My hope for climate action is that the promises of world leaders will come through
Ugandan youth leader shares her thoughts on what it means to shape the climate future we want
JulietGrace Luwedde is a young climate leader from Uganda, a country known as the ‘pearl of Africa’ for its stunning natural beauty. She likes to spend time outdoors, either climbing mountains or cycling. But beyond her hobbies, the environmental enthusiast has a busy agenda that brings her far beyond the borders of her country.
JulietGrace wears many hats. Acting as the global focal point for the Youth Caucus of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), she is also the regional coordinator for the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change in Eastern Africa (AYICC), and a member of the advisory board for the Gender, Generation and Climate Change (GENERATE) project from Leeds University that focuses on cities in Uganda and Indonesia. Recently, she became the programmes director at Green Africa Youth Organization in their Uganda office, and launched the Creatives Climate Café in Kampala, a space aimed at exploring social and climate issues while engaging youth.
We spoke with her about her motivations and her wishes for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) taking place in Egypt.
Is there a particular moment in your life that made you want to engage in climate action?
My work in this space started early on, when I was volunteering at an organization called TEENS Uganda. During that time, we were training women on backyard gardening to help them grow their own food and generate an income. I was very touched by these women, and it motivated me to continue. I even launched a similar project in my school, since I realized that farming works not only in big spaces, but also in neglected areas around our homes: small spaces can play their part, too!
I also realized that food is not accessible to everyone, including in a country like Uganda which is regarded as the food basket of Africa, especially when climate change-related events happen and destroy your harvest. And the more I grew older, the more it all started making sense.
How is your home country of Uganda affected by climate change?
From my perspective, I would say that agriculture is the sector most impacted by climate change. The changes in rainfall are very visible now. For example, the start of the planting season was delayed this year due to late rains, while last year, the delays in rains and the prolonged dry season that we experienced contributed to the spread of a locust invasion across East Africa, with a huge impact on crops and farmers especially in northern Uganda where people today still experience food scarcity.
To date, communities in eastern Uganda are experiencing heavy floods with the recent flooding of two rivers in August that burst their banks after heavy rainfall swept through the city of Mbale, submerging homes, shops, roads, and uprooting water pipes.
Waste management is yet another challenge across cities, where waste often ends up in drainage systems, thus creating floods in some areas. This makes me think some of our interventions are not sustainable in a way, and we need to make sure our efforts to reduce disaster risks focus on preparing ourselves for the challenges ahead.
What do you fear most as we face the climate crisis?
I feel that beyond talking, still too little tangible action is taking place.
When we talk about innovative solutions for waste management, are we able to see them through? For example, what is the effectiveness of the policies to ban single use plastic bags adopted in the past 10 years in Africa? Plastic bags are still everywhere. Effective implementation doesn’t happen as often as it should.
I also feel we don’t have enough time. Lately, as we saw wildfires in many different places, while small islands keep sinking day in, day out. It seems to me we are always doing more talking than taking more action.
It can be hard to keep hope in the face of all the negative headlines. What makes you feel optimistic about climate action?
My optimism comes from the fact that people are now aware of the reality of climate change, which is a starting point for climate action. I’m also happy to see the climate conversation no longer happening in silos. For example, climate change related laws speak to current broader issues like migration, as people are migrating internally due to environmental challenges and climate-induced disasters, like floods. And the fact that climate policies speak to these issues is what keeps me optimistic.
I’m also hopeful because as a country we are now intentional about the policies we make. In Uganda, we now have a Climate Change Act, and the government is currently putting in place the related regulations. We just need to ensure that it is enforced.
You recently launched the Creatives Climate Café in Uganda. Can you tell us what it is and what kind of results have you seen?
The idea of the Creatives Climate Café was to bring together creative minds — storytellers, poets, painters, photographers and children — in Kampala to interpret or simplify conversations around climate, and to think together of how to tell the success stories about the changes that are happening. A government official also joined us to explore possible collaborations to report about their work on climate, which is one of the biggest outcomes of the Climate Café: people realizing that conversations on climate change need to happen outside of conference rooms.
Working with children was also fulfilling, as education about climate change issues is a way to empower them, knowing that they are the ones who are going to be impacted the most by these issues.
What do you think art can bring to climate action?
Art can help people relate to a topic like climate change much more easily.
It also makes people think beyond themselves on what they could do to change a situation they see pictured. As well, it’s a good way to show how change is happening.
Photography can help people realize the environment they live in, the change that needs to happen, and when comparing two set of pictures taken before and after a cleaning operation for example, people can realize the change and share their views with others on this. So, for me art provokes conversations, as well as action.
What are your hopes for COP27?
I’m working to have as many as young people talk about COP27 in Uganda — my hope being that they understand what is at stake with this event, and its outcomes including on climate finance and funding pledges.
My best-case scenario is that promises made at the Conference of Parties, where all world leaders come together, will come through.
If you enjoyed reading this interview, check out other youth testimonies from Africa on climate as well as our recent report Aiming Higher: Elevating Meaningful Youth Engagement for Climate Action.