Climate Change in Africa: is Africa sleepwalking to disaster?

Africa has become the face of the global climate crisis, but it’s Greta Thunberg who has emerged as the leading voice of activism on the continent - even among leading African climate advocates. To better understand the conversations, stories, and resulting narratives around climate change in Africa, we conducted a quantitative study comparing online media from mainstream African news sources, conversations on Twitter, and searches on Google, between October 2020 and September 2021.

There’s no doubt that Africa is the center stage of the global climate crisis, the continent that’s not only the hardest hit by climate change but also sleepwalking into a potential catastrophe, as the BBC asked in November 2019.

Let’s go back a few months, to January of the same year in Kampala where a 22-year-old started staging a solitary protest against climate change outside the parliamentary building. Vanessa Nakate is now one of the most vocal climate activists in Africa, and one of the climate movement’s formidable personalities. She’s no longer a lone figure and has inspired countless young people across the continent with her Rise up Movement.

The distance between that BBC story and the reality on the ground was glaring even if it wasn’t shocking.

In international climate discussions, Africa tends to be framed at one of two ends of the narrative spectrum, as a victim or through the decisions of global power players. Even in this narrative of Africa as an active change agent, it’s still painted as a poor continent that depends on rich countries for solutions.

It’s time to change Africa’s climate narrative to make it more reflective of a continent that’s leading the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 13 for Climate Action, and a people who are actively engaged in combating climate change. To do this, we need data. So we conducted a quantitative study to better understand the conversations, stories, and resulting narratives around climate change in Africa.

Insights were gathered using a literature review of academic writing on climate change in Africa, online media to mainstream African news sources, conversations on Twitter, and Google searches between October 2020 and September 2021.

The resulting report, Climate Change in Africa: Are Africans sleepwalking to disaster? provides and verifies insights we have probably all suspected. It shows that while there are robust conversations about climate change in Africa, they are not led by Africans. If anything, Greta Thunberg has become the voice of climate activism on the continent.

The report also found that:

  • Top organizations tweeting about climate change in Africa are likely to be NGOs: Both African and international NGOs are tweeting about climate change and Africa, with Climate Story Lab Africa (@CSL_Africa), Future Climate for Africa (FCFA) (@future_climate), and Greenpeace Africa (@Greenpeaceafric) posting a combined 311 tweets.
  • Africans do not drive Twitter narratives about Africa and climate change: Top individual tweeters on climate change in Africa are unlikely to be African. Additionally, only three African online media outlets featured in the top 10 platforms that published climate stories. Most stories were being shared by the US-owned news aggregator site,
  • Local climate change events are more dominant than international events in climate change news in Africa: Although previous studies have shown that media coverage of climate change increases around big global climate change events, this study found that increased media coverage of climate change in Africa was associated more with local events, which shows that African climate change events are garnering media attention.
  • Narratives about climate change vary from one country to another: Articles about climate change in Madagascar were highly stereotypical and perpetuated disaster narratives, while Ghana had more favorable coverage. The news was evenly split
    between disaster news and mitigation efforts in Kenya. Coverage of climate change in Nigeria was varied and included activism, government activities, international meetings, and high impact “disaster news”.
  • Five countries dominated tweets about African climate change: Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, and Madagascar featured prominently in Twitter conversations and mainstream African news sources. This connection points to the ongoing role of mainstream media in defining the African narrative.
  • Geopolitical and racial tensions dominate tweets by individuals on climate change in Africa: Many of the tweets about climate change by individuals showed contestation between Africa and the West about who is responsible and who should take action – often with racial components to the tweets. This suggests that a “blame game” is more prevalent than action, and racism is strongly prevalent in the kinds of narratives perpetuated about Africa.
  • Disaster tweets dominate: Many of the tweets on climate change in Africa emphasized conflict and disaster – especially famine in Madagascar and fires in Tunisia and Algeria.