What will be your legacy, Chancellor Scholz?

Vanessa Nakate, photo by Phil Dera


What will be your legacy, Chancellor Scholz?

Vanessa Nakate’s speech at the Helmut-Schmidt-Zukunftspreis 2022


When I was young, I had my father and others talk about the rain and how it had usually fallen during certain times of the year. And how the farmers could count on the rains to sustain their fields.

But one day my father told me about how things were changing. Over a relatively small span of years my father’s generation had seen the rain falling less and less frequently. And the crops were suffering. And when the rain finally did come, it would fall in great downpours — often flooding the fields and destroying the already weakened crops.

Farmers that my father knew were starting to lose their farms and to lose their livelihoods. People were going broke. And Food was starting to become more scarce as the food prices continue to escalate. And this was of course increasing tension among the people. And the situation was getting worse very quickly.

Vanessa Nakate's acceptance speech

I was just 21 years old. But I could hear the urgency in his voice, and I knew I needed to find a way to help make things better. I started to carry out research about the changes in weather patterns.

I am from Kampala, Uganda, a country that has one of the fastest changing climates in the world. And as I grew up, I studied more and more about how the climate crisis was already ravaging vast parts of the African continent. Africans are already suffering some of the most brutal impacts fuelled by the climate crisis: rapidly intensifying hurricanes, devastating floods and withering droughts – and yet the entire continent of Africa is responsible for less than 4% of historic global emissions.

Many Africans have lost their lives, while countless more have lost their homes, their farms and their businesses. And so, I made a sign and I stood in the street, and I held my ground. Every Friday I have come back to do it again and again. And along my journey I have become more and more aware of the huge risks, activists – particularly those who live in the Global South – face when they protest.

Intimidation, surveillance, sexual violence and criminalisation. In 2020, Global Witness recorded 227 lethal attacks against environmental activists. That’s an average of more than four people a week. Save spaces for protest are shrinking all around the world. But there is a reason that activists are persevering.

The IPCC has been very clear: the devastating impacts that await us should we cross the 1.5C threshold. The IEA has been very clear: we can have no new fossil fuel development. If we are to keep the promise of Paris and attempt to ward off the worst climate impacts. And UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has also been very clear: investing in new fossil fuel production – he warned leaders recently – is “moral and economic madness”.

Helmut Schmidt understood the essential need for governments to take decisive action in the face of great threats. When he was Senator in Hamburg, Mr. Schmidt acted swiftly to rally Germany’s military – as well as assistance from other NATO countries – to save citizens from drowning during The North Sea flood of 1962.

As a finance minister, Mr. Schmidt fostered critical international cooperation by gathering the richest countries in the world to act in solidarity when the oil crisis of the 1970s threatened people's livelihoods all around the globe.

It was Mr. Helmut Schmidt who was bold enough to call for car-free Sundays in car-loving Germany to bring citizens together and create a shared sense of urgency during the crisis. It was the first time that many people glimpsed the limits to growth and the need to move away from fossil fuels. It was the moment that the research and innovation for renewable energies began in earnest.

And now the world is confronted by another set of crises. The Covid pandemic and the uneven unjust vaccination investments for countries across the Global South. A fossil fuel funded war is ripping apart lives and livelihoods in Ukraine and plummeting the world into an energy and food security crisis.

Millions of people across the African continent are now facing drought, crop failure and starvation. And all the while global CO2 emissions continue to rise. And the impacts of the climate crises are piling up, especially in countries like mine.

In this critical moment, the G7 leaders who have been meeting in Bavaria over the past few days had a historic opportunity to make good on their past commitments to end all fossil fuel finance and accelerates the clean Energy Transition.

So, what did they do? Earlier today the G7 released their final Communiqué. In it the G7 let by chancellor Scholz have decided to ignore the world’s prominent climate scientists, to ignore the IEA and even ignore the UN secretary general António Guterres. And instead they have called for new investments in gas.

This shameful decision will lock in emissions for decades, all while taking far too long to address Europe short-term energy needs. This decision will also lock in amounts of more debt for Africa as new fossil fuel infrastructure will soon need to be obsolete.

Rather than rally leaders around faster climate action, chancellor Scholz spent his time at the G7 summit gatherings, negotiating a line in the Communiqué about the need for new fossil fuel investments. As leaders like to do the G7 then went on to describe a vision of achieving a fully or predominantly decarbonised power sector by 2035.

As chancellor Schmidt said, “politics is not simply thinking but also acting.” Words won’t curb CO2 emissions. Promises won’t hold back the floods. And they also won’t end the droughts and halt the landslides that are destroying people’s livelihoods. Communiqués won’t feed those who are forced to flee, those who are starving, those who are dying.

We need courage, we need action, we need justice. I want to thank the Helmut Schmidt Future Price jury for honouring me with this prestigious award. But I have to ask you what will this award be worth if the world I return to in Kampala is soon to become a barren, withered, an unliveable place?

Chancellor Helmut Schmidt recognized a crisis and took decisive action to safe-guard citizens around the world. For that reason, decades later, we honour the legacy of chancellor Schmidt. So, my question for the current chancellor is this: As world leaders struggle to summon the courage to take a new series of cascading crises – what will your legacy be?

Was werden Sie hinterlassen, Herr Scholz?

| stay informed | stay connected


What is happening at THE NEW INSTITUTE? Step inside by following our institutional newsletter, which ties together the work of our fellows and programs, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.


We use cookies to measure how often our site is visited and how it is used. You can withdraw your consent at any time with effect for the future. For further information, please refer to our privacy policy.