South Africa has been playing a leading role in international climate negotiations and will be hosting the 17th Congress of the Parties in 2011, but are South African citizens aware of the impact that climate change will have on their country? A recent survey provided some illuminating results.
Africa Talks Climate (ATC) is a major research and communications partnership project undertaken by the BBC World Service Trust and funded by the British Council. Launched ahead of the crucial COP15 climate change summit in Copenhagen in December 2009, the project seeks to provide valuable insight into the public's understanding of climate change in Africa.
ATC recently released the outcomes of its research in South Africa, where researchers conducted a number of focus group discussions with South African citizens, as well as in depth interviews with opinion leaders from government, the private sector, the media and civil society.
The results show that South African citizens are generally keenly aware of the harmful impact of human activity on the environment, yet often do not make the link between discussions of climate change and local environmental conditions. Researchers found that the term ‘climate change’ is often associated with the global impacts of climate change such as melting ice caps, rising sea levels and hurricanes. However, many South Africans do not see climate change as having any special relevance to South Africa or the rest of the African continent. South Africans are less aware of the potentially far-reaching social and economic consequences of climate change on South Africa, in terms of migration, food export revenue, and tourism. There is also a common perception that climate change is a ‘green’ issue that only the wealthy can afford to worry about.
The survey also showed that South Africans generally do not feel empowered to address climate change.
The issue is seen as too overwhelming, something that is best left to governments and intergovernmental agencies such as the United Nations to deal with.
The report calls for significant educational efforts in South Africa and the rest of the continent to raise awareness of climate change and, importantly, also provide citizens with information on how they can contribute to combating climate change. The report argues that it is only when governments, NGOs and the media are comfortable talking about climate change that they can communicate it effectively to citizens. It is only when citizens are clear about climate change and its implications for their lives that they can respond effectively to it. Equipped with the knowledge that weather patterns are changing and that extreme weather events are more likely to occur, people will be able to debate the issues with their families, communities and governments, and discuss the risks and possible courses of action. This will enable them to prepare more effectively for the future. Ultimately, Africa’s response to climate change will be dictated by how well it is understood by its people.