Uncovering the intergenerational stories of climate change in the Ugandan city

In Uganda, intergenerational tensions form one of the strands that intersect with other factors such as gender, ethnicity, religion, class, marital and migrant status, and urban/rural setting. Anthropologist Dr Katie McQuaid (Senior Research Fellow, School of Geography, University of Leeds) explains the need to look at the intergenerational dimension of climate change in this context, and why, in facing the challenges, urban settings should be taken fully into account.

The question of intergenerational fairness and climate change has been radically and recently highlighted in the efforts of 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg. She has inspired huge numbers of school children across the world to “Strike 4 Climate”, addressed politicians and rallies, and become a leading voice decrying the intergenerational injustice of climate change.

As an anthropologist working in Uganda over the past eight years, I have grown increasingly interested in this question, and how it translates among those on the front line of climate change.

It is only when we engage with the everyday experiences of such injustices – and what they mean to different people – that they begin to leap off the headlines, the placards and the speech transcripts. The intergenerational issues of climate change reside in the daily urgencies, struggles and creative resilience of those we rarely get to hear from.

Age, gender, urbanisation – and climate change

Climate change is set to have a disproportionately negative impact on the world’s poor, while magnifying existing patterns of inequality. As catastrophic and slow-onset climate events emerge and increase across the world, social inequalities will manifest themselves in uneven impacts of climate change.

Age and gender in particular are shaping and inhibiting people’s resilience to a changing climate. This is especially the case in countries with extreme age structures. Uganda hosts one of the world’s youngest populations, with over three-quarters of the population below the age of 30 years.

However, climate change research, policy and practice, tends to neglect age as a variable and, so far, if conducted at all, analysis of gender tends to be limited to the experiences of poor rural women as climate victims.

The emphasis on rural impacts in climate work tends to ignore the fact that our planet is increasingly urbanising; cities and towns are undergoing unprecedented growth. In Uganda, for example, urban populations are expected to increase from 19% today to over 50% by 2050.

What impacts are our world’s rapidly swelling cities exacting upon different generations and genders of urban residents and migrants?

The importance of recognising intersections

There is an increasingly urgent need to understand how climate change is not only a gendered experience, but also a generational one – one that is mediated by complex and intersecting socioeconomic factors, including a person’s gender, ability, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, class, marital and migrant status, and urban/rural setting.

When we generalise climate stories we render invisible the highly specific needs of particular groups in particular places.

Policies and programmes are at risk of neglecting the diversity of populations, reinforcing differences between women and men, excluding LGBTQ communities, denying women agency, and overlooking urban populations and people differentially affected by both their age and gender.

We also fail to consider the ways in which local people make sense of, and are therefore responding to, a changing climate.

Intergenerational environmental responsibility

In Uganda, for example, my creative work with communities has revealed how climate change is exacerbating the everyday challenges of urban life.

African cities remain relatively under-represented in the rapidly growing field of African climate change research. Yet cities across the continent are under threat from increased droughts, floods, fires and heatwaves, with the most impoverished urban residents set to suffer the greatest effects.

In 2015, as part of the University of Sheffield’s “Intersection” project, I spent nearly a year conducting a combination of ethnographic and creative research with the urban population of one small former-industrial city.

Here, residents make sense of a changing climate not through the lens of the more globalised discourses of climate change we might recognise in our own communities and media, but through the framework of intergenerational issues.

An intergenerational community event in an urban slum community. Drama and community service were used by a diverse group of urban residents to encourage people of different generations and genders to work in partnership to promote environmental responsibility and use of sustainable energy sources. Uganda, 2016. (Photo: Katie McQuaid)

The onset of climate change is widely attributed to perceived moral and environmental failings on the part of the present younger and economically-active generation. This generation are seen as more destructive than previous generations and unable to preserve land, trees and other resources for future generations. This was, many agreed, driven by the uncertainties of living in rapidly changing urban settings.

Urban struggles meant people could not imagine or plan for the future, as changing weather patterns were exacerbating the already severe challenges people faced in trying to meet their basic needs. In the marginal socio-economic contexts of urban Uganda, precarious material conditions and increasingly uncertain livelihood opportunities are perceived to be driving people into unsustainable practices.

These pose a challenge not only to environmental sustainability, but also to intergenerational relationships, exerting pressures on long-standing and vital family support structures.

Challenging intergenerational injustices

Intergenerational inequalities are driving intergenerational injustices. There is a need to recognise and understand these lived experiences if we are to challenge them.

What of the young boy forced to drop out of school to collect scrap in the slum as failing rains drive up food prices, who as a future man has responsibility to provide income for his family?

Or the grandmother unable to return to her natal village, instead selling cardboard boxes on the street outside the town’s market to feed and educate her grandchildren, her children long departed in search of better opportunities in bigger cities?

Or the girls forced to marry well before their 18th birthdays as changes in climate exert ceaseless economic pressures on their families?

Climate change stories are also intergenerational stories. Stories which risk remaining unheard.

If we are to accommodate growing urban populations more equitably and drive the social transformations necessary to achieve broader goals of social justice and sustainable development, we need to collaboratively develop a broader and deeper approach to climate change.

This must be embedded in nuanced understandings of (inter)generational issues around the world, and this calls for detailed research with communities that are frequently rendered invisible and marginal to key climate policy and practice.

Only through working in partnership with these communities can we creatively apply this knowledge to identify and evaluate innovative solutions to more equitable outcomes from climate action.

Broadening current approaches to climate change in this way has the potential to bring a number of these inequalities to the light in order to challenge them. In turn this will serve to raise the profile and participation of those at the frontline of the intergenerational injustice of climate change.

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