How we made the interactive about climate debt justice
October 27, 2023
Carefully crafted, "Unsettled Debt: Africa, the climate crisis, and you" combines data-driven storytelling, design, and diverse perspectives to illuminate Africa's climate debt crisis.

From Graça Machel, to Cyril Ramaphosa via Akinwumi Adesina and William Ruto, dozens of African leaders have taken the same message to global events over the last two years. When it comes to solutions to the climate crisis, whether it’s renewable energy or mitigating the effects of unpredictable weather, we are not beggars, looking for handouts. The Global North owes the Global South an ethical and financial debt that it is time to pay. African countries have spent their money addressing environmental problems caused by consumption of fossil fuels elsewhere on the planet, and seen their own development held back through the extraction of value from African resources leaving little for spending at home on improving standards of living in a way that is kind to the planet.

The exact phrasing varies, but the message has been consistent. Whether addressing the G20, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP), the African Climate Summit or the World Bank, the message is growing louder and louder as we move through important events like World Climate Action Day and onto COP28 at the end of this year. 

It’s not a complex message, but it is one that is easily dismissed by citizens of the Global North, pre-occupied as they understandably are, with the cost of dealing with local wildfires, flooding and extraordinary heat. Why focus on African issues when there are so many at home?

To mark this year’s World Climate Action Day, OpenUp and Africa Data Hub published a special feature to help a global audience understand this question better. It’s called Unsettled Debt: Africa, the climate crisis and you, and you can read it here. This is how and why we made it.

Building the case with data

The data is incontrovertible. Energy use and emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are extraordinarily low in African countries, and the continent that is home to 18% of the world’s population has produced less than 4% of historical GHG. But global warming is just that: global. When our team at OpenUp started wrangling data for the African Climate Observer - the only online tool for finding and extracting historical climate data for anywhere on the continent - we noticed a challenge when visualising temperature change. For every location we could find, it has been meaningfully hotter in the last 30 years than it was the 30 years between 1950-1980. The visualisation loses its impact - how do you illustrate a changing climate when the climate has already changed? We are the frog in the water, not noticing that it’s already boiling - to paraphrase United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres.

We have learned to communicate the crisis issues clearly and in a way that empowers readers rather than overwhelms them