Wanjira Mathai is the Vice President and Regional Director for Africa at the World Resources Institute. She has over 20 years of experience fighting for social justice and environmental protection for which she was named one of the 100 Most Influential Africans by New African Magazine in 2018 and 2020. Born in Kenya, she chairs the Wangari Maathai Foundation and is a member of the Leadership Council for the Clean Cooking Alliance.
Dr Kumi Naidoo is a prominent South African climate activist and formerly served as director of Greenpeace and of Amnesty International. He is currently a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy and visiting fellow at the universities of Oxford and Arizona State. He is the founder of the pan-African movement Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity.
GPI asked Wanjira Mathai and Dr Kumi Naidoo about divestment from fossil fuels, the role of food systems in the fight against climate change and climate injustice.
Decision-makers from almost 200 countries are meeting in Glasgow to discuss the future of international climate policy, and criticism is growing: While the Global North bears a large part of the responsibility for man-made climate change, the Global South suffers disproportionately from the consequences. Demands from the most affected countries are often ignored. In our podcast, Dr Kumi Naidoo describes the existing climate injustice as ‘climate Apartheid’.
Wanjira Mathai, whose work focuses on deforestation and access to energy resources, underscores the importance of clean cooking. Around three billion people cook with plant residue, dung, wood and charcoal, causing dangerous waste gases. More efficient cooking systems are essential in the fight against climate change and help to address deforestation. She also highlights the important role of businesses in the fight against climate change, saying that companies like Nestlé and others that profit from resources need to be part of the solution.
Read the full transcript of our English podcast here:
The world is once again talking about climate because of the current annual UN Climate Change Conference, which this year is being held in Glasgow. We have heard the voices of both the German federal government and the US government, as well as those of Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron. Of course, Greta Thunberg has also had her say in public. But what do those directly affected by climate change – representatives of Africa, for example – have to say? Today we speak with a non-governmental voice about climate change from an African perspective.
GPI: Wanjira, your mother, nobel peace prize laureate Wangari Maathai, and yourself are both inspiring examples of strong women who have stood up for climate protection. How was it for you growing up with an activist mother? To what extent has it shaped you in who you are today, and your determination?
Wanjira Mathai: What a lovely question. Yes, I was very lucky to have a strong female role model in my mother. Certainly even better was the fact that we worked closely together for so many years. But you know, what’s interesting is that you never expect that to be your role model, you don’t think about it that way. It just becomes a part of you and it becomes a part of your life. That is how it has been for me and working with my mother for the last 12 years of her life, really quite closely on a daily basis. I would say it influenced my life a lot. I was privileged to see and watch her work, and think and struggle with ideas and activities, but also to understand just how profound her commitment was, how clear her vision was. And that is so important, to really have a deep sense of purpose. And that was one of the greatest gifts, just having that clarity to see that in her and to feel that in myself. I also needed to be in constant pursuit of where I felt I could leverage most of my talents, my expertise, but also where I would feel really fulfilled.
GPI: There is no scientific doubt that we will see major changes in climate in our lifetimes. How do you best explain to the people that changes are necessary, changes for each of us in our private lives.
Wanjira Mathai: It is one of those very difficult things when there’s constantly so much political discussion. We are talking about climate and climate change, and we so rarely are making the connections to everyday life. But one that is so clear and stark is the impact of extreme weather events. We have seen some of the worst extremes or some of the worst weather events in the last year, almost across the world. We are continuing to see from some of the richest countries – Germany and the United States – flooding and fires of very high proportions. What happened in Texas with the deep freeze? And then in Africa, we are for example seeing amazingly unbelievable flooding in Sudan. The worst flooding in 60 years. Then you go to Asia and it is the same. We are already experiencing some of the most devastating impacts – loss of lives and loss of property. What I like to say to people is this: Imagine this a thousand times worse, because not capping temperature increases to 1.5 degrees will spell disaster. And in places that we already know, places like Nigeria, temperatures could go up a hundred times and more. In January 2018 in Cape Town, we saw that they were within 90 days of running out of water. Imagine what that means. The impact that Cyclone Idai had on life. I don’t think we need to tell people right now that it is devastating, but we need to keep reminding ourselves. And I think the media is going to be a crucial player in helping us hammer this message home because it’s now an emotional discussion. It’s no longer a scientific question. The science is clear.
