Why is it that, in our experience, African countries are thirsty for knowledge on how the climate may be changing in their context? Why is it that we very seldom encounter an air of scepticism when working in African countries? Why is it that when we reach out to engage with African countries about climate change issues we are usually greeted with appreciation and support? This seems to contrast with a US government made up of climate change deniers and a UK government that appears to be taking steps backwards in their climate change rhetoric. The beginnings of this contrast was seen in the Gallup surveys in 2011 which looked at climate change perceptions in 111 countries around the world. They found that Americans and Europeans felt substantially less threatened by climate change than they had when they conducted the same survey 4 years earlier. In contrast, Latin Americans and sub-Saharan Africans saw themselves more at risk.
In grappling with these dichotomies, I believe a small part of the answer to these questions may lie at the intersection of climate services and behavioural psychology. In the literature, hypotheticality of climate change (the uncertainty of it happening) is widely noted as an obstacle to intentions to engage with climate change (Lorenzoni et al., 2007; Morton et al., 2011; Nesbit, 2009; Whitmarsh, 2011). However, within this assertion, there is little differentiation made between developing and developed countries, while most of the literature on hypotheticality as a barrier comes from the developed world. In complementary literature, concern and intentions to engage in climate change has been documented to align with the psychological proximity of climate change (Jones, Hine, & Marks, 2017).
The concept of psychological proximity arises from Construal Level Theory (Trope and Liberman, 2010) which separates events into psychologically distant and psychologically close events. Psychologically distant events are typically associated with high-level construal composed of abstract and general features (e.g. having fun playing ball). Conversely, psychologically close events are typically associated with low-level construal composed of specific and detailed features (e.g. the colour of the ball, the temperature outside etc) (Spence et al, 2011). Construal Level Theory outlines four dimensions of psychological distance, namely; temporal distance (time) i.e. how far in time an event is, spatial distance (geography and physical space) i.e. the physical distance of an event, social distance i.e. interpersonal distances such as those represented between two social groups and hypotheticality i.e. uncertainty as to whether an event will happen (Trope and Liberman, 2010). When there is a change in distance on one of the levels, the other levels also change i.e. become closer or more distant. Therefore, each of the four psychological dimensions have been shown to significantly correlate with each other (Fiedler 2012). It is important to note here that, since initial proposition of Construal Level Theory, further research has elucidated several nuances in the roles of each of these dimensions, particularly the geographical/spatial dimension. However, for the purposes of this piece, the theory is discussed in its simplest form.
Given what we know from Construal Level Theory, my hypothesis is that climate change in African countries, might be perceived as a ‘psychologically closer’ concept than in developed countries (such as North America and European countries). This may, in turn, reduce the relative contribution played by the hypotheticality of climate change resulting in increased concern and intentions to engage with climate information (Jones et al, 2017).
The reasons climate change may be perceived as psychologically closer in an African developing country context may be because both the social and geographical dimensions of climate change impacts are perceived as closer. The temporal element may also be perceived as closer, though probably to a lesser extent.
Unpacking the temporal dimension:
From a developed country perspective, there are mixed results as to whether climate change is perceived as a temporally close or distant phenomenon (Spence et al, 2012; Brügger, Dessai, Devine-Wright, Morton, & Pidgeon, 2015). This is likely because the tangible impacts from climate change are not yet readily visible in developed countries. However, developing countries in Africa are already highly vulnerable to extremes because they currently confront a large adaptation deficit and are, therefore, not able to cope with the current climate variability, let alone long term climatic changes (Jones et al., 2015). This is resulting in an increased perception amongst individuals in African countries that the effects of climate change are already being experienced, even if these events are not officially attributed to climate change (Steynor et al., 2017). Hence, climate change may be perceived as temporally closer in African countries.
Unpacking the social dimension:
It is well known that African countries are plagued by numerous governance, socio-economic and environmental challenges (Jones et al, 2015; Steynor et al., 2016). These underlying factors result in a highly stratified and inequitable society, and in turn, a highly vulnerable society that leaves each individual at risk from climatic extremes. As noted above, due to the inadequate adaptation to current climate variability, individuals in African countries already acutely experience impacts from the kinds of climatic extremes that can be expected from climate change. These impacts affect everyone in the society through factors such as interrupted service delivery, economic impacts and law enforcement issues, creating widespread effects that cross social groups. Therefore, it may be that climate change is perceived as less socially discriminate in African countries, which may play a significant role in the willingness to engage in preparing for climatic changes.
Unpacking the spatial dimension:
The IPCC recognises the differential impact of climate change on developing countries in comparison to developed countries (IPCC, 2014). In my experience, the perception that developing countries (including Africa) will be differentially impacted is widely acknowledged throughout African society, particularly at a government decision-maker level. This is further evidenced through individual country National Adaptation Plans and National Communications. It logically follows, then, that climate change may be perceived as geographically closer from an African country perspective.
Construal Level Theory states that when the distance of one the dimensions decreases/increases, the other dimensions respond in the same manner. Therefore, it follows that if temporal, spatial and social psychological distances are closer, then the hypotheticality surrounding climate change may be reduced, resulting in increased intentions to engage in climate change in an African context. However, recent literature has shown that simply bringing climate change psychologically closer is perhaps not sufficient for motivating action. There are numerous other psychological and institutional factors – such as value systems, personal identification with geographical place, threat behaviours and decision-making structures, that complicate the simple relationship (Brügger, Morton, & Dessai, 2016). If it is shown that climate change is psychologically closer in an African context, then these additional factors also need to be investigated before appropriate modes of communication can be selected.
This all leave fertile ground for further research which is currently underway at CSAG (Steynor, in preparation). Firstly, there is a need to assess the psychological proximity of climate change in an African context using the dimensions identified in Construal Level Theory and, secondly, there is a need to investigate the role of other psychological and institutional factors that may influence intentions to act. This basis may allow us to critically assess traditional communication modes of climate information for their appropriateness in an African country framework.
Brügger, A., Dessai, S., Devine-Wright, P., Morton, T.A. and Pidgeon, N.F., 2015. Psychological responses to the proximity of climate change. Nature climate change, 5(12), p.1031.
Brügger, A., Morton, T.A. and Dessai, S., 2016. “Proximising” climate change reconsidered: A construal level theory perspective. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 46, pp.125-142.
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