In Uganda and other places, people need to know how climate change actions will benefit their lives now. We have to change how we talk about the environment.

Patrick Komakech walks through piles of trees cut for charcoal in Uganda.

Patrick Komakech walks through piles of trees cut for charcoal in Gulu, Uganda, 27 May 2023. The burning of charcoal, an age-old practice in many African societies, is now restricted business across northern Uganda amid a wave of resentment by locals who have warned of the threat of climate change stemming from the uncontrolled felling of trees by outsiders. (AP Photo/Hajarah Nalwadda)

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In July, global temperatures reached record highs, marking a climatic milestone likely unmatched in at least 120,000 years. Otim William Gerison, a Ugandan data analyst, experienced the searing heat firsthand.

“I thought it wasn’t going to rain this year, only for October to abnormally get wet,” Gerison said.

Coincidentally, as the 28th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP28) approaches its close, a report by the World Resources Institute paints a disheartening picture of the current state of climate action: Out of 42 indicators assessed, a staggering 41 are not on track to achieve their 2030 targets.

Shifting focus, Jefferson Nzundi Bwambale, a climate enthusiast and partnerships specialist with the United Nations Development Programme Uganda, expressed concern about a LinkedIn post he encountered: “The Arctic is warming almost 3 times faster than the rest of the planet. A warmer Arctic accelerates global heating, rise in sea levels, loss of ecosystems and more. We must act now. Time is running out.”

While the post may resonate deeply within the renewable energy and climate change communities, Bwambale suggests that for the broader audience, the message might be too abstract, hindering widespread attention.

Middle Africa is far from melting ice caps.

Bwambale’s concerns are clear.

The Arctic, with its remote and unfamiliar nature, may not appear as an immediate threat to many. Terms like “global heating” could be deemed too complex for a broader audience.

The post lacks concrete examples, leaving readers with a lingering “so what?” Finally, urgency is mentioned without explaining why time is running out or suggesting specific actions.

Bwambale sees a broader challenge: Discussions on climate change often elude comprehension. “How can we expect them to readily grasp these abstract environmental concepts?” Bwambale said.

Bwambale estimates that less than 1% of the global population truly grasps the implications of climate change. “Even worse are Ugandans,” he said.

Gerison pointed out that much of the population of Uganda is young. “With 80% below the age of 25, many haven’t witnessed the full extent of climate changes,” he said.

A diminishing crop is easily understood.

Janet Ndagire, Bwambale’s colleague, said it is difficult for Ugandan natives to connect with climate campaigns. They often perceive them as obstacles to survival rather than crucial interventions.

“Imagine telling someone who relies on charcoal burning for survival that cutting down a tree could be hazardous!” Ndagire said. “It doesn’t make sense to them, especially when the tree is on their plot of land.”

Reflecting on personal experiences, Ndagire recalled childhood days of going to sleep fully covered. Nowadays it is too hot to do that, he said.

Ssiragaba Edison Tubonyintwari, a seasoned bus driver originally from western Uganda but currently driving with the United Nations, recounts the challenges of driving between 5 and 9 AM in the Albertine rift eco-region especially around the Ecuya forest reserve.

“It would be covered in mist,” said Tubonyintwari. “We’d ask two people to stand in front, one on either side of the bus, signalling for you to drive forward, or else, you couldn’t see two metres away. Currently, people drive all day and night!”

Irish potatoes in the African wetlands

What happened? Tubonyintwari pointed to unauthorised tree cutting in the reserve, residential constructions and the cultivation of tea alongside Irish potatoes in the wetlands. The result was rising temperatures.

His account supplements a Global Forest Watch report which puts commodity-driven deforestation above urbanisation.

It’s notable that Tubonyintwari didn’t explicitly use the term “climate change,” yet the sexagenarian can effectively explain the underlying concept through his detailed description of altered environmental conditions.

Global Forest Watch reports alarming deforestation trends, with 5.8 million hectares lost globally in 2022. In Uganda, more than 6,000 deforestation alerts were recorded between 22 and 29 November this year.

The consequences of such environmental degradation are dire. Ndagire emphasised that those who once wielded axes and chainsaws for firewood are now the very individuals facing reduced crop yields due to extreme weather conditions.

Even as Uganda grapples with the aftermath of a sudden surge in heavy rains from last October, Bwambale questions the country’s meteorological department, highlighting the failure to provide precise explanations and climate-aware preparations.

These interconnected narratives emphasise the need for accessible climate campaigns and community-driven solutions. As COP28 gathers elites, the call for a simplified narrative gains prominence, mirroring successful communication models seen during the Covid-19 pandemic; else it’s the same old throwing of good money after bad.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why does deforestation continue in places like Uganda when people know about its long-term consequences?
  2. In what ways are high level discussions about climate change disconnected from people’s everyday experiences?
  3. In what way do you think scientists and environmentalists need to change the climate change narrative?
Enock Wanderema

Enock Wanderema graduated in 2022 from Uganda’s Christian University, with a first class degree in Mass Communication and Journalism. He is a regular contributor to Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper and has been an intern in the Kampala office of UN Global Pulse. He loves writing and bringing complex stories to life in the simplest ways.

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