GPI: What sort of sacrifices should people, especially those living in developed countries, make in order to save a world worth living in?
Wanjira Mathai: Well, I think in developed countries, a fossil fuel future has got to start going into the back seat. There have to be significant shifts in energy and energy resources including giving preference to renewable energy. The subsidies will have to start going to renewable energies and not fossil fuels. You will have to see people investing. I think one of the biggest stories of these next few years will be divestment, the fossil fuel divestment movement. They have seen the divestment of trillions of dollars to date. This is the sort of thing that people in developed countries will have to do: Start saying ‘no’ to fossil fuels. They can, because they can actually afford to make the sorts of investments that are required in electric mobility, in mass transit, in electric cooking, in ways that most developing countries cannot. So, we hope that they will step up to the plate because after all, a lot of the emissions and the burden of reduction sits with the biggest emitters in developed countries.
GPI: We’ve spoken to Dr Kumi Naidoo, an environmental and social activist and the global embassador of an African-wide social movement called Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity. My colleague Christine Mhundwa spoke to Dr Naidoo in Berlin. Let’s hear what he had to say about climate change and climate justice.
Dr Kumi Naidoo: To understand climate justice, we have to understand climate injustice. An injustice that we see is that those parts of the world that actually contributed most to carbon pollution and other forms of greenhouse gases are not the ones that are paying the first and most brutal price. Africa as a continent has contributed minimally to emissions and has been paying the first and most brutal price in terms of a large concentration of countries. We are seeing droughts, we are seeing flooding. In Mozambique, which is a neighbour to me in South Africa: For the first time two years ago, Southern Africa has had a cyclone which almost wiped out Beira, a large city, and which also had impact in Zimbabwe. In fact, when we talk about climate justice, we talk about how we address the challenge of climate change in a way that seeks to reverse some of these patterns of injustice. For example, Africans, and people from the Global South more generally, are saying that we want the commitment made in 2009 at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen of a hundred billion dollars a year to support poor countries in terms of adapting to climate change. We are not asking for charity. Instead, we are saying: Pay your climate debts. Because those rich countries built their economies on dirty energy. And the truth it, climate injustice is not the most graphic way to describe the problem. A more accurate way is to name the problem as climate Apartheid. Because those parts of the world that actually contribute most to the problem look a particular way, and those parts in the world that are suffering the most look a particular way. So, predominantly emitters are predominantly White countries and those negatively affected are predominantly People of Colour.
GPI: Kumi Naidoo, serious and harsh comments. Wanjira, does the term climate Apartheid accurately describe the problem? What do you think about this term?
Wanjira Mathai: Well, I think it definitely does. I think it’s an effort to describe the unjust nature of the climate injustice, as Kumi put it. Of course, the reality is that a majority of those who are suffering live in the Global South. They are People of Colour. And if you go into countries, even within countries of high wealth, you will find that those who are disproportionately affected by climate injustice are People of Colour. You look at the US, you look at Europe, you look at different parts of the world. Race and ethnicity seem to be play a part in who is affected. And wealth, obviously economic wealth, is often the indicator of those who suffer most, of those where the dumping is done. It is a pretty clear way of putting it. It’s graphic. It puts onto the centre stage the seriousness of the issue. I think Kumi is absolutely right.
GPI: How to transform food systems in face of climate change is one of the topics of your institute. The World Resources Institute (WRI) claims that better food systems = better world. Is it really that easy?
Wanjira Mathai: Well, it’s not that easy in the sense. It is true: Better food systems, better world. But what that means is that we have to transform the systems of how we produce food, how we transport food, how we trade food. And that’s not an easy task. What we have to do is understand the problem. And I think as soon as we start to understand that it is a problem of the food system, then we begin to address it. But it is definitely a mammoth task, and one that we absolutely have to address if we’re going to get to what Kumi was talking about: Justice, peace and equality.
