Adam Corner

Politicising climate change in Uganda

In Climate Change, climate justice, politics, Uganda on February 16, 2011 at 9:57 am

In Uganda the average carbon footprint is less than 1 tonne of CO2 per year. In the US it is 20 tonnes. The average Ugandan will tell you instantly that the climate has changed – that the rains are unpredictable, the droughts are longer, and the temperatures are hotter. It is not politically controversial. In the US, a growing number of people think that climate change is a gigantic conspiracy aimed at curtailing their consumption – it is a political hot potato.

Given these stark differences in who is causing – and who is taking responsibility for – climate change, you could forgive Ugandans for being angry with the polluting nations for creating (and then deny responsibility for) a problem that Ugandans are now dealing with. But in fact, simmering resentment towards the industrialised countries is nowhere to be seen.

Why aren’t people angry about the deep injustice of climate change? Part of the answer is the very pragmatic way that climate change is understood in Uganda.

For many people in developed nations, climate change represents a direct challenge to their consumer self-identity. Previously mundane decisions about travel and energy use are now angst filled trade-offs. But in Uganda, climatic changes need rapid and effective solutions – practical measures must be put in place to ensure that the Ugandan environment remains as resilient as possible to the changes that are being forced on it.

You don’t find many Ugandans debating whether climate change is a political conspiracy. If you bury your head in the sand in Uganda, your crops will have failed by the time you re-emerge. According to James Tumusiime, the Editor of the bi-weekly national newspaper The Observer, the debate in Uganda has not really reached an intellectual level of trying to dissect what climate change means. People are concerned with much more immediate concerns – like ensuring that their families are housed and fed.

But while this practical and localised approach to climate change is impressive and understandable, some activists are concerned that a critical element of the climate change debate is missing in Uganda. Sarah Kisolo, of the Rural Development Media and Communication organisation, argues that climate change should be more politicised, because if it is not, then people will never fully understand how important it is:

“People are not knowledgeable. They are not aware…If climate change was politicised, then it would generate a debate….then they would demonstrate, they would shout, and people can feel it.”

Susan Nanduddu, Programme Assistant for Climate Change with the civil society umbrella organisation DENIVA, suggests that powerful political forces are shaping the way that Uganda is able to respond to climate change – but these forces are invisible to the ordinary citizen, as they take place behind the closed doors or the UNFCCC climate change negotiations:

 “The international community has an obligation to respond surely, to (financially) support these communities…(But) that ends up being a very sensitive issue. For example, the United States doesn’t even want to hear that information. They just don’t want to… The moment those around the table, the negotiating tables, turn around and they speak as donors, not as UNFCCC parties, then the language changes, unfortunately…”

Phillipa Kanyoka, also with DENIVA, is even more direct:

“It’s the duty of the polluters to pay, to offset…because in economics, there is something called the ‘polluter pays’ principle… (But) we cannot negotiate…you know it is like for the negotiations on trade. EU’s funding is assisting African leaders. So, I am being paid by EU. And they are sponsoring me. I go there…am I going to be at the same level as the other European, or other bigger nations? I am going there as a…as a beggar. So I think the power of nations plays a very big role…the problem of the positions of our political leaders, the problem of power relations. Whoever is funding you has the power to influence your decision…”

These fundamental restraints on the capacity of the Ugandan government to respond to climate change are not widely known in Uganda. Although many Ugandans have embraced the message of planting trees to absorb carbon dioxide, of switching to more drought-resilient crops, and of adapting to unpredictable rains, most have not grasped the injustice of climate change.

If and when they do, the focus of climate change in Uganda may change from passively adapting to changes that Ugandans didn’t cause, to actively challenging the political structures that prevent them from accessing the financial support they are owed by the international community.

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  1. I am a malawian working with Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi. Am a project officer in a Mwanza River Catchment Natural Resource Based Enterprise Development Project. This aims at helping farmers establish environmental friendly businesses like beekeeping other than charcoal burning and selling. Local people understand climate change better through challenges like seasonal shift and prolonged dry spells that Malawian farmers are facing. Mechanisms such as conservation agriculture are encouraged to ensure food security in times of dry spells.

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