I think most people (at least most people who’ve experienced a polar vortex) imagine that living along the equator must be some kind of tropical paradise; It’s always summer; the days never get short, and because the weather is never terrible, presumably everyone is happy and smiling. There may be some truth to that (although the days never get longer, either), but after a year of living in Kampala, Uganda, right on top of the equator, I can confirm that there are in fact, seasons.
In Uganda, as in many places along the equator, there are two seasons, the difference between which begins to feel dramatic. Those two seasons are:
I much prefer the latter season. Throughout the dry season I eagerly and impatiently awaited 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, of several East Africans I met, 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 subject 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 about climate change because they were already experiencing its effects whereas Americans are mostly being 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.
The longer I lived in Uganda, the more I traveled around East Africa and the more I heard people talk about climate change and how it affected their livelihoods and communities, I came to posit a different reason for the wider acceptance of climate change as a present reality in East Africa than in the US:
Cilmate Change does not fit into the dominant narratives in US public discourse
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:
America is a force for good in the world and her actions ultimately benefit people everywhere
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. 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 East Africa. 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 East Africans 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 East Africa.
Note that neither set of narratives has anything to do with science or what might crudely be termed ‘objective reality.’ Ultimately, people don’t believe in graphs or charts. They believe in stories.
Maybe for many in the US, climate change isn’t an ‘inconvenient truth’ so much as a inconceivable story.