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
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
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
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
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.