Research in Central Africa finds troubling gaps in knowledge of climate change

Research finds the private sector, media, civil society, administration and international organizations do not understand basic issues.
How much do you know about climate change terminology?

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NAIROBI, Kenya—Policymakers working on forests and climate change in Central Africa often lack knowledge of fundamental concepts of those issues, according to a sobering new study.

The research points to a greater need for capacity-building in the countries that are home to the world’s second-largest area of tropical forest.

It is all but undisputed fact—few exceptions aside—that tropical forests can be a powerful force in the fight against climate change, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere even as they age, while emitting carbon when they are cleared.

But not enough of this information has reached people where findings meet forests, according to the study, “What are we talking about? The state of perceptions and knowledge on REDD+ and adaptation to climate change in Central Africa.” This knowledge gap could hamper efforts to help local people manage their natural resources and slow the uptake of programs such as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation).

Although workshops on REDD+ and climate change adaptation are held with increasing frequency in Central Africa, the study noted, “stakeholders in the region are still struggling to understand the key concepts of climate change.”

What accounts for this gap?

“It’s a challenge with many causes,” said Anne Marie Tiani, a Cameroon-based Senior Scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the lead author of the study.

“Partly it’s new terminology; partly it’s the speedy growing concerns and diversity of stakeholders—it’s not just scientists who are focused on forests and climate change,” she said. “There is a wide variety of stakeholders with varying levels of knowledge, and they have all to be involved if we’re to have an impact.”

The research highlights an urgent need for more and better communication of rapidly evolving concepts, and for more capacity-building for those in Central Africa who are being called upon to defend the interests and positions of the region when dealing with climate change.


In recent years, countries in the Congo Basin have intensified efforts to implement policies to help them adapt to and mitigate climate change, including reshaping policies that govern the forestry and environmental sectors, and strengthening the role of the Central Africa Forests Commission (COMIFAC), an umbrella organization charged with sustainable management of forest resources in the 10 member states. COMIFAC countries have formally recognized REDD+ as a mechanism for reducing forest-based carbon emissions, for promoting conservation and sustainable management of forests, and for increasing carbon stocks in developing countries via financial incentives.

Because of the effects of climate change on important economic sectors—water, energy, health, forestry, transportation and food among them—climate issues have come to involve a wide range of stakeholders and interest groups. Non-governmental organizations and other civil society groups, international organizations, research communities, the private sector and the media all now have a place at the table when it comes to discussions on how to react to and prevent climate change.

With so many diverse actors getting involved, it has also become necessary to bring them together more often to elaborate policies and measures. However, as these meetings have become more specialized, so have the concepts and terminology of climate change.  CIFOR researchers began to observe several troubling patterns.

Participants repeated questions that had already been answered. There was confusion over, or misuse of, terms that are key to climate change discussions.

“Many participants did not make the distinction between ‘climate variability’ and ‘climate change’; for many of them, the two concepts of ‘adaptation’ and ‘mitigation’ were interchangeable or confused,” Tiani said.

“Others would make incorrect or erroneous assumptions, such as, ‘Obviously, forest zones do not know the climate change problem,’ and so on.”

This apparent knowledge gap led CIFOR researchers to undertake a study to evaluate perceptions of these concepts among 138 participants at three separate workshops on REDD+ and adaptation, held in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Yaoundé and Mbalmayo in Cameroon. Respondents represented six different groups of stakeholders—the private sector, media, research community, civil society, administration and international organizations.

Participants were asked to answer six straightforward questions:

  1. Adaptation aims to…
  2. Mitigation aims to…
  3. REDD+ aims at…
  4. The first D in REDD stands for…
  5. The second D in REDD stands for…
  6. The “+” in REDD+ stands for…

The research team then analyzed results, categorizing responses as correct, vague or false.  Comprehension of the terms “mitigation” and “adaptation” was poor among participants from the private sector, media, civil society, administration and international organizations, and still not 100 percent among researchers, of whom less than 20 percent correctly understood what adaptation aims to do. The knowledge of the aims of REDD+ was also poor, with the highest percentage of correct answers between just 30 percent and 40 percent among participants from the private sector, civil society, administration and international organizations—and less than 20 percent for researchers.

Even fewer respondents were able to correctly explain the “+” in REDD+—conservation, management and enhancement of forest carbon stocks—with no correct answers at all from private sector and media participants, and less than 25 percent accuracy among researchers, who were most likely to know the correct answer.

The study concludes that there is a need for environmental science in educational curricula in the region, for training of journalists and communicators on climate change themes, and for more channels for raising public awareness on environmental issues.

But it also reveals an important need to provide decision-makers in the Congo Basin with regular updates on climate change concepts, thinking and terminology, essential if they are to have the knowledge to develop and implement the policies that will best serve the interests of the people and forests of Central Africa.

Tiani says this could take the form of a refresher on basic concepts at the beginning of all workshops; the tailoring of environmental information to specific groups; and training of journalists and communicators on climate change, which have had much success in the past.

“A comprehensive, systematic program of capacity-building is necessary,” she said.

How much do YOU know about climate change terminology?

  • Climate variability: The manner and magnitude in which climate fluctuates yearly above or below a long-term average.
  • Climate change:  Long-term continuous change to average weather conditions.
  • Adaptation: adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities; reducing the impact of consequences of climate change.
  • Mitigation: a human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.
  • REDD+: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation; promotes conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries (some definitions also link financial incentives to forest protection and reduction of deforestation and degradation).

For more information on the topics of this article, please contact Anne Marie Tiani at

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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