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Communicating climate change in Africa: challenge and opportunity

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30


Jonathon Porritt - Founder director, Forum for the Future

Anna Godfrey - BBC World Service Trust

Sam Otieno - BBC World Service Trust
Sally-Ann Wilson - Commonwealth Broadcasting Association


Neil Bird - Acting Programme Leader, Climate Change, Environments and Forests, ODI

Neil Bird (Chair) introduced the central presentation of the session, Africa Talks Climate (ATC), a major research and communications initiative looking at the public understanding of climate change in ten countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Undertaken by the BBC World Service Trust (BBC WST) and supported by the British Council, ATC is the most extensive research ever undertaken looking specifically not only at what Africans know about climate change, but how and why they frame their understanding.
The consequences of climate change are an everyday reality of millions of people’s lives, but very little is known about how those communities understand and adapt to such changes. What lessons can be learned from those experiences, and what opportunity for developing countries in Africa and across the world to take a lead in responding to climate change?

Anna Godfrey, Acting Director, Research & Learning Group at the BBC WST explained that the BBC WST uses media and communications to achieve development goals; to help reduce poverty and promote human rights, and to give people information with which to shape their own lives.

ATC’s recommendations have emphasised:

  • Effective, long-term strategies for delivering climate change information to those most in need
  • The demand for locally relevant practical information that helps individuals and communities to adapt and respond to climate change
  • The need to open up spaces for communities and leaders to engage in debate and dialogue on the issues.
  • Structural support to the media to be able to deliver on these demands.

Anna and Sam Otieno represent a team of over 25 BBC WST researchers and a dedicated team of freelancers involved in making this possible over the past 18 months.

Sam Otieno, Research Officer, R&L Kenya, at the BBC WST joined the meeting via mobile phone from Nairobi, Kenya and summarised keys findings.

A qualitative research design was adopted to explore public understanding of climate change across various countries and sectors of African society. Over 1000 citizens from DR Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda were consulted, and interviews carried out with nearly 200 policy-makers, religious leaders, business people, journalists and civil society representatives.

The research:

  • Gathered the views of farmers and fishermen, pastoralists and business people, women and men, rich and poor, rural and urban.
  • Discussions were carried out in a total of 25 languages.


  • There is no easy translation for climate change in many African languages. Often people hear the words in English or a local language and literally translate them to understand their meaning.


  • Immediate action – many Africans, particularly those in rural areas, are struggling in the face of increasingly unpredictable weather. They need greater information and resources.
  • Language – climate change terminology is not easy to translate or understand.  It provides little insight into the reality of the changes that most Africans are experiencing. Effort needs to be invested in developing appropriate climate change terminology in local African languages so that climate change can be discussed in a locally relevant way.
  • Leadership – opinion leaders are struggling to provide leadership on climate change. They need to know more about climate change in order to communicate confidently on the issue and incorporate mitigation and adaptation strategies into their decision making.  Local community leaders are well placed to communicate climate change and help their communities to respond, but they are among the least informed about it. Religious and faith leaders could play an important role in informing and catalysing responses to climate change.
  • Media – many in the sector assert they lack knowledge of climate change and consider it too scientific and not an audience priority. The capacity of the news and non-news media needs to be built in order to communicate climate change in locally relevant ways.
  • Information – African citizens need spaces to exchange ideas and information, foster understanding and plan for action. Clear messages need to be identified at the national and local levels to cut through the climate change ‘noise’ and facilitate public engagement. 

Jonathan Porritt explained that he had been involved with ATC for some time, and proceeded to outline some similarities and differences between the western and African approaches to climate change:


  • There is a worrying sense of individual disempowerment.
  • There are difficulties in the language used.
  • There is confusion over the science behind climate change (note the ozone layer debate).


  • People in the UK do not widely hold themselves responsible, unlike those in Africa.
  • It has been seen that in Africa the role played by religious leaders could be crucial.

Sally-Ann Wilson noted that we only have to look at the climate summit in Bali to see the significance of the ‘small’ nations, and that providing a public forum is crucial, with the issue presenting an opportunity for positive coverage of Africa. She saw for herself in Johannesburg how the research was used by broadcasters to ask their audience what they wanted.


"We have failed to communicate climate change to our people and we must, and will, do better in the future. Africa Talks Climate has opened my eyes." Right Honourable Raila Odinga, Prime Minister of Kenya, 17 March 2010.

Climate change disproportionately affects the poorest people in the world, who not only have the least capacity to respond and adapt to such rapid environmental change, but are historically the least responsible for its causes. In 2010, climate change is one of the most important issues on the global political and economic agenda, yet it has taken at least 20 years to become an international priority. In many ways, this is because climate change has traditionally been communicated as a scientific problem. Complex, confusing and at times contested scientific information has resulted in a slow public and political response to the climate crisis.

Yet any response to climate change will be dictated by how well it is understood by its people; the challenge to communicate vital information to affected populations in locally relevant and easily accessible ways.

Focussing on the experience in Africa and the UK, a panel of experts lead a discussion on the role of media and communication in supporting the response to climate change in developing countries; communication priorities for climate change in Africa and the developing world; lessons on effective communication with publics from the industrialised world and the potential for Africa to take a leading role in educating and driving the global response to the climate challenge.

This was a joint event in support of Africa Talks Climate, a research communication project run by BBC World Service Trust (BBC WST) and supported by the British Council, looking at the public understanding of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa. Drawing on focus-group discussions with over 1000 citizens and interviews with over 200 opinion leaders and policy-makers, the research aims to assess public understanding of climate change and identify how communication and media could best support Africans' response to a changing climate.