Identifying Africa's untold climate change stories

Wanjira Mathai, Kenyan environmentalist and activist
13th March 2024
13:00 - 14:00

The speaker

Wanjira Mathai is Managing Director for Africa and Global Partnerships at the World Resources Institute and has over 20 years of experience advocating for social and environmental change in Africa. She was named one of the 100 Most Influential African Women in 2018, 2020 and 2021, having served important strategic and advocacy roles at Women Entrepreneurs in Renewables (wPOWER), the Wangari Maathai Foundation (WMF), and the Green Belt Movement (GBM) the organization her mother, Wangari Maathai (2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate) founded in 1977.

The video 


Five takeaways from the talk and the discussion 

1. The focus of the climate story should account for geographical differences. Throughout the seminar, Mathai pointed out how the G20 and African countries, for example, have different climate goals and responsibilities. Whereas the G20 is responsible for 80% of global emissions, the African continent is only responsible for 4%. This disparity should guide journalists on the kind of stories they should focus on while reporting in each region. 

For politicians, especially those in the G20 that have signed the Paris Agreement, she said the focus should be on accountability. “People have made commitments in their national determined contributions to cut emissions,” she affirmed. “Journalism has a key role there in ensuring that we hold accountable those who have committed to cut emissions.”

On the other hand, stories about the Global South should perhaps take a different focus considering that most communities that are impacted and will continue to be impacted by the climate crisis are located there. “You also have to tell the missing story, which is the story of adaptation, the story of how communities are cushioning themselves against impacts that are coming and coming fast and furious,” she said. 

2. To tell compelling climate stories, journalists must go local. Many climate stories get into a rut where the focus is on the science or the reports, but Mathai says that to tell the full story of the climate crisis, you need to focus on the people, particularly the people being impacted. 

“It's important that we have journalists embedded in the work because climate action is local so we have to make sure that those stories are told locally, through the lens of people and that always humanises the story and humanises the issues,” she said. 

3. The line between corporate cooperation and greenwashing is thin. As more people become concerned about the climate crisis, more corporations attempt to play their part in the solutions either by increasing their own sustainability efforts or financing NGOs and other community-based projects. Mathai said that, while it is important that corporations get involved in the solutions, scrutiny needs to take place to avoid greenwashing. 

“Many organisations will not take resources from fossil fuel companies or oil companies because they know that there are reputational risks associated with how the corporations will use them so it's really important to make sure that your partnership is not impairing your ability to deliver on your mission,” she said. 

In terms of greenwashing, she also pointed out that many companies will try to appear as environmentally-friendly as possible without actually doing the work themselves or actually investing in companies that do. That’s why Mathai encourages deeper scrutiny and asking probing questions. “No company can offset [their emissions] in full integrity if they haven't cleaned up their houses internally,” she said. 

4. To attract young audiences to climate news, journalists need to cater to them. Young people like Greta Thunberg, Leah Namugerwa, Autumn Peltier, and many more are quickly becoming important voices in raising awareness for the climate crisis. However, even though young people care about the environment, they don’t care so much about traditional climate news

Mathai points out that young people consume news outside traditional means as there is so much democratisation in that space today. So, to engage young people, mainstream media also has to engage with them beyond their traditional means. 

“Everybody can tell the news and [young people] have a really powerful way of telling news and getting news. We need to diversify our ability to read them and our ability to challenge ourselves basically in how we respond to the needs that they have,” she explained. “Young people are driven by action: if you talk and you keep talking, they’ll say ‘okay, then what are we going to do? Let's do something’ so I think that's inspiring for them.”

5. We are part of the problem, but we are also part of the solution. While Mathai does not agree with this shifting of the burden of the climate crisis to the individual, she does acknowledge that each individual choice can make a difference collectively. There should be a dual framework where as a society we acknowledge our role in the climate crisis, but also in solving it. 

“Kenyan leadership in the climate space today is shifting the narrative of not only are we victims of the climate crisis, but we are also hubs of climate solutions,” she said.  “It's important for the psyche of every single African to see themselves not necessarily as a victim but as a part of the solution.”

The bottom line

This seminar on covering climate in Africa underscored the need for tailored stories based on geographical variations, emphasising accountability for high-emission G20 nations. It stressed the importance of a local perspective, urging journalists to embed themselves in impacted communities. The discussion also highlighted the thin line between corporate cooperation and greenwashing, emphasising scrutiny. Finally, we need to recognise the dual role of individuals in acknowledging society's part in the climate crisis and contributing to solutions.


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