Understanding of climate change

“Climate change ‘not relevant’ to most in SA” said the headline in today’s Business Day. You could easily have glossed over the narrow left-hand column on page 4, but I didn’t.

The short article was about Africa Talks Climate, a joint BBC World Service Trust and British Council survey of the African public’s understanding of climate change, the most extensive research ever conducted on the topic in Africa. It’s an extremely valuable resource for anyone communicating, championing or promoting pro environmental behaviours here.

The South Africa specific research report (pictured) reads as anyone in the business of climate change communications would expect: Climate change was originally communicated as a scientific problem. African citizens’ response to climate change is hampered by a fundamental shortage of relevant, useful information for African audiences. Intensive media coverage and public awareness campaigns around climate change have been largely absent in Africa. And so on.

More positively, the report notes that “to communicate effectively about climate change, it is critical to know how people understand it”. Exactly! Hence this research…

Headline findings from South Africa include – and demonstrate the need for better communication around the issues:

> Most South Africans are aware of climate change, but their understanding of the science is patchy and the terms “climate change”, “global warming” and “ozone depletion” are used interchangeably.

> Climate change is also used as an umbrella term for environmental destruction and is viewed by many South Africans as a remote threat which has yet to have a dramatic effect on livelihoods.

> South Africans are reluctant to moderate their lifestyles to reduce carbon emissions especially as they see little government or private sector leadership on the issue.

> People do not want to sacrifice things important to them (cars and electricity) unless the government assures them that their actions can have a real impact.

It sounds like us communicators have got our job cut out for us! But at least with research like this and recommendations for efforts to increase public understanding of climate change issues and action, we have a better chance of engaging people in locally relevant, culturally appropriate and powerful ways.

To me, one of the most interesting findings of the research is the lack of climate change terminology and standard translations for climate change jargon into Zulu and Sepedi.

Perhaps as Senegalese singer and activist Baaba Maal suggests we should be using traditional African song and dance to communicate climate change? It’s definitely an idea that makes my feet tap!

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2 Responses to Understanding of climate change

  1. Mark says:

    …and then of course tyhere is the propensity to ignore social justice in any local sustainability conversation outside of the usual “it will impact most on the poor becuase etc etc…” Perhaps when we communicators understand that we are in Africa, communicating to Africans who have a particular mindset that remains very affected by our recent past, perhaps then we’ll begin to get it right.

  2. Simon Steward says:

    In the book ” The Challenge for Africa” by (Prof) Wangari Maathai (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya) wrote , inter alia, about “culture and environmental conservation” and wrote that , my words and interpretation, if you don’t understand the culture of your audience then what follows may not be relevant and it is ignored. The language and contents count.

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