Adam Corner

Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

The wood for the trees

In Climate Change, trees, Uganda on January 26, 2011 at 10:06 am

Ugandan farmer next to some pine trees

Trees are important in Uganda. With most of the country lacking piped gas and reliable electricity, they provide crucial cooking fuel for rural (and not so rural) communities. For the many Ugandans who do not have an enclosed, private kitchen, a charcoal powered stove at the back of the house (or in a communal area) is the primary method of heating food and boiling otherwise un-drinkable tap water. People also sell charcoal to earn money.

Burning charcoal is literally keeping people alive in Uganda. But the rate of deforestation is depleting wood stocks at an unprecedented pace, and charcoal is a dirty fuel – and so burning charcoal is also ensuring that future Ugandan generations will not have access to this vital source of energy. It is an unenviable Catch 22 – Ugandans need trees now, and they need them in the future.

Bags of charcoal on a farm in Southern Uganda

The Africa Talks Climate research programme (which provided the first systematic analysis of public perceptions of climate change in the continent) pointed to a high level of awareness of the critical role that trees play in regulating the natural environment in Uganda.

Ugandans identify trees as being important for preventing topsoil from washing away in floods, providing habitats for animals, and fruit for the rapidly growing population. But they also feel compelled to chop them down. According to one participant in the Africa Talks Climate project, from Soroti in the East of Uganda:

“Poverty is the thing that causes a person to go and cut trees for charcoal…(then they) sell it to get some help”.

In the absence of other suitable sources of energy, it is not reasonable to expect people not to chop down their forests to help feed themselves. This is the brutal interaction between poverty and climate change laid bare. Those without the means of accessing clean energy must use polluting fuels – yet the greenhouse gases created by burning them will impact disproportionately on economically vulnerable countries.

A Ugandan woman cooking with charcoal and wood

People in poverty are compelled by necessity to pursue a path they know is not tenable in the long term. It is up to those in positions of power – the Ugandan government, civil society, and the international community – to ensure that citizens are not forced to embrace unsustainable practices, as Uganda is deeply dependent on the productivity of its agricultural land.

The Presidential election is less than a month away, but a quick scan of the national media suggests that campaigning on sustainable land use is not a political point scorer. Understandably, people have more immediate concerns – like improving the crumbling roads of Kampala, or the erratic and over-priced electricity supply. And the politicians know that promises of short term solutions will be preferred to strategic long term goals. The problem is expressed neatly in an article in the Daily Monitor, Uganda’s most respected daily paper:

“…(I)n a country where the vast majority of the voters are poor and illiterate, their voting decisions normally depend on what they hear. For the rural poor, justice, good governance, rule of law, press freedom, human rights and macro-economic policies are distant and intangible things” (Daily Monitor, Monday 24th January 2010, ‘Uganda Decides’ pullout, page 1)

Climate change – perhaps the most frustratingly intangible thing of all – could be added to this list. Convincing poor, rural populations that they should think long term about the natural environment is going to be a challenge. But without a more stringent strategy for sustainable forest management, Ugandans are in danger of not seeing the wood for the burnt, charcoal trees.


What do Ugandans think about climate change? (Part I)

In Climate Change, Uganda on January 20, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Until recently, there was little in the way of systematic evidence about Ugandan perceptions of climate change. There is still an enormous gap between what is known about how members of the European public perceive climate change, and what is known about African attitudes on the subject.

But a pioneering project called Africa Talks Climate has made a critical start in beginning to document African perspectives on climate change and what it will mean for their continent. During 2009, citizen focus groups and a series of expert interviews were conducted in ten African nations, including Uganda. While these initial results necessarily only capture a tiny fragment of African opinion, the Africa Talks Climate findings provide a fascinating insight into how climate change is understood and perceived in Africa.

In Uganda, 12 focus groups and 18 interviews with various climate change ‘opinion leaders’ (from the government, private sector, media and community organisations) were conducted.

Ugandans have noticed changes in the climate, but do not necessarily attribute them to ‘climate change’ (i.e. global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels). In fact, the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ are not consistently recognised or used by ordinary Ugandans. But awareness of environmental degradation and increasing pollution from industrialisation is very high, and many Ugandan citizens express concern about the way their local environment is changing.

Ugandans do not routinely distinguish climate change from the broader environmental changes that are taking place, including deforestation and air pollution. Ordinary citizens and opinion leaders are also quick to point out that local environmental degradation is driven by necessity. Forests are cut down for charcoal that is used for cooking and heating, not luxury items.

Research in the US has revealed a variety of mental shortcuts that people use to understand climate change. For example, many people see climate change as being caused by a hole in the ozone layer, although in fact global warming and ozone depletion are two distinct problems. Interestingly, some Ugandans express a similar view, suggesting that the ‘mental models’ applied to climate change in the US and Uganda might not be all that different.

How much do these kinds of confusions about climate change matter – do American and Ugandan citizens need to understand climate change better? There is a large academic literature debating the extent to which people need to understand science to ‘accept’ it. Typically, it is concluded that scientific literacy is not the critical factor in whether people approve of scientific developments like GM crops, or nanotechnologies. Instead, people draw on their existing beliefs about the social and ethical implications of technologies. What purpose will nanotechnologies be used for? Who will own the GM crops?

Filling in a ‘deficit’ of knowledge about a scientific subject does not necessarily increase the extent to which that science is accepted. But climate change seems to raise a different question about knowledge – especially in countries like Uganda where building resilience is so crucial.

