Adam Corner

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.

  1. I think that third world countries who are likely to be beneficiaries of proposed wealth transfers from the IPCC’s largess, (from money “donated” from wealthy countries of course), are likely to be unreliable when it comes to assessing “Global Warming” in their own country.

    Bear in mind this situation in the Maldives.



  2. The emerging parallels between public understanding in Uganda and in Europe/US are fascinating. It made me think about the function of this understanding, though, which may be quite different. As you say, livelihood issues are far more prevalent in Uganda; and there may well be more motivation to deny climate change amongst more developed nations where the threat to lifestyle/identity is greater. The greatest area of divergence between African and European public’s understandings about climate change will be the focus on adaptation versus mitigation, respectively. Are there lessons that can be learnt in how to communicate adaptation in Europe, from experiences in Africa? I look forward to hearing what you find out, Adam!

  3. “may well be more motivation to deny climate change amongst more developed nations where the threat to lifestyle/identity is greater”


    If there was such a thing as anthropogenic global warming and it did effect Uganda along with the rest of the world, who do you think would die first?



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