Minimal climate change skepticism in African media, study finds

By Saukira Chikagunda Banda

July 8, 2021

Climate change might be a polarizing topic in the western world, but not in Africa, where flooding, drought, freshwater shortages and crop losses offer regular evidence that the phenomenon is real.

A recent study to ascertain levels of climate skepticism in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) media, commissioned by Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, found few published opinions or stories in the region that challenged the authenticity of climate change science. The scoping study is the first of its kind in SSA.

Many of the published stories from online news sources tended to agree with the scientific consensus that human activity is behind climate change, with increased emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) causing the earth’s surface to warm. In fact, 70 percent of the articles evaluated in the study revealed that climate change is happening and showed concern about its devastating impacts in Africa, even though the continent is one of the world’s smallest contributors to carbon emissions.

The study looked at 60 stories published in various online newspapers and journals from across sub-Saharan Africa. The research discovered that only three out of the 60 stories contained a semblance of climate change skepticism. The three stories did not share a common position in challenging climate change science, other than floating the notion that there is no consensus on its cause.

One story simply acknowledged the presence of climate change critics and cynics. It did not elaborate on the critics’ position, but only indicated that the concept of climate change has critics.

Another story indicated that many people believe that climate change is caused by God, not carbon emissions. Therefore, negative impacts like floods, heatwaves and water scarcity are a result of God’s punishment for sins.

The third story, an opinion response to a South African nuclear physicist who challenges climate science, offered the only tangible evidence for the existence of climate skeptics in SSA. Apparently, the scientist’s position was highly attacked as his stance counters a well-known position advanced by a large group of climate scientists. It offered the study’s only real proof that climate change science is being challenged in SSA.

The diversity in the skeptics’ arguments actually raised more questions than answers in describing or defining skeptics in the region.

“The other story explained that God is the one behind global warming,” the study report stated. “It is a matter of faith and no science arguments to challenge global warming were presented. With African nations tied to their faith and belief in God this might be the kind of skepticism that needs further exploring. Therefore, the level of skepticism might be quite different to the one advancing a scientific position. The final story was a harsh response to a climate science critic. This response is proof of skepticism, but the depth is very shallow.”

Though evidence of skepticism was limited, the study found that impacts on agriculture, renewable energy, climate finance and improving public awareness of the issue are some of the dominant climate change themes covered by SSA online media.

Saukira Chikagunda Banda is a journalist in Malawi who conducted the study as a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow.