University of Cape Town: Education, gender and poverty affect climate change literacy in Africa

Climate change literacy is essential to help Africans understand and effectively respond to climate change and adapt to its catastrophic effects. This is according to Dr Nicholas Simpson, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI).

Dr Simpson’s latest research paper titled “Climate change literacy in Africa”, highlights the effects that education, gender and poverty have on climate change literacy on the continent. His research was published in a leading peer-review scientific journal Nature Climate Change on Thursday, 7 October 2021.

“We cannot simply react to climate change; the risks are much too severe. Although the majority of Africans are aware of climate change and agree that it should be stopped, too few people understand the severity of its current and future impacts on Africa’s economies, food and water security, health, infrastructure, cities, heritage, and ecosystems,” Simpson said.



“Understanding the human influence on climate change … will help us move beyond just reacting to climate change to better plan for its immediate risks.”

“Understanding the human influence on climate change, afforded by climate change literacy, will help us move beyond just reacting to climate change to better plan for its immediate risks.”

Africans’ perspective on climate change

The majority of Africans (71%) are cognisant of climate change and its effects, yet only 51% are confident that their efforts to combat it can (and will) make a marked difference. For Simpson, it’s important that Africans fully understand the immediate and long-term effects of climate change and realise that it can (and will) affect every aspect of their lives.

“Anticipating climate change in the decision-making process concerning your livelihoods, careers, and investments will help Africans safeguard their futures,” he said.

And climate change literacy can address this – education and awareness will provide Africans with the information they need to make informed decisions on how best to adapt.

“Without climate change literacy and understanding the human causes of climate change and its potential impact on the world, hundreds of millions of people across Africa will not be able to sufficiently adapt to climate change,” he said.

The process

Establishing climate change literacy rates and identifying the primary social and environmental predictors of climate change literacy across the continent was a fundamental step in Simpson’s research process. Understanding climate change literacy levels among Africans was particularly important because the results underpinned a thorough and informed response to the crisis.



“We could then establish the most holistic picture of the knowledge dimensions of climate change literacy and its determinants across Africa.”

Because there has never been a multi-country study on climate change literacy in Africa, Simpson and the UCT research team, in partnership with academics at the University of Connecticut in the United States, put shoulder to the wheel and conducted their own analysis of the continent. They combined public opinion and environmental data and used the Afrobarometer – the largest public opinion survey in Africa – as their primary source of data. The survey measured climate change literacy on the continent, the perceptions of climate change, as well as socio-demographic factors such as age, gender, education and wealth.

“Working closely with our excellent colleagues at the Climate Systems Analysis Group here at UCT, we integrated this data with measurements of local climate trends and climate-related disasters like floods. As a result, we were able to identify the effects of both social and environmental factors on climate change literacy,” Simpson said.

“We could then establish the most holistic picture of the knowledge dimensions of climate change literacy and its determinants across Africa.”

Key findings

The research revealed that the average national climate change literacy rate in Africa currently sits at only 37%. Simpson and his team surveyed 33 African countries, and the results for each country differ vastly. For example, in Mauritius and Uganda climate change literacy hovers at roughly 66% and 62% respectively. However, in Mozambique and Tunisia results indicate that climate change literacy rates are at 25% and 23% respectively.

On the other hand, when comparing subnational administrative units per country, of the 394 sub-national regions surveyed, 8% recorded climate change literacy levels below 20%, and 2% recorded levels higher than 80%. Comparing sub-national regions within countries also revealed striking differences. In Nigeria, climate change literacy levels range from 71% in Kwara to 5% in Kano. And in Botswana, climate change literacy levels range from 69% in Lobatse to 66% in Kweneng.

The research also revealed that wealthier Africans who have access to cellphones and computers, and those who live in urban areas, are more climate change literate. Men are also significantly more climate change literate than women, and approximately 11 out of the 15 countries that recorded the largest gender gaps are located in west Africa.

“Across Europe and North America, climate change literacy rates are generally more than 80%. Our findings highlight a severe deficit for Africa,” Simpson said.

Education is critical

The strongest predictor of climate change literacy is education, which is particularly important after secondary school.

“Education is highly effective when it comes to increasing both men’s and women’s climate change literacy. It holds the potential to be a critical tool in reducing the climate change literacy gap between Africa, Europe and North America, as well as the gap between men and women on the continent,” Simpson said.



“Advances in climate change literacy hold the potential to complete local perceptions of climate change that are currently driving risk perception across the continent.”

He hopes his research results will help policy-makers and civil society develop targeted interventions to increase climate change literacy on the continent, especially as Africa prepares to undergo substantial shifts in education, urbanisation, gender equality and income rates. Climate change literacy is likely to evolve with these processes as well.

Further, adding climate change literacy to core national and sub-national developmental agendas in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South should also be a key focus.

“Advances in climate change literacy hold the potential to complete local perceptions of climate change that are currently driving risk perception across the continent. Together with improved climate services, particularly for under-serviced regions and groups, this will have a positive impact on more informed adaption on the continent,” he said.

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