GLASGOW, Scotland — When Elizabeth Wathuti, a 26-year-old youth climate activist from Kenya, was asked to speak to world leaders during the opening ceremony at the COP26 climate summit, she was shocked.
“I did not think it was real,” she said, noting she had previously never spoken to such a large audience. “I started asking myself, what do leaders need to hear?”
Wathuti workshopped different speeches, writing five in total, she said, trying to find the best way to galvanize world leaders to action. She soon learned her speech would follow British naturalist David Attenborough’s, and would be the last thing world leaders heard before heading to the negotiation table on Nov. 1. “It took a lot of time to prepare myself,” she said. “To get the right message to leaders.”
After several drafts, Wathuti decided to make a simple, but powerful, request of world leaders: care.
“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 in her speech. “Please open your hearts. This is not only happening in Kenya.”
Wathuti got her start in environmental activism at a young age. She grew up in Nyeri County in Kenya, the most forested region in the country, where she developed a deep appreciation for nature. In 2016, she founded the Green Generation Initiative, which aims to create a generation of environmental enthusiasts through climate education and planting trees. Since then, she has become a global figure in the climate movement, and is now head of campaigns at the Wangari Maathai Foundation — which champions the legacy of the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
At COP26, she’s well-known: On Day 9 of the summit, passersby thanked her for her work and speech.
“I think people outside the COP venue were moved by the speech, but I don’t know about the leaders,” she said, noting the state of the negotiations. “You can’t learn to [open your heart] by listening to a six-minute speech. It’s something you practice every day. Whether that will change the way they make decisions remains to be seen.”
The Lily sat down with Wathuti to learn more about why she believes opening our hearts is the way to tackle the climate crisis and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What’s your favorite climate book?
A: “Unbowed” by Professor Wangari Maathai. I’ve read it seven times. Every time I read it, it fires me up. She was extraordinary. She was an activist at a time when African women didn’t have a voice. But there she was, challenging the government.
She would get the women from the village and bring them to the city, hosting hunger strikes and demonstrating. Because of what she did, we have parks and forests in Nairobi. I go to them every weekend. When I'm there, I can’t help but thank her.
She’s no longer with us, but I know my generation is living her legacy. I hope every leader has that kind of leadership. I would love it if everyone could read that book. It’s about the power of an African woman. She risked her life, her family. She was jailed, beaten up. And reading all that gives me the power to keep going.
Q: You’ve spoken publicly about the devastation you’ve seen in Kenya from climate change and expressed deep sadness about world leaders’ inaction. But you still believe in the human capacity to care deeply and act collectively. What gives you hope?
A: A lot of people ask me what gives me hope. But honestly, I stopped hoping and started to lean on loving. That’s why I think people need to open their hearts and get back to their deep sense of humanity and understand that we are all part of a human family.
Every time I see in the news that people are losing their livelihoods, I wish I could do more for them. But I shouldn’t be wishing that when there are people with so much more power that could be helping them. I think if leaders can come back to their deep sense of humanity, then we can get somewhere.
The reason why most of us care is because we are disturbed by what is happening around the world and we can deeply feel it. But for the leaders, they are at peace. So much evil and bad things are happening around the world. People are losing their homes, their children, their livestock. And the leaders are at peace. This is a problem. It shows we aren’t feeling what others are feeling. If we reimagine our connection with people and nature, we are going to greatly feel disturbed. And we will step up.
Q: A lot of key members of the climate community — from Indigenous groups to youth activists — say they felt left out of crucial talks during COP26. Do you feel like your voice is being heard?
A: It’s always been a struggle for representation, especially for people in the global south and Indigenous communities. But it’s clear that even when we are given these platforms, our voices are not always as prioritized as they should be, and sometimes what we say is not taken into consideration.
We do not recognize that people who are least responsible for historical emissions should be listened to. We should have these people in our minds and in our hearts, but that’s not happening. We’re not yet being inclusive enough. We do not yet have full representation of the people who should be on the front lines of the table, the ones who are on the front lines of the crisis.
Q: What do you think women and girls living in the United States may not understand about the climate crisis in Kenya?
A: I want them to understand that in Kenya, women are the most impacted by the climate crisis. Women are the ones who have to walk long distances, about 12 miles, to find food and water for their families. They’re the caregivers and the ones working on solutions at the grass-roots level. They’re not sitting there feeling hopeless or powerless. They are forming groups working on healing the land. They are showing world leaders how it is done.
If nothing is done to address the climate crisis right now, the girls are at a big risk. As we speak, part of my country is in drought and the other is flooded. Schools are waterlogged and kids can’t go to school. This is hard, especially for girls, if they don’t have access to school.
Q: What can people in the United States or in the global north do to help?
A: It would be great if people in the global north could help amplify the right stories of what’s happening in the global south. Because people in the global south are not just sitting there and feeling helpless. They are working on so many solutions. They are reforesting the land, regrowing food that is drought-resistant, they are doing the work. We need to support those solutions on the ground. The women. As we talk in the conference, they’re out there trying to make things work.
Q: You’ve mentioned being inspired by the story of the hummingbird. Why is it so important to you?
A: I’m greatly inspired by this story — Maathai told a story of this huge forest that was being consumed by a fire and, of course, all the animals felt helpless and sad. The animals then moved to the other side of the stream except for this tiny hummingbird that decided to do something about the fire. It took water from the stream and went back and forth, over and over, to put out the fire. As the bird did so, the animals were mocking the hummingbird and said its beak was too little. There were bigger animals like the elephant that could have transported so much water and yet it did not. But the hummingbird turned and said: “I love this forest and I’m doing the best that I can.”
World leaders are not hummingbirds; they have power and resources. They could do so much. The young people are the hummingbirds. They’re trying to put out the fire and saying, this is the best we can do. What are you doing? Join us in this race. The elephants need to step up if we want to tackle the climate crisis.