Why It’s Hard to Find a “Climate Denier” in Uganda

You would be forgiven for imagining that here on the equator there are no seasons and that each day of the year feels, at least meteorologically, like every other. While it’s true that daily temperatures vary only within a limited range, there are two seasons, the difference between which has begun to seem dramatic.

When it rains, it frightens...

Those two seasons are 1. Dry and 2. Rainy.

I am much more in favour of the rainy season, which now seems to have arrived. Throughout the dry season I was eagerly and impatiently awaiting the return of precipitation, and would often ask Ugandan friends “When will the rainy season start again?” Their answers would be something like: “It used to be February, but now we don’t know” or “I think it should be March, at least April.”

Why is there so much uncertainty now about when the seasons start? I asked this question, too, and there was almost no variance in the answers I got — “Climate Change.”

This unanimity surprised me at first. In the US, it’s actually quite commonplace to deny climate change, and it is a topic imbued with all manner of political connotations, and therefore not a frequent topic in polite, everyday conversation.

At first I thought maybe Ugandans were more convinced of climate change because they were already experiencing its effects whereas Americans are mostly warned of future consequences.But the US has also been feeling the effects of climate change, from unseasonable temperatures during every season to more numerous and violent storm systems.  The difference, of course, is that many Americans don’t attribute these phenomena to climate change like Ugandans do.

Change in Climate -- Top: Uganda's arid north; Bottom; the fertile west

And as I’ve been living here longer, and hearing more people talk about climate change and how it’s affecting their communities, I’ve come to posit a different reason for the wider acceptance of climate change as a present reality in Uganda than the US:

Cilmate Change does not fit into the dominant narratives in the US

Narratives are important; they help us make sense of individual events and give them meaning by placing them within a broader context or storyline.  But narratives are ambient, and we are usually unaware of the narratives that we allow to shape our thoughts, let alone what shapes those narratives.

There are two particular narratives or themes which shape the way many Americans think and with which, the notion of climate change is incompatible.  They are thusly:

1. America is a force for good in the world and her actions ultimately benefit people everywhere

2. The sum of the unregulated, uninhibited economic choices and activities of self-utility-maximising individuals produces the best outcomes for society and the economy (This story is called “The Invisible Hand”)

Clearly, climate change doesn’t comport with either of these narratives.  In the first case, if increasing carbon emissions are contributing to the ill effects of climate change, it would be Americans who bore responsibility since we have been releasing so much carbon into the atmosphere for so long.  But the US can’t be responsible for something bad. Since the action (releasing carbon) can’t be denied, the effect (climate change) must be instead, in order to maintain the narrative.

(As an aside, I do wonder if climate change will become more widely acknowledged among Americans as China’s carbon emissions outpace the US’.  After all, the narrative of destructive Chinese expansion is also popular in the West)

Conversely, climate change IS consistent with the dominant narratives in Uganda.  Foremost among them:

Outside forces and actors shape our destiny, and we can, at best, adapt

This narrative might have its roots in the period of European colonialism, although I suspect it runs much deeper.  In any case, the fatalism suggested by this narrative makes it very easy for Ugandans to believe that greenhouse gases being emitted en masse by people in other parts of the world are controlling something as basic and important as the weather in Uganda.

Nothing like the smell of burning trash

Alternatively, I could also accept the following, almost contradictory analysis:

Although neither Americans or Ugandans are removed from the effects of climate change, Americans are more removed (not physically but conceptually) from the causes of climate change.

Put another way, Americans don’t really see the pollution that their lifestyle creates, and perhaps therefore have a harder time believing that it could be having as dramatic an impact as the studies claim.

Ugandans, on the other hand, see pollution all the time: the black smoke belching out of overloaded trucks, the neighbours’ burning trash — pollution is everywhere here. Ironically, even though this pollution is happening on a smaller scale compared to the industrial pollution of the West, its ubiquity makes it much easier to believe that there are so many pollutants in the atmosphere that they are affecting rainfall, temperatures, storm systems, etc.

Any other theories???

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2 responses to “Why It’s Hard to Find a “Climate Denier” in Uganda

  1. I agree with the narratives, although I do think that Ugandans DO feel the effects of climate change more acutely than Americans: because Ugandans’ lives are ruled so much more by the climate. If there’s drought in the Southwest, most Americans don’t feel it. The farmers in that region are hurt, but trade ensures that we always have food in the supermarket (notwithstanding potential price spikes). We may NOTICE changes in the climate, but we don’t FEEL them.

    Ugandans by contrast are farmers–at least 90% of them are. So when there are changes in the seasons, they FEEL them.

  2. You touch on an important theme here – North Americans in particular tend to be unaware of (and often indifferent to) the externalities of their consumption or their lifestyles in general. The same case could be made for the “war on drugs” – North Americans make up the vast majority of consumers of drugs like cocaine and are the biggest actors (and funders) in the attempts to reign in drug production, but they feel the effects of that “war” the least – it’s the Central and South Americans that have to deal directly with the increase in violence, corruption, and weakened state institutions as a result of this consumption and militarized response to the drug trade.

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