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26 February 2020

New study reveals that African leaders are ready to take climate action

How bad is climate change really? How will it impact my city? How will it impact me? A recent study reveals those who believe that climate change will impact them and their cities significantly are those willing to take action. Climate change campaigns and activities should ensure that decision-makers perceive climate impacts as psychological close. Crucial new findings show that African leaders perceive climate risk to be of increasing concern to them and their cities and urgently need concrete, actionable solutions.

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Our cities are already experiencing the detrimental impacts of climate change, but some citizens and decision-makers seem more concerned and eager to act than others. Campaigns to drive action take many forms, from doomsday narratives to school strikes, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what drives action, especially among leaders of southern African cities, where the impacts of climate change are most acutely felt.

Studies have already proven that people’s willingness to act is directly impacted by how they perceive climate change, in order words, how they respond to the questions above. When people perceive the risk of climate change to be high, this usually translates into a greater concern and willingness to act. If they brush these questions off, their risk perception of climate change is low and they are unlikely to take concrete action.

The gap: Understanding African policy makers’ climate risk perception

While this is an excellent starting point in driving climate action, to date there has been limited scientific understanding of the individual climate risk perceptions specifically in southern Africa. More importantly, few studies shed light on how those that influence policy-making perceive climate change risk. These perceptions are extremely important, as policy makers are the ones able to lead and drive social change needed for climate. It is crucial, therefore, to understand their climate change risk perceptions when trying to encourage action.

A study, published in Climate Risk Management, entitled “Learning from climate change perceptions in southern African cities” addresses exactly this gap. The researchers conducted interviews with stakeholders involved in climate change projects in three southern African cities (Blantyre, Harare and Gaborone) and used a concept known as ‘psychological distance’ to determine climate change risk perception in the study locations.

The study was undertaken by the Future Climate for African CiTies and Lands (FRACTAL) initiative in partnership with ICLEI Africa, the Climate Systems Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town, the University of Botswana, Chinhoyi University of Technology in Zimbabwe, and The Polytechnic University of Malawi.

Climate change risk perception is higher if the issue feels ‘close’

Psychological distance is a measure of an individual’s perception of proximity to something as either close and concrete or far and abstract (Pahl et al. 2014).

The above-mentioned study looked at the level of concern that stakeholders have towards climate change and then attributed the level of climate action they may take to this. For example, if the concern is high, the psychological distance is closer and therefore the willingness to act is higher.

Psychological proximity influences the way in which a risk is construed (Trope and Liberman, 2011) and therefore the type of information used to make decisions. For example, in situations where the issues feel psychologically ‘close’, people tend to need concrete, solutions-driven information in order to make context-specific decisions.

African leaders have high risk perception and need concrete solutions

The study found that levels of concern among African leaders towards the impacts of climate change are becoming more psychologically close. This tells us more about the way we should be engaging and what kind of campaign is needed to drive climate action on the continent. When introducing climate information for decision-making, we need to present leaders with concrete, solutions-based information on a short to medium term time scale in order for them to make policy-relevant decisions. This will go a long way in helping bring climate risk psychologically closer and therefore help increase the willingness to act.

Perceptions are central to whether we act and how we act. Every day we are guided by how we perceive the world and what we deem important. This study, and others like it, are essential in better understanding perceptions – an important enabler of action – and its role in climate change decision making. ICLEI Africa and partners plan to take this work forward with our African cities.


Pahl, S., Sheppard, S., Boomsma, C., Groves, C., 2014. Perceptions of Time in Relation to Climate Change. WIREs Climate Change. 5 (3), 375–388.

Trope, Y., Liberman, N., 2011. Construal Level Theory, in: Van Lange, P., Kruglanski, A.W., Higgins, E.T. (Eds.), Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology. Sage Publications, London, pp. 118-134.

Contributing authors to the study:

Anna Steynor (lead author) (CSAG), Maximillian Leighton (CSAG), Jessica Kavonic (ICLEI Africa), Waarith Abrahams (CSAG), Lapologang Magole (University of Botswana), Suzgo Kaunda (University of Malawi) and Chipo Plaxedes Mubaya (Chinhoyi University)

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