Climate change is wreaking havoc across Africa. Increasingly severe droughts are striking the Sahel; East African glaciers are melting; Cyclone Idai in 2019 and deadly floods in KwaZulu Natal have devastated southern Africa.
According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s 2022 Forum Report, which aims to “make Africa’s case” at COP27, the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa. While three-quarters of African countries have achieved the climate-action targets set out under U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 13 (SDG13), no country in North America or the European Union has done the same.
What would ordinary Africans tell ACW 2022 participants about how they perceive the threat of climate change, who is responsible, and who should act? New Afrobarometer findings from more than 24,000 face-to-face interviews offer some answers.
The first challenge: Awareness
When Afrobarometer asked about climate change in 34 African countries in Round 7 (2016-2018), we found that 58 percent of respondents had heard of the phenomenon. Climate-change literacy, a combined measure of awareness and understanding of the human-driven causes and negative effects of climate change, ranged from just 12 percent in Mozambique to 57 percent in Mauritius.
Findings from the first 17 countries in our Round 9 surveys (2021-2022, still underway) suggest somewhat less awareness, at 51 percent, as you can see in the figure below. Awareness of climate change ranges from just 22 percent in Tunisia to 74 percent in Malawi.
Across the 16 countries included in both rounds, familiarity with climate change decreased by 9 percentage points. This may reflect a still-emerging understanding of climate change on the continent, with awareness that fluctuates in response to where media attention currently focuses. Building public support for prevention and mitigation efforts may require targeted interventions to increase citizens’ awareness of climate change.
The second challenge: Understanding
Among those who have heard about climate change, most understand that it is hurting their countries: 76 percent say it is making life “somewhat worse” or “much worse.” Across the 14 countries where this question was asked in both rounds, this perception has increased by four percentage points.
But do citizens understand what causes climate change and what can slow it? When we asked 2016-2018 survey respondents who had heard of climate change about its causes, 52 percent attributed climate change to human activity, 27 percent to natural processes, and 16 percent to both.
In our current survey, we ask respondents familiar with climate change who should have primary responsibility for trying to “limit climate change and reduce its impact.” As you can see in the figure below, a plurality (42 percent) cite their government, and another 30 percent identify citizens like themselves. Just 13 percent say that rich or developed countries bear the primary responsibility, while 8 percent say that belongs to business and industry. More education on the causes of climate change might change these perceptions.
The third challenge: Taking action
Africans believe in the power of their own engagement: 76 percent of those who have heard of climate change say citizens in their country can play a role in limiting it. This includes majorities in all 17 countries, reaching 80 percent or more in eight countries.
But people also demand action from their governments, even if it comes at a price. Nearly 3 in 4 (74 percent) of those who’ve heard of climate change “agree” or “strongly agree” that “it is important for our government to take steps now to limit climate change in the future, even if it is expensive or causes some job losses or other harm to our economy.” This suggests that ordinary citizens powerfully understand how serious the problem is, as you can see in the figure below.
To leaders who say they are already taking action, the people’s response is clear: It’s not enough. Fully 93 percent of those familiar with climate change say their governments should be doing more to limit it, and 92 percent say the same about business and industry. Nearly as many think that developed countries (88 percent) and even ordinary citizens (86 percent) are not yet doing enough.
Not surprisingly, Africans give their governments poor marks for their efforts on climate change up to now. On average across 17 countries, just 33 percent of respondents say their governments are doing “fairly well” or “very well” on this issue, while 52 percent rate their performance as poor.
Through SDG13, the United Nations calls for “urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” Africans who are familiar with the problem clearly agree.
The challenges — of building popular climate change awareness and literacy and translating them into policies and initiatives — are real. But so is this citizens’ demand for greater engagement, by all stakeholders, now.
Carolyn Logan (@carolynjlogan) is the director of analysis for Afrobarometer and an associate professor in the department of political science at Michigan State University.
Kelechi Amakoh is a data analyst for Afrobarometer and a PhD student in political science at Michigan State.