Commentary Type

Why the Research into Climate Change in Africa Is Biased, and Why It Matters


Scholars have long been researching the potential effects of climate change in Africa. That’s urgent. As the climate changes, billions of lives will change with it. We urgently need to understand and prepare for those changes, including droughts, floods, land loss, and weather changes that may lead to extinctions, widespread hunger, mass displacements, epidemics, conflict and other catastrophic results.

But there’s a catch. Instead of examining how climate change will affect the broadest territories with the most exposure to climate change, researchers are going to the countries that are most convenient for them to visit and study. When I examined the existing research, I discovered that we know a lot more about how climate change will affect countries that a) are former British colonies, b) have stronger protections for civil liberties, and c) have more stable political institutions than countries without these characteristics.

That’s understandable—but problematic. Let’s look more closely.

My research finds that scholars studying the effects of climate change have devoted roughly the same amount of attention to Kenya and South Africa—two countries with a combined population of 99 million—as to 29 other African countries, whose combined population numbers 280 million.

I began with the assumption that if scholars were selecting research targets based on where the need was greatest, more scholarly attention would be paid to countries with more people, greater land mass, more physical exposure to climate change, and less ability to adapt because of low average incomes or weak state capacity. But if scholars were going to countries because they were convenient places in which to do research or more attractive for scholarly publication, then we’d see more research on countries that are former British colonies, stronger in civil liberties and/or more politically stable.

Why do we care? Climate change is likely to affect Africa profoundly—but some regions and countries may be hit harder than others. Further, because African countries are comparatively less developed, with educational systems that are underfunded, a sizable chunk of climate change research on Africa is conducted and funded by non-Africans. Biases held by these researchers and funding agencies—and their manifest effects for research output—are potentially important.

To investigate this question, I analyzed Google Scholar search results, both in general searches and within leading climate change-related journals: Climatic Change, Global Environmental Change, and Nature Climate Change.

So which African countries get the most attention?

Countries with larger populations and land masses do receive more scholarly attention. This suggests that need is guiding decisions somewhat. But there’s no increased attention to countries with more exposure to climate change or less ability to adapt because of lower incomes or weaker state capacity.

On the other hand, there’s much more scholarly attention to countries with British colonial histories, strong civil liberties, and (albeit less so) political stability.

Scholars appear to be focusing on particular questions, cases, and variables because it’s more convenient and data is more easily available, rather than because of broader relevance or policy importance.

This suggests that climate change research in Africa is bedeviled by the “streetlight effect.” You know the story: A drunk loses his keys in the park but looks for them under a streetlight because that’s where it’s easier to see. Scholars appear to be focusing on particular questions, cases, and variables because it’s more convenient and data is more easily available, rather than because of broader relevance or policy importance.

That’s completely understandable. If I’m in New York, I can be in Johannesburg in 15 hours without a layover. Getting to Bujumbura, Burundi, might take three days and up to four connections. And when I get to Johannesburg, I (as an Anglophone, American researcher) am going to easily find English speakers—the lingua franca (ironically) of scientific communication—as well as a comparatively stable security situation, and an open environment for the exchange of ideas, where survey respondents probably don’t fear repercussions for saying the wrong thing to a foreign researcher. But in Bujumbura, I would be in a Francophone country where the security situation is complicated and tolerance of dissent is limited. If I’m an English-speaking plant scientist thinking about working in Africa, it’s easy to see which country I am more likely to pick for my field work.

That Might Bias Policymaking in Problematic Ways

But while the individual research decisions are easy to understand, the larger-scale consequences are a problem.

Most obviously, policymakers should be aware when they might be basing decisions on partial data. For example, many policymakers have praised community-based approaches to assessing and developing adaptive capacity. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that relying on such efforts is crucial, especially in countries where the government is weak.

But 75 percent of the evidence for this claim is based on research in former British colonies. If these countries are systematically different from other African countries, we don’t know whether community-based approaches will work elsewhere.

There are ethical implications as well. Most important, there is no reason the rest of the world should care more about people or ecosystems that happen to exist in a territory once colonized by the British, or in a territory where civil liberties are strong.

How to Tackle this Problem

In September, the IPCC will meet to finalize the outline for its sixth assessment report—to be delivered in April 2022—which will again summarize the state of knowledge on the effects of climate change. Before that gets underway, climate change research funders and researchers should encourage and pursue grant proposals and projects that would research non-Anglophone African nations and—where practical—nations that are less politically open. That way, any recommendations will be based on more broadly applicable research.

Second, funders may wish to support researchers by funding high-quality English translation of scholarly manuscripts and supporting materials about non-English-speaking countries. That way, English speakers would have the supporting materials and data they need to broaden the scope of their research.

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