GPI: Wanjira, women are usually much more affected by the consequences of climate change, especially in environmental disasters. But women also have to be part of the solution. All over the world, women are typically responsible for taking care of domestic work. Clean cooking has recently become a popular phrase in the climate debate. What does clean cooking mean exactly? And can it be a way to encourage women to participate in environmental protection?
Wanjira Mathai: Yes, clean cooking is a really crucial part. You have to remember that food and food systems are responsible for 30 percent of global emissions, so we have to fix the food systems. One of the things that we know for sure is that the burden of cooking will rest on women, especially in developing countries where women are the custodians of food production, whether on farms or in food processing in kitchens. In my part of the world, almost 80 percent of cooking is done on open fires using firewood or charcoal. Biomass energy is still the predominant source of energy. We know the impact on human health because of particulate matter and pollution, but it is also a significant part of increasing greenhouse gases. We know that we have got to change the way women cook if we’re going to protect their lives and the lives of their children. So, this is a very crucial part. A lot of deforestation in many parts of Africa – in some of the smaller forests – is driven by charcoal production. But it’s not always the small charcoal producers who are using branches and twigs. It’s also the commercial production of charcoal, which is often illegal and using quite a large amount of protected forest areas for charcoal production. That is the problem. But there is a direct relationship between forest degradation and the production of charcoal and firewood for cooking. That demand makes clean cooking a very important agenda. What that means is: How can we support women to transition from cooking on open fires and on charcoal to a place where they have choices. They have choices of gas, they have choices of electricity, just like you and I would. At the moment, most of them don’t have any choice.
GPI: You have mentioned deforestation. Let me ask: How important is reforestation in climate protection in Africa?
Wanjira Mathai: Really important. We know that nature protection is more than a fifth of the solution to climate change. Protecting our forests and green vegetation has significant benefits. The integrity of forests is directly linked to the integrity of water, food, and energy in so many countries. It is absolutely crucial that we protect nature and that nature-based solutions become part of how we address the climate problem. There is a wonderful movement in Africa, that is currently under way named AFR100. I think AFR100 presents one of the best examples of how African governments have banded together under the umbrella of the African Union to begin restoring 100 million hectares of land across the continent. They know that without this green vegetation and green forests, climate change will continue to be a devastating part of their reality. Because forests play such an important role, trees play such an important role as carbon sinks. But not only that: We also know that reforestation presents great opportunities for job creation, especially among entrepreneurs, youth, and women who are very adept at farming, as well. And they would be able to enjoy new opportunities if this movement takes off. Absolutely, multiple benefits coming from forestry and forest restoration.
GPI: WRI is based in Addis Abeba, which is the capital of Ethiopia. Have you noticed any climate related changes in the region of East Africa?
Wanjira Mathai: Absolutely. We’ve suffered significant impacts of climate change so far. East Africa has suffered for a significant amount of time from locust invasions. These invasions of locusts are not supposed to come our way, but because of climate change, because of the changes of wind and the changes of weather patterns, they devastated crops from Ethiopia all the way down to the East African coast. We currently have flooding of high proportions going on in countries like Sudan, where we have never seen this sort of devastation. Kenya is currently going through a drought that is now a national disaster. 2.1 million people are at risk of going hungry. East Africa is definitely on the front lines of climate disasters.
GPI: Finally, the WRI has a new partnership with the global food company Nestlé. Like no other company, Nestlé stands for the commercialisation of natural resources. There has been strong criticism of Nestlés water privatization, especially in Africa. Is Nestlé still the right partner for the WRI?
Wanjira Mathai: I have to tell you that I wouldn’t be able to answer that question. I think that programme is in the US, for sure. I don’t think that we have a partnership here in Africa. So unfortunately, I don’t have the details of that. However, I think it’s very important for companies like Nestlé and for companies that are involved and benefit from resources, to ensure that they, too, are part of the solution. One of the programmes which I know is going to be crucial for companies like Nestlé and other corporations is the Science-Based Targets Initiative. This is an initiative that ensures that they do not engage in greenwashing, but that they go through very rigorous assessment of workplaces in their value and supply chains, and see where they can become more sustainable and green. I hope that Nestlé will sign up to the Science-Based Targets Initiative if they haven’t already.
Nora Kiefer, Project Management