The issue is not whether people know enough about climate change to accept that it is happening (and it remains to be seen whether denial of climate change science is only a factor in wealthy nations where lifestyle change is implicated). The question is whether the large numbers of farmers in Uganda know enough about climate change to ensure that they are developing solutions to the right problem.

You could make a similar argument about methods of mitigation in wealthy countries like the UK. Scientific literacy might not determine climate change scepticism, but a lack of basic knowledge about how different behaviours stack up in terms of environmental impact is a barrier to adopting sensible solutions.

Ask a British citizen what they are doing to tackle climate change, and they will more than likely reply “recycling”. But while there are many good reasons for recycling, its impact on carbon emissions is minimal. Turning down the thermostat, using public transport and eating less meat are vastly more effective individual actions.

So while Ugandan knowledge about climate change might not be comprehensive among its citizens or opinion leaders, this is not something unique to Uganda. A shared challenge for UK and Ugandan governments is to equip their citizens with information that will empower them to make decisions that are as well-informed as possible.

How will climate change affect Uganda?

In Climate Change, Uganda on January 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm

Climate change is a global problem, but it is not one that is evenly distributed in causes or effects. Industrialised nations bear the historical responsibility for the burning of fossil fuels, but developing countries will be hit hardest by the effects of climate change. It is sobering to consider that while the average UK carbon footprint is about 9 tonnes per year, the carbon footprint of a Ugandan is about 0.1 tonnes.

Poorer countries lack the financial and technological resources to adapt to a changing climate. But the ‘socio-geography’ of developing countries is also an important factor. In Africa, many nations already have extreme climates, and are highly dependent on climate-sensitive industries like farming and food production. When your living is made on the land, the climate is vitally important. In an office in Birmingham it is less of a big deal.

Uganda – along with other East African and Sub Saharan nations – will experience profound effects from climate change. In a nation where over 80% of the population work in agriculture, a changing climate will have a direct impact on livelihoods and lives.

Climate change is likely to increase average temperatures in Uganda by up to 1.5 0C in the next 20 years. That might not sound like much – but it has been estimated that a 2 degree rise would wipe out most of Uganda’s coffee production, on which up to 5 million people depend.

Looking further ahead, up to 4.3C change in average temperatures by the 2080s is possible – more than double what is widely accepted to constitute ‘dangerous’ climate change. These are major changes, in a country that could really do without them.

Of course, these are predictions based on climatic models, not observations. There is a chance that Uganda will experience less climate change than is currently expected. There is a chance that globally, levels of greenhouse gases will peak sooner than we think.

But they are currently rising faster than even the worst case scenario considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (despite a minor blip caused by the global recession). Crossing our fingers and hoping for a lucky break seems unreasonably optimistic.

Alongside these temperature increases, Uganda will get more rain. Unfortunately, while an increase in total rainfall might be welcomed in Uganda, the added water will fall in more sudden downpours bringing floods, landslides and soil erosion – with dry and barren periods in between.

The recent announcement in Cancun of a fund for developing countries to adapt to climate change is good news – but details of where the money will come from are scarce. And, although Uganda has reached a position of relative political stability under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni, there are major concerns within the country (and increasingly from outside observers) that corruption and bribery is still rife in local and national government.

It is a tall order. The Ugandan government needs to build resilience into farming practices, negotiate financial reparations from industrialised nations for their ecological debt, educate the population about the causes and effects of climate change and attempt to rein in the deforestation that is damaging the capacity of the Ugandan land to provide for its people (even though the felled trees provide vital fuel for cooking and commerce in the short term).

And Uganda needs to do all of this while trying to meet Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that seek to lift millions more out of poverty and eradicate preventable diseases like Malaria that blight the country. The impacts of climate change will hinder achievement of MDGs. But spending precious money on climate change will divert funds from MDG achievement – all the more reason that the ‘climate fund’ from wealthy nations needs to be in addition to (not instead of) existing aid.

To protect its citizens from the worst effects of climate change, Uganda must juggle an unenviable set of priorities – and hope that the rest of the world lives up to its obligations.We might all be in it together when it comes to global climate change, but some are more in it than others…

Introducing Hidden Heat

In Climate Change, Uganda on January 7, 2011 at 6:47 pm

The basic question of whether human activities are altering the climate is no longer seriously contended. Left unchecked, climate change will have overwhelmingly negative effects including increased floods, droughts and extreme weather events, lowered productivity from many large areas of existing farmland, migration due to climatic changes and conflict over dwindling resources.

It goes without saying that these effects will be felt the hardest in areas that already experience high levels of environmental stress – and countries that have the least resources to combat them. Uganda – like many other nations in Eastern and Sub Saharan Africa – faces a very real danger from climate change.

But while the effects of  climate change are already visible at the polar ice caps (where levels of summer sea ice are decreasing), climate change is much harder to detect in Uganda.  Certainly, farmers and agricultural workers report hotter, drier, summers and more sudden downpours of rain. Rivers that used to provide vital water have altered their course, and now flow into neighbouring countries instead.  But drought, flooding, and conflict over natural resources are nothing new in Uganda – the effects of climate change blend all too easily into the existing problems that the country faces.

This poses a major challenge for detecting and communicating the risks of climate change in a country where 80% of the population work in the agricultural sector. Climate change is a hidden heat – which makes it all the more dangerous.

Through a series of in-depth interviews with key individuals involved in communicating about climate change, this blog will document Ugandan perspectives on climate change and how to effectively communicate about it.