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Climate change in Uganda: “The biggest unreported story of our times”

  • 14 Mar 2011, 00:00
  • Guest post from Adam Corner

This is a cross-post - this article was originally published on Adam Corner's blog Hidden heat: climate change in Uganda.

The African continent has had more than its fair share of major disasters. Some, like the Rwandan genocide in 1994, captured the attention of the world media, and have become embedded in many Westerners' concept of 'Africa'.

Others receive sporadic attention but drop off the news agenda because they are not easily explainable in a two minute news item. Millions of people have been killed in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past decade, although few outside of Africa could give you a detailed explanation of these events.

Given Africa's battle-scarred recent history, you might expect the lack of stories on African conflicts to be the most glaring omission in international media reporting. But according to Daniel Kalinake, the Managing Editor of the Daily Monitor, Uganda's leading independent newspaper, climate change has now surpassed conflict as the most unreported issue facing Africa.

"I think climate change is the biggest under-reported, or unreported story of our times… and yet if you look around, then the critical evidence suggest that not only are the effects of climate change already being felt, they are (worsening) within the next few years. We're talking within the decade, or the next two decades, they're going to become really huge game-changers for societies in Africa…"

One of the reasons that climate change has remained low down the media agenda (both within and outside of Africa) is that woven into the fabric of climate change is a sort of self-defeating invisibility cloak. It blends seamlessly into existing climatic patterns, exacerbating and intensifying their power.

Perhaps the single most dangerous feature of climate change is the fact that it does not lend itself to detection until it is too late. The very signs that alert you to the presence of climate change - an increase in deaths from extreme weather events, or a lengthening of drought periods - are the impacts you are trying to prevent. As Kalinake puts it:

"…Stories on (the) environment…and to a lesser extent public health, by the time they grab your attention, really it's too late. If you're reporting the outbreak of an epidemic then you are several months, several years too late. And we have seen that here in terms of the HIV/AIDS epidemic…I think we need in the media to be proactive on climate change, because if you wait for the dry season to last 9 months instead of 6 months, the consequences are going to be very bad. It's going to be too late. And by that time, you can't reverse it…"

But there is another reason that climate change is not making the headlines in Uganda, despite the fact that the climate is already changing, and that a moderate increase in average temperatures (now almost inevitable) is likely to decimate Uganda's vital coffee industry: the issue is not yet well understood by the African media.

Catherine Mwesigwa Kizza, the Deputy Editor of the New Vision, the popular Ugandan daily partly owned by the government, suggests that the problem lies not only with the lack of specialism among journalists, but also higher up the food chain:

"Most of us in the newsroom come from completely Arts backgrounds, so the science of climate change, for most of us…we don't know….committing resources to training, that is key. I think in development journalism training, the biggest loophole has been that most people who give that training focus on the journalists, and forget the editors. And yet the editors make the day to day decisions…if the editors are left in the dark, how are they going to get it?"

In the UK, many editors would claim to 'get' climate change, but many have tried - misleadingly - to squeeze climate change into the 'two sides to every story' format of modern Western journalism. There is essentially no debate in serious scientific circles about the basic question of whether human actions are altering the climate, yet news organisations have insisted on giving thousands of column inches to 'sceptics', in the name of journalistic balance.

Editors are in a critical position to shape and craft the news agenda. In Uganda, newspaper editors can play a role in raising the profile of climate change - but training and sensitisation will need to be directed specifically at them, rather than just the journalists covering the environmental beat. As Kalinake says,

"…We basically need to move climate change and the environment to the mainstream. It has to be competing with politics, with corruption. On the front pages of the newspapers."

People know that the climate is changing in Uganda, but few understand why or know what to do about it. Awareness and engagement needs to cascade down from the newspaper-reading urban elite to the radio programmes on local FM radios (who lift their news directly from the printed press). Only when climate change takes its rightful place on the front pages of African newspapers, will the rest of society catch on.

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