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How Uganda Taught Me About the Real Effects of Climate Change

During my six years at Pepperdine, both as an undergraduate at Seaver and a grad student at the School of Public Policy, climate change was a constant theme.

Entire semesters were dedicated to the study of environmental policy, to the intersection of climate change and theology, to ethical responsibilities for people of faith, and to lively debates with friends on both sides of the aisle.

Almost immediately after leaving the Malibubble, the realities of environmental degradation and climate change stopped being an abstract political discussion and became an immediate question of faith in my hometown of Jinja, Uganda.

Let's start at the beginning.

In 1993, when I was a baby, my family moved to Uganda as part of a church-planting mission that eventually morphed into a network of churches, a social enterprise cafe, and a development nonprofit called Kibo Group, for which my wife and I work right now. As a result, I have a wide network of friends in Uganda, a small cadre of whom have been like family for more than two decades.

Over the years, Jinja has seen a lot of changes. The road from the airport to Jinja routes through the Mabira rainforest, which is smaller than it used to be due to rampant deforestation. Jinja as a town is dustier and more hectic than it was when I was a kid. But if you want to know the real effects of climate change and environmental degradation, talk to people in the rural villages outside of Jinja.

It's hard to deny that climate change exists in a society comprised mostly of subsistence farmers whose stomachs experience crop failure and erratic rains long before their minds recognize the connection to CO2 emissions. These farmers have no political agenda when, in mid-April, they still anxiously await the rains that used to arrive like clockwork in late February for generations. They have nothing to gain from expressing the simple truth that the climate in Uganda is different than it was just 15 years ago.

Even among my relatively privileged Ugandan coworkers at Kibo, we talk about monsoons in Malawi and elephants dying of thirst in Kenya. Several months ago, heavy rains and rapid deforestation a couple hours north of us caused mudslides that decimated a school and more than 50 homes. Dozens died.

One week, Kibo staffers reported in our meetings about the particular need for water in one of our partner communities. The next week, they reported that children hid under their beds during a storm, and that an old woman's house washed away in a deadly torrent. This was in the same village.

Even I, a Pepperdine alumnus with relatively stable financials, watch the sky and pray for rains so that the two acres of ground nuts we planted as a cash crop will germinate in time. My wife and I risk losing hundreds of dollars because the rainy season is taking longer and longer to arrive, and when it does come, it comes with hail and floods and severe winds.

My coworker Tom has spent years developing a farm that grows bananas. He's emotionally and financially preparing himself to lose half his trees this year. After months of dry weather, his banana plants are weak, and a strong storm could topple them with ease.

But me and Tom and others for whom agriculture is a side-hustle don't risk losing our livelihoods when crops fail. The situation is much worse for poor farmers who invested everything they had into the current planting season and risk losing most or all of it to climate change.

Living in Uganda forces you to reckon with the realities of anthropogenic climate change. While there are fewer avenues here for academic discussion about the science and politics of climate change than at Pepperdine, there is more to discuss about its effects. As selfish as it sounds, sometimes the reality that your two acres of ground nuts might fail makes it more real than a semester of reading charts and graphs.

For those who love the African continent or who grew up there like me, we need to get ready. In discussions with coworkers like Tom, we've speculated that, in the next few years, crop failure might lead to mass hunger in our region, which might lead to increased urbanization and an uptick in crime. While it's impossible to predict these kinds of things with much accuracy, I worry for the first time about the effects of climate change on real people whose names I know and whose children I've held.

In a perfect world, photos and articles and graphs would be enough to mobilize us into action. But as we think about vocation, as we think about who we want to be in the world, as we think about our communal spiritual lives, let us develop a faith and an ethic informed more by who we love than by whoever we believe is ruining the world. Even on issues like climate change, it turns out that a love-centered approach is more effective and memorable than a guilt-centered approach.

Nate Barton  Nate Barton is a Seaver College graduate ('16) with degrees in English and International Studies as well as a graduate of Pepperdine's School of Public Policy ('18). Nate currently lives in Uganda with his wife, Falon, as the Creative Director for a development NGO called Kibo Group.