The nature of climate change communication in South Africa: its past, political and socio-economic undertones

The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted that the observed and projected impacts and risks generated by climate hazards, exposure and vulnerability have increased with impacts attributable to climate change. The increase in climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt. Climate change has altered terrestrial, freshwater and ocean ecosystems at a global scale, with multiple impacts observable at regional and local scales, where changes in the ecosystem structure, species, geographic ranges, and timing of seasonal life cycles is apparent. Climate change is having diverse and adverse impacts on human systems throughout the world, affecting water security, food production, health, livelihoods, settlements, and infrastructure. According to the IPCC, it is “unequivocal” that human influence is warming the atmosphere, land, and oceans. The world climate body adds that humans are exacerbating climate change through the burning of fossil fuels and other activities. Faced with the global warming challenge, humanity has no choice but to engage in measures to mitigate and adapt to the resulting climate change. Climate change communication has been identified as one of the measures that will need to be applied in addressing climate change. This is so because for action against climate change to succeed, society will need to be mobilised to change behaviour and implement other measures. Climate change communication is the awareness, education, and mobilisation tool thereof. This PhD thesis investigates climate change communication in South Africa over the past century (since 1902) through an analysis of climate change-related news articles in three newspapers – the Rand Daily Mail, Mail & Guardian, and Business Day. The idea is to establish how key stakeholders – the government, the business sector, the scientific community, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the media – have communicated on climate change, and whether their communication on the subject has been underpinned by political and socio-economic considerations. Results show that while the scientific community has been communicating on ‘climate change’ from about 1935, when the first article on the subject was published by the Rand Daily Mail, other stakeholders such as the government, the business sector, and NGOs, only started communicating on climate change in the 1990s. Government and business sector communication has been underpinned by financial and economic undertones. Climate change communication scholarship in South Africa has been limited v compared to that elsewhere globally, especially in western countries. This thesis argues that South Africa will need to massively improve its climate change communication, as such communication plays a fundamental role to ensure a seamless transition from coal and other fossil fuels to a low carbon economy.
A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the Faculty of Science, School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2023
Climate change, South Africa