be significantly worse.

For this year's negotiations, Nakabuye worries that COVID restrictions are making it even harder for the Global South to be represented. She won't be there this time and is sending her message from afar.

NAKABUYE: This is a matter of life and death. It's a matter of survival. And our survival depends on the actions we take right now.

SOMMER: Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KINACK'S "STOP MOTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.