Many politicians including the UK prime minister Rishi Sunak trace their environmental conscience to their children. Wanjira Mathai can trace hers to her mother — Wangari Maathai, the late Kenyan activist who won the Nobel peace prize for her work linking tree-planting, women’s empowerment and the fight for democracy.
“My strongest memories were just how much we had to plant trees. Every celebration we had, we had to plant something. We lived in an estate which had relatively small compounds, but our compound was known because there were trees everywhere. People would say: if you want to know where they live, just follow the trees, you’ll get there. My mother was very conscious of the fact that planting a tree was a celebration.”
The family planted trees to mark birthdays, holidays and good fortune. “If my grandmother was unwell and went to the hospital, when she came back, we would plant a tree. On independence day, we would plant a tree. We were always planting.” As they ran out of space for trees, they planted flowering shrubs instead. Her mother and the fellow members of her Green Belt Movement took pleasure in their activism. “I always remember spending time around very happy people,” says Mathai.
The happy memories matter, because the mood of the global environmental movement is often uncelebratory. Eleven years after her mother’s death, Mathai heads the Africa efforts of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think-tank. She will be at COP27, the latest round of climate talks, which takes place over the next fortnight in Egypt, and where storm clouds are gathering.
Rich countries are preoccupied by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rising cost of living. Their promise to funnel $100bn of climate aid a year to poor countries remains outstanding, as does a commitment to double funding for climate adaptation to $40bn by 2025. Grand plans — such as a pledge by 145 countries to end deforestation by 2030 — have yet to be fleshed out.
“There’s a lot of frustration, because of a lot of commitments that have been made have just not been forthcoming. To shore up our economies during the Covid pandemic, [trillions of dollars] were produced. And yet we couldn’t find resources to meet over the past 10 years the $100bn commitment.”
In a sign of diverging priorities, many western leaders speaking at the UN General Assembly in September focused on Ukraine, while many leaders of developing countries, including the new Kenyan president William Ruto, focused on climate. Extreme weather has focused minds: floods in Nigeria have displaced 1.4mn people, while the UN says that Somalia is “on the cusp of a devastating famine”.
“We’re only at a 1.2C world. Can you imagine how much worse it will get?” says Mathai. “So for Africa, and certainly for developing countries, there’s a lot of frustration and a loss of trust. A lot of this multilateral system is based on trust — that we will discuss these issues, we will have agreements and we will live up to the commitments we make in those agreements. I have a hard time understanding why they’re not kept.”
The World Resources Institute has called for “an enormous acceleration in effort” for the world to limit warming to 1.5C. The flow of private climate finance needs to be increased tenfold, to roughly $3tn a year by 2030. Emissions from forests and agriculture, which are still rising, need to fall. Coal power stations, which are still being built, need to be wound down at a rate of 925 every year.
Meanwhile, those who have done the least to cause climate change need money, argues the WRI. Western countries should, for example, pay for the protection of the Congo basin, the second largest rainforest in the world.
Can such perspectives penetrate the negotiations? “I’ve heard it said that the energy at COP is greatest outside and, as you go deeper into the centre, where the negotiations are happening, it is almost like la-la land,” Mathai says. “They don’t necessarily feel the energy that is outside.”
Yet she cites a speech at last year’s Glasgow summit by the Kenyan activist Elizabeth Wathuti, who told how the rains had failed and urged delegates: “Please open your hearts”.
“When else would you have an opportunity to address all those heads of state, talk to them about opening their hearts to the reality of climate change?” Mathai says. “This pressure works. It works because they are listening — they are human beings like us.”
Mathai, 50, questioned her mother’s footsteps before she followed in them. It was the 1990s, and Wangari Maathai’s work was challenging the autocratic regime of Daniel arap Moi, bringing political reprisals. Maathai (her mother’s name has an extra ‘a’, added after her ex-husband insisted she stop using his surname) fought for the protection of Karura Forest in Nairobi. She was beaten, “almost unconscious”.
“Moments like that, I felt: is this really worth it? Why would you put yourself at such great risk?” says Mathai. “I would ask my mother if she was afraid, and she would say: ‘Of course I’m afraid. But when you see this happening and you know what needs to be done, you do it.’ She always used to tell me: ‘Others will follow, but someone has to lead.’”
Mathai studied in the US, and worked in public health, before returning to Kenya and becoming “sucked into” the Green Belt Movement. She was about to return to the US, when her mother won the Nobel Prize in 2004, ushering in years of travelling together. Among those they met was the then Prince Charles, who became, in his words, “on hugging terms” with Maathai. “He was distressed about how slow we were moving on sustainability, particularly the private sector. He was so inquisitive, and I’m sure he still is.”
At the request of the UK government, the king will not be at COP, but he has organised a meeting of environmental activists and made clear where his sympathies lie. “I believe King Charles doesn’t have to use a big microphone,” says Mathai. “He’s extremely influential, and he exercises his influence in ways that we may not always see. We have enough people in the public domain, we need some people who can make things happen in places that we don’t always see. People listen to him.”
The Green Belt Movement exalted tree-planting. But tree-planting has become a victim of its own success. Governments’ pledges to plant trees will require more than 600mn hectares worldwide, an unfeasible prospect. High-profile schemes in countries like Turkey have fallen flat, with few trees surviving after the initial publicity blitz.
“Tree-planting is not the panacea, and in some places you can’t plant trees,” says Mathai. “Most important is that it’s locally led . . . Even for the Green Belt Movement, they’ve had mixed successes. They’ve struggled in different moments . . . It is even more important that you protect standing forests than that you plant them.”
That underlines the importance of the Congo basin forest, which influences rainfall patterns in the Sahel and beyond, and which includes peatland storing billions of tonnes of carbon. Deforestation rates are increasing — risking repeating the trend in the Amazon — while the government of Democratic Republic of Congo is allowing oil and gas companies into nature reserves.
Will it be possible to protect the forest? “We actually have no choice. The Amazon is already a net emitter of carbon. The forests of south-east Asia are already emitting carbon. The Congo forest is the only true carbon sink of all the tropical forests in the world. We have to move fast, because our lives depend on the forest.”
In richer countries, climate action is associated with restraints on energy use, meat-eating and flying. But facing malnutrition and blackouts, many Africans need more protein and energy. “You cannot work on economic prosperity if you don’t have energy,” says Mathai. “That could mean, in some cases, for example in cooking, we have to go through a gas transition. So that people can get access to gas for cooking, even as we build up the energy ladder to electricity for cooking.”
The risk is copying the west’s environmental missteps, locking in decades of future emissions. But Mathai argues that poor countries can start to leapfrog. “We don’t have to grow in the same way that Europe has industrialised, that America has industrialised. Technologies like green hydrogen are coming down the pipeline much faster than we expected. Prosperity can come not only in one way.”
On the spot
Why go to COP? There is a captive audience. It is in many ways the perfect meeting place.
What sacrifices does your work involve? My life is hardly at risk. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to make that trip, I’d rather be home with my two young children.
Your favourite tree? The strangler fig. Mighty and strong. Legend has it their roots go deep into the underground aquifers so that wherever they occur one often finds springs.
Scientists project that increased warming will make parts of sub-Saharan Africa unlivable this century, while agricultural productivity will fall in many areas. This may lead millions of climate migrants to head towards Europe, where governments are already struggling to handle the political implications of immigration.
The idea of mass climate exodus is uncomfortable to those, like Mathai, who are focused on ensuring climate investment flows to African countries. “I think this climate crisis will be best solved in solidarity. It doesn’t make sense to me when it’s ‘them versus us’ or ‘here they come migrating’ . . . Who knows, Henry, maybe it’s the other way around — maybe Africa will be hosting as people migrate south from the north. I think we have to be open to the possibility that this universe will have surprises for us.”
In an essay for The Climate Book, edited by activist Greta Thunberg, Mathai argues that women are often hardest hit by climate change, and resourceful in adapting to it. So does climate action depend on more women in politics? Mathai praises Kenya’s — unimplemented — constitutional provision that men (or women) should not make up more than two-thirds of elective bodies. “But we don’t want to romanticise the [idea] that women will solve the problem. We need a feminist attitude. We need more male feminists who see how women hold up societies, how women are often the custodians of food and fuel in the family.”
Throughout our conversation, Mathai seems less preoccupied by the specifics of policy proposals than by communicating an impetus to act. Perhaps climate change must be felt viscerally before it can be addressed. She cites the European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, who, during last year’s Glasgow talks, brandished a photo of his one-year-old grandson. “It brings a reality to those negotiations that is not purely intellectual.”