Most Africans have heard of climate change and agree that it should be stopped. But far fewer feel that ordinary people can do something to stop it and even fewer understand its human causes.
A recent survey by Afrobarometer found that over two thirds of Africans perceived climate conditions for agricultural production had worsened over the past ten years. And among Africans who have heard of climate change, 71% say it needs to be stopped and 51% feel they can do something to help.
Climate change literacy includes understanding the human causes of climate change and its potential impact on the world. Without it, people will be less able to adapt to climate change impacts, including projected adverse economic and environmental impacts and potential opportunities.
Climate change literacy is important because it underpins more informed responses to climate change. Yet, until recently little was known about how climate change literacy rates differ among populations across Africa, what influences variation, and the factors that predict changes in climate change literacy rates.
Our research answers these questions and estimates climate change literacy rates across Africa. Across 33 African countries, we found climate change literacy varies substantially between countries and at sub-national levels. Education level is the strongest predictor of climate change literacy.
Drivers of climate change literacy
Our analysis combined public opinion surveys and historical climate data across Africa.
Our primary data source was Afrobarometer. The pan-African research institution conducted a public opinion survey in Africa, from 2016 to 2018, using nationally representative samples. It included 44,623 respondents across 33 countries, representing 61% of Africa’s population.
This survey measured climate change literacy, as well as perceptions of climate change and socio-demographic factors such as age, gender, education and wealth. We integrated these data with measurements of local climate trends (extreme heat, extreme rainfall, and severe drought) and climate-related disasters such as nationally significant floods. Combining these data sources allowed us to identify the effects of both social and environmental factors on climate change literacy.
The result was the most holistic picture to date of the knowledge dimension of climate change literacy and its predictors across Africa.
The average national climate change literacy rate in Africa is 37% – far lower than in Europe and North America, where rates are generally over 80%.
Climate change literacy varies substantially across African countries, as well as within countries. The climate change literacy rate is 66% in Mauritius and 62% in Uganda, but only 25% in Mozambique and 23% in Tunisia.
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 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%.
By far the strongest predictor of climate change literacy is education. Compared to those with no formal schooling, those who completed a high school degree are 19% more likely to be climate change literate. Those who complete a university education are 36% more likely to be climate change literate.
Additionally, wealthier and more mobile Africans, as well as those living in urban areas, are more climate change literate. Poverty undermines climate change literacy.
We also found a difference according to gender. On average country-level climate change literacy rates are 12.8% lower for women than men.
When considering regional patterns of this gender gap, we found that 60% of countries sampled had a difference between men and women greater than 10%, and 11 of the 15 countries with the largest gender gap are in west Africa. This is a concern given that women are often more vulnerable to climate impacts than men.
This gender gap is a global phenomenon. A study covering 54 countries (only one African country) found women aged 15 years old were on average 4.7% less likely to be climate change literate than men.
We found that education is generally equally effective in increasing both men’s and women’s climate change literacy.
The changing environment also affects climate change literacy. Historical trends in precipitation, and perceived drought experiences, are associated with increased climate change literacy. However, we did not find that changing temperatures or the occurrence of climate change related hazards like floods had an effect on climate change literacy.
Significance for Africa
The results of our study can guide policy makers and civil society when intervening 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. And rates are lower in rural areas and among women. People living in poverty are also more vulnerable to climate change impacts and more likely to perceive changes in droughts and flooding. Yet these groups often have the least adaptive capacity, highlighting the urgency of enabling adaptation responses for these groups, including increasing access to financial and knowledge resources.
A focus on climate change literacy – especially through education – presents an important opportunity to put climate change on national and sub-national development agendas. Increased climate change literacy, together with indigenous and local knowledge practices, can lead to more informed climate change adaptation across Africa.
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town, University of Cape Town
Senior Research Fellow, University of Cape Town
PhD student in the Department of Political Studies, University of Cape Town
Assistant Professor, University of Connecticut