Dear Pope Francis,
Kampala is abuzz. Thank you for visiting Uganda! The presidential election season is underway and we have been busy sprucing up the city ahead of your trip here ten days ago. The city’s residents have been conducting charity walks, renovating and buying commemorative rosaries from Rome. Workers are re-roofing The Martyr’s Shrine, building a new arena and have put the finishing touches on an exhibition hall honouring Christian martyrs who were executed by the king in the late 1800s.
Your visit to Uganda, just before the COP21 climate negotiations started in Paris, came at a crucial time, though, both for our country and the world. You see, the dangerous impacts of climate change have already hit Uganda.
In the northern part of the country, a drought hurt farmers again this year, devastating harvests and creating food shortages. More than 600,000 people need food aid; 17 people starved to death in September alone, according to government statistics.
Then, while we were preparing for your visit, the El Nino rains arrived, upending the agricultural calendar and bringing with them an outbreak of cholera. The Ministry of Health warns that bilharzia and typhoid may not be far behind. The country is bracing for landslides; more than 100,000 Ugandans are at risk, particularly people living in slums. Here in Kampala, floods have already become an everyday occurrence.
The floods are made worse by greed and our own human actions. Construction projects — some legal, some not — impede the flow of water and alter the wetland systems that should provide drainage, while so-called ‘investors’ erect huge concrete shopping malls all over the city.
In addition, while Uganda banned certain types of plastic bags three years ago, the policy has never been enforced. The senseless production and use of these polythene bags wreck havoc in the city drainages and choke farmlands. The filth that is accumulated through the use of these plastics is unbearable and when the rains are added into the mix, the clogged city drainages bust at their seams and slum dwellers resort to canoes to move around their neighborhoods.
Of course Uganda is not alone. ‘Natural’ calamities are ruining livelihoods and taking lives across the globe. The World Bank estimates that climate change will push 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030, the deadline for achieving the new Sustainable Development Goals. The World Heath Organisation estimates that climate change is already responsible for more than 150,000 deaths and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) adds that agricultural yields in some African communities could drop by as much as 50 percent in just five years. Women, who are the primary agricultural providers in many parts of the world, on top of ‘domestic’ duties like finding clean water and firewood, are particularly affected.
Climate change is driven by a system that does not value human dignity, ignores responsibilities and limits, and is focused on profits. The dangers of our actions and inaction are known and predictable.
UNEP estimates that adapting to the agricultural challenges resulting from climate change could cost five to 10 percent of an African country’s GDP. Climate negotiators have accepted the principle that those countries most responsible for degrading the environment must pay to help the others adapt. But global solidarity to address climate change should not be based on abstract thinking, it must be rooted in the reality around us — the flooded homes, dying children and communities buried in landslides.
Sharing the collective wealth that nature provides for us should not only be an aspiration, it should be a reality that we all embrace. World leaders need to urgently adopt a global climate agreement that respects the planet’s boundaries and provides significant financing for affected communities. We also need to create low carbon economies that improve quality of life without harming the environment. Governments can promote this by replacing outdated concepts, like GDP and GNP, with new metrics that take into account public health, the environment and inequalities.
Pope Francis, now that you have visited Kampala, I hope you will reinforce this message. Your encyclical on the environment has helped shape the global conversation about climate change, just as your insights on poverty and inequality highlight injustice.
Coming in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, COP21 is a somber moment. But it is also a time to re-energize our collective effort. Humanity must never give up. Living in harmony with Mother Earth is the ultimate change that all global citizens should embrace. But this will require new types of societies that do not base their decisions on what will generate the most profit, but instead what will generate the best outcomes for the wellbeing of all people and the planet.
Co-chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) and the Executive Director of the Uganda National NGO Forum