Climate Change Literacy in Africa

We cannot simply react to climate change; the risks are too severe. Without climate change literacy (understanding the human causes of climate change and its potential impact on the world) hundreds of millions of people across Africa lack climate risk knowledge for adaptation to climate change.

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Although a majority of Africans are aware of climate change and agree that it should be stopped, too few feel that ordinary people can do something to stop it. The magnitude of this challenge was captured in a recent survey by Afrobarometer, which found that over two thirds of Africans perceive climate conditions for agricultural production have worsened over the past ten years, 71% of Africans are aware of climate change and agree it should be stopped, but only 51% expressed confidence about their ability to make a difference. Climate change will bring economic and environmental challenges as well as opportunities, and Africans who have an understanding of the risks associated with human caused climate change will be better prepared to respond to both. They need to know about both the immediate and long term effects of climate change, as well as how to apply that knowledge. Anticipating climate changes in their decision making concerning their livelihoods, careers, investments and will help everyday Africans safeguard their futures.

We set out to identify climate change literacy rates in Africa and identify the main social and environmental predictors of climate change literacy are across the continent. Climate change literacy underpins more informed responses to climate change, yet we knew very little about national and subnational variation of climate change literacy or the drivers of this variation.

We first conducted a meta-analysis of past research identifying the drivers of climate change literacy in Africa. We then conducted our own analysis, combining public opinion and environmental data.

Our primary data source was Afrobarometer, the largest public opinion survey in Africa conducted during 2016–2018 on nationally representative samples covering 44,623 respondents in 33 countries, representing 61% of Africa’s population. This survey measured climate change literacy, as well as perceptions of climate change and sociodemographic factors such as age, gender, education, and wealth (see Methods). We integrated this data with measures of local climate trends and climate-related disasters (e.g., floods). Combining these data sources allowed us to identify the effects of both social and environmental factors on climate change literacy. We therefore could establish the most holistic picture to date of the knowledge dimension of climate change literacy and its determinants across Africa.

Our meta-analysis of the literature shows there was no multi-country study that aimed to estimate how many Africans were both aware of climate change and its anthropogenic causes. Previously published studies concentrated most on perceptions of climate and weather changes in Africa, often only among certain groups in a given country, opposed to awareness of climate change and climate change literacy at a larger scale. Our own analysis fills this gap in our knowledge.

Climate change literacy rates across Africa. a, country-level rates of climate change literacy (that is, percentage of population that have heard about climate change and think that human activity is wholly or partly the cause of climate change) for 33 African countries. b, percentage of survey respondents at the sub-national level who are climate change literate. Dark grey regions had no surveyed respondents, while regions shaded in light grey had fewer than 30 respondents. Observed climate trends (1988-2018) at the location of each respondent for c, heavy precipitation (number of months with rainfall > 90th percentile), d, extreme hot months and e, severe drought events (number of months per year of drought). Credit: Simpson et al. 2021, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01171-x

Across 33 African countries, we found climate change literacy varies substantially at both country and subnational levels. For example, the climate change literacy rate is 66% in Mauritius and 62% in Uganda, but only 25% in Mozambique and 23% in Tunisia. Comparing sub-national administrative units across Africa, of 394 sub-national regions surveyed, 8% (37 regions in 16 countries) have a climate change literacy rate lower than 20%, while only 2% (8 regions) score higher than 80%. Striking differences exist when comparing sub-national units within countries, too. For example, rates in Nigeria range from 71% in Kwara to 5% in Kano, and within Botswana from 69% in Lobatse to only 6% in Kweneng West. The average range between the highest and lowest climate change literacy rates for sub-national units is 33%.

Our statistical analysis revealed that, by far, the strongest predictor of climate change literacy is education. Additionally, wealthier and more mobile Africans, as well as those living in urban areas are more climate change literate. We also found a difference according to gender, with men being more climate change literate than women. The changing environment also affects literacy: historical trends in precipitation, as well as perceived drought experiences are associated with increased climate change literacy. We found no effect of changing temperatures or the occurrence of climate change related hazards like floods on climate change literacy.

The average national climate change literacy rate in Africa is 37%. Across Europe and North America climate change literacy rates are generally over 80%, highlighting a severe deficit for Africa.. There is an additional deficit such that in every country, climate change literacy is higher among men than women (mean difference of country means for men and women was 12.8%). When considering regional patterns of this gender gap, we found that sixty percent of countries indicate a difference between men and women greater than 10%, and 11 of the 15 countries with the largest gender gap are in West Africa. These are concerning findings given that women are often more vulnerable to climate impacts than men. Optimistically, however, we find that education is generally equally effective in increasing both men and women’s climate change literacy. Our findings together suggest education will be a critical tool both in reducing the climate change literacy gap between Africa, Europe, and North America, as well as the gap between men and women’s climate change literacy within the African continent.

These results can help policy makers and civil society develop and target interventions to increase climate change literacy. Africa is projected to undergo substantial shifts in urbanisation, education, gender equality, mobility, and income in the near future. Rates of climate change literacy are therefore likely to evolve with these processes, as well as with changing climate hazards.

Large inequalities exist in climate change literacy between regions within many African countries, as well as lower climate change literacy in rural areas and among women. However, those in poverty are also most sensitive to changes in the environment: They are both more vulnerable to and more likely to perceive changes in droughts and flooding. Those in poverty face both more exposure to climate change impacts yet have the least adaptive capacity, raising concerns for the ability of these regions and groups to develop more informed and transformative climate change responses.

A focus on climate change literacy therefore affords a concrete opportunity to mainstream climate change within core national and sub-national developmental agendas in Africa and the Global South more broadly Moreover, advances in climate change literacy hold the potential to complement local perceptions and fill this knowledge gap, and together with indigenous and local knowledge practices lead to more informed adaptation on the continent.

Nick Simpson

Postdoc, African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town