Vanessa Nakate is one of TIME’s 2023 Earth Award honorees

Vanessa Nakate grew up in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. In 2019, at the age of 22, she began to realize how deeply climate change was affecting her country, and launched what has developed into one of the world’s most impactful youth-led movements for climate justice. Among other things, Nakate founded the Africa-based Rise Up Movement and has served as a Sustainable Development Goals young leader at the U.N. Her leadership, poise, and clear-eyed approach to climate change make her uniquely qualified to answer some of the most pressing concerns we have on what we all can do to alleviate the problem at hand. She gave her take on TIME’s questions about how the climate crisis affects our personal lives.

How do you deal with friends or family members who downplay the seriousness of climate change?

In Uganda, everyone knows that the climate is changing. Those in towns and cities see it in the increasing frequency of flash floods. Those in the countryside know that the weather they once relied upon to grow crops is becoming more unpredictable and extreme. People often don’t attribute this to man-made greenhouse-gas emissions, but we are all experiencing this rapid shift in some way or another.

A few years ago, my uncle Charles told me about the difficulties Ugandan farmers were experiencing with changing rainfall patterns. That conversation made me interested in doing more research on climate change. It was kind of the beginning of my activism.

Once you know the facts it can be frustrating to speak to people who are not there yet. For in much human wisdom is much vexation when people are not aware of what you know. But I would suggest trying to find the common ground, because most people understand that something is changing, that our world is becoming more and more unstable, or that our air is being polluted by fossil fuels. From there, education can help us understand the crisis and the solutions we need to address it.

If I were to take a year off and commit my time to climate action, what should I do? Where could I have the most impact?

The kinds of responses we need vary greatly, but they all add up to something that looks like systemic change. For example, spend a year working with an activist group—perhaps organizing people in their community to oppose a new gas power station or campaigning for your city to invest more in public transport. Or fundraise to bring local renewable energy to disadvantaged communities. You can even do both at once. No action is too small to make a difference.

Read more: Angelina Jolie Interviews Vanessa Nakate About Activism and the Power of African Voices

I want to see the world, but I hate the jet-plane emissions. What should I do about traveling?

Some people think that youth climate activists like to tell people what they should or should not do. In fact, when we do activism, we are usually telling politicians and business leaders that they need to make it easier for people to live in a sustainable way. For decades they have been warned about the climate crisis, but they have refused to act—instead they have given more and more subsidies to polluting industries.

It would be very difficult, in our current system, to travel the world without using high-emissions transport. Though sometimes the best adventures can happen a bus ride away!

“We need to have hope and the expectation of something good,” says Nakate, above in Suede, Stockholm in 2022 (Pierre Larrieu—Hans Lucas/Redux)
“We need to have hope and the expectation of something good,” says Nakate, above in Suede, Stockholm in 2022
Pierre Larrieu—Hans Lucas/Redux

What are your tips for managing climate anxiety?

It can be tough to think about the climate crisis every day. Personally, I find that my Christian faith keeps me going. This trust in God gives me the foundation that allows me to hope for a better world.

I also remember who we are fighting for. The people whose lives are already very difficult, and who now face more and more risks because of the climate crisis. In East Africa, millions are currently on the brink of starvation because of an unprecedented five failed rainy seasons in the region. Last September, with UNICEF, I visited Turkana in Kenya, one of the areas worst affected by the drought. I met mothers who had to take their children to a hospital treating the worst cases of severe acute malnutrition. One of the children I met there died a few hours after I visited. I’m fighting for these children and many millions more that are at risk of suffering like this. That is what keeps me going.

What do you think about the trend of people saying they don’t want to have biological children, because doing so would add to the climate challenge while also bringing people into a potentially catastrophic world?

I would say that we need to have hope and the expectation of something good. Without hope, the world would not be a place worth living in.

There has been some climate progress but not nearly enough, and it can sometimes feel like the movement is failing. How do you deal with failure, and where do we go from here?

Many times the media report progress on climate change as a victory for “activists.” Of course, this portrayal is absurd­—in reality, emissions reductions are a victory for literally all life on earth. Similarly, the fact that we have not made enough progress is not a failure for the “movement.” It’s a failure of our societies, politics, and mostly it’s a failure of those with the power to change things who have chosen not to.

But we cannot give up. Everything we can do to decrease emissions matters, because every fraction of a degree of warming increases the length of droughts, the strength of hurricanes, and the intensity of heat waves. Our responses must improve: that means protests must get bigger and all institutions with power must be held to account, but most of all it means politicians, business leaders, the media, and those with influential platforms must wake up and do all they can do.

What’s your favorite book or movie on climate change?

I find inspiration from the work of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental activist who founded the Green Belt Movement and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Her work is explained in her book The Green Belt Movement.

Wangari is a role model that I and many other young female environmental activists look up to in East Africa. She understood the interconnectedness of many of our social and ecological problems, as well as the power of nature to heal and transform people’s lives. The Green Belt Movement combined the fight against deforestation with the fight for ­women’s empowerment, by working with women in Kenya to plant trees and protect forests. The projects, as well as protecting nature, focused on real improvements that could be made to the lives of ordinary people.

Nakate is a climate-justice activist and a 2021 TIME100 Next honoree

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