U.S. Embassy Kampala | April 19, 2021
(as prepared for delivery at The American Center, Ggaba Road, Kampala)
Kampala, Uganda — Good afternoon everyone. It’s an honor to join you for this launch of the YALI [Young African Leaders Initiative] 2019 Alumni Green Refugee Communities project for environmental conservation.
This Thursday, April 22, is Earth Day. The first Earth Day events were organized in the United States in 1970 as a response to growing public concern about the degradation of our environment. The event united a disparate group of individuals, civil society organizations, and politicians concerned about a range of issues, from industrial pollution to the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife.
While environmental activism pre-dated the establishment of Earth Day, the event built public awareness and galvanized support for landmark environmental legislation and government action. By the end of 1970, President Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Congress passed the Clean Air Act, followed two years later by the Clean Water Act. These and other milestone acts of legislation inspired by that first Earth Day have helped to protect our environment while improving the health of millions of Americans.
Over the past 50 years, Earth Day has become a global event, and for good reason: Too many communities around the world still lack access to clean water and clean air, and deforestation is a constant threat. Since 1970, these local problems have been compounded by the urgent global challenge posed by climate change.
That’s why the United States has made addressing climate change a global policy priority, and that’s why President Biden announced the United States’ return to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change on his first day in office. The United States recognizes that global challenges require global cooperation. Later this week, President Biden will host a Leaders Summit on Climate Change to galvanize efforts by the world’s major economies to reduce emissions to limit global warming and to mobilize public and private sector finance to help vulnerable countries cope with climate impacts.
While this global engagement is critical, continued community engagement and activism at the local level is no less important. The history of Earth Day in the United States demonstrates the power of a mobilized public to promote positive change and to ensure government is responsive to its concerns.
Today, I want you to know that your project is important, and that your engagement and leadership are essential. As you already know, Uganda is threatened by deforestation. Estimates suggest that Uganda lost 12 percent of its tree cover during the past 20 years. Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority says that if nothing is done to stop the problem, Uganda will lose all of its forest cover in 25 years. That has serious consequences for Uganda, but like all environmental problems, this is a potential loss for the whole world.
Planting a tree is a powerful act because of what a tree does. Trees provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. They lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade. According to researchers at North Carolina State University, one large tree provides a day’s supply of oxygen for four people. Trees are able to absorb up to 48 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. Engineers in the United States and around the world are busy at work every day inventing new ways to clean our planet, but nature has given us this gift.
Planting a tree is also a powerful act because of what a tree stands for. It’s an investment in the future. We don’t plant a coffee tree expecting to harvest its beans in a year. We plant a tree because we are looking ahead. Because we are investing in our future or those of our children and grandchildren. Planting a tree is an optimistic thing to do.
Planting a tree is also a powerful act because of the message it sends. To the communities living in areas affected by deforestation, it says “we care about you, and we care about your community.” I laud your decision to support refugee communities in Uganda, and I am proud that the United States is a partner in this effort. The United States contributes more than 200 million dollars annually to provide 1.4 million refugees things like food, healthcare, shelter, clean water, livelihoods, protection, and education, and to support local communities hosting those refugee populations. We are keen to protect vulnerable populations affected by climate change, and the United States remains committed to supporting developing countries in their climate change response.
Planting a tree also sends a powerful message to others in your community or in your professional and peer networks. Your action says: “I believe we can and must act to improve our world.” It’s especially bold when the problems are so large and the behavior of one individual–in the face of a country or a corporation or a system–can seem insignificant. But change starts with the individual. Every day we are faced with choices: Do we cook with carbon or alternative fuel? How can we reduce, reuse, and recycle? Our choices set an example for others and they make a difference.
But the real magic is when an individual who cares speaks up, joins with others, and advocates for change from the governments and companies and systems whose actions have greater consequences. I expect that your project will play an important role in raising awareness and in moving others to act.
Thank you, alumni of the YALI Mandela Washington Fellowship 2019 cohort, for this initiative, for continuing to allow the U.S. government to partner with you, and for joining like-minded young leaders around the globe in rising to meet the challenges of your generation.