Writing about climate change

Climate change in our minds

No other continent is more impacted by climate change than Africa. That’s why media coverage in African countries on risks and adaptation is so important. We talked with writers, educators, and researchers from three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa about the importance of narratives that are focused on people’s actual concerns – and about what the world can learn from it.

Nick Roll
Getty Images, private
October 24, 2022

When David Akana started to work at The Post, a newspaper based in Buea, Cameroon, in the late 1990s, “environmental issues were not an essential part of the newsroom structure,” he says. “Since then, the awareness of climate change and how it is amplifying political, social and economic challenges has grown immensely.” Akana has since moved on to work as a communications officer for organizations like the African Union Commission and as an independent media trainer. In the past decade, many newspapers, including The Post, have made climate change a central issue in their coverage. A recent headline in the paper read:  “Climate Change Reality in Yaounde: Cruel Rain, Scorching Sun.” Luckily, Akana notes, “this is happening in newsrooms across the continent. There’s a real increase in both quantitative and qualitative coverage of climate change issues.”

For years, the industrialized countries responsible for the lion’s share of global emissions have also dominated the global climate change discourse. Now, newspapers, new media ventures, and individual writers and researchers have established their perspectives and voices on the issue – and that has never been more important than in the run-up to COP27 in Egypt. With seven of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change being located in Africa, the continent’s coverage on the issue is essential for informed policymaking and the spread of innovative adaptation strategies. 

About 95 percent of agriculture in Sub-Saharan African countries is rain-fed. This year, inconsistent and heavy rains have flooded parts of West Africa, while the Horn of Africa is facing a brutal drought. Since unsustainable land use and demographics increase the pressure on soils, water and ecosystems, information is one of the most important resources. 

Climate change in the headlines

In 2010, a scientific report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the Nigerian journalist Evelyn Tagbo found that less than 0.4 percent of articles in the most popular newspapers in Nigeria, Ghana or South Africa dealt with climate change or related issues. 

In 2022, just take a look at the newsstands or online media and it will become clear that times have changed: A recent cover story in The Continent, a pan-African weekly magazine distributed via What’sApp, declared: “At climate talks, Africa is on its own. It’s time to act like it.” The international outlet Unbias the News has employed journalists in Nigeria and Egypt to write about coastal issues as part of its Sinking Cities project. And Script, a project funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung in cooperation with the science platform SciDev.Net, trains journalists in the Global South and other regions to report on scientific findings in a comprehensive and comprehensible way.

Nigerian men examine the newspaper headlines.
Just a few years ago, most newspapers in Africa did not have a dedicated climate or environment section. That has changed dramatically – as has the quality of reporting.

Much of the climate change discourse in the Global North is focused on reducing emissions and how to build a post-carbon economy. “There are countries like South Africa that are focusing on mitigation because of the structure of their economies. South Africa uses a lot of coal and is the biggest emitter on the continent”, explains Grace Mbungu, Senior Fellow and Head of Climate Change Program at the African Policy Research Institute in Berlin, which is supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation. “We need to find a balance between adaptation and mitigation to ensure that the needs of current and future generations are met”, says Grace Mbungu, “but on a broader scale, adaptation is the main priority of African government policymakers.”

The framing of climate change concepts matters

Media consumption, from magazine articles to news broadcasts to WhatsApp memes, impacts how people view the world and their place in it. However, this happens in complex ways, depending on your education, your access to media, and who you talk to. The increased coverage of climate change has not increased the awareness of the phenomenon everywhere in the same way. When scientists and politicians talk about “climate change literacy” they mean at the very least that one is aware of climate change, its human causes, its impact, and the future risks it poses. In Europe, for example, four out of five people have climate literacy, statistically speaking.

"The use of abstract, official, or scientific terms like 'climate change' in surveys can make it seem like people aren't aware of climate change, when in fact they are."

Quote fromGrace Mbungu, Head of Climate Change Program at the Africa Policy Research Institute, Berlin, Germany

Comparable figures from the African continent are not available, but surveys show that the inability to speak French, English or Portuguese is linked to a reduced understanding of climate change realities and risks – simply because information is mostly published in these languages.

African children playing with a computer tablet.
Those who are aware of climate change and the risks it poses are more likely to get involved in stopping the process.

A 2016–18 survey among 34 countries conducted by the Afrobarometer found that “as an issue, ‘climate change’ per se does not register among the ‘most important problems’ that Africans want their governments to address. … At second glance, it becomes clear that people do worry – about water supply (cited by 24% of respondents), food shortages (18%), and agriculture (17%).” Of those who have heard of climate change, seven in 10 people say that it needs to be stopped, and more than half believe that ordinary people can at least do a little bit to help. The more you know, the more you can do.

“An emphasis on abstract, official or scientific terms such as climate change in surveys can make it seem like people aren’t aware of climate change when in fact they are,” says Grace Mbungu. “We need a more inclusive way of looking at the causes of climate change and its impact, not just framed from a Western perspective of CO2 emissions. It's fine if ‘climate change’ is a global term to capture what is happening from a scientific and a global perspective, but what you will also need is localization” – that is, the use of more concrete and local terms as well as examples and images that people can relate to. 

Difficult conditions for good reporting on climate change

In the newsfeed of Aiita Joshua Apamaku, a young wildlife biologist and writer from Uganda, you will find infographics on climate change, references to youth conferences or images of rare land turtles that he adores. According to Apamaku, “Too many media outlets are focusing only on what the government is doing and therefore talk about it in official, technocratic terms.” That means the media are missing how people are actually suffering from climate change and trying to adapt to events like heavy rains or landslides by, for example, adopting better agricultural methods. This, in turn, hinders or blocks the spread of innovative approaches and ideas. But new groups such as civil society and youth organizations are making the debate increasingly more diverse. And social media are providing a way for experts, activists, and ordinary people to come together to discuss climate change, as Apamaku points out: “Today we can make smartphone videos of indigenous people in the rainforests and how they depend on and cherish their land that are quite powerful.” Twenty years ago, disseminating this kind of information  would have been difficult. According to Apamaku, it should be the role of traditional media to amplify these stories and experiences and inspire more people to get involved. 

But the conditions for good journalism are still rather difficult: The Reuters report from 2010 found that most journalists on the climate beat had less than three years of experience and no special training. And even today, says media expert David Akana, many journalists often will not make connections between climate change as a scientific issue and other more tangible events, like crop failure or migration. This is also where trainings, such as those offered by Internews, SciDev.Net and the Robert Bosch Stiftung, can help. 

"Too many media outlets are focusing only on what the government is doing – and therefore talk about it in official, technocratic terms."

Quote fromAiita Joshua Apamaku, biologist and author from Uganda

In addition, universities in African cities do not always have clear, easy-to-use online directories where journalists can search for academics and researchers, and media publications from the continent are not always available online or easily searchable. “As such, it might not be easy to find African researchers and policymakers, but they are there, and can be reached if people are intentional about diversity of ideas and inclusion,” says Grace Mbungu. Moreover, adds David Akana, experts working in government or academia might be constrained by what they are allowed to say, depending on a country’s political environment.

With COP27 being hosted in Egypt, there’s a chance for both African and European media to focus on the tangible effects that climate change has on a diversity of African countries, and on how their governments and ordinary citizens are responding. “But the real question is,” says Grace Mbungu, “whether the world will be listening and paying attention.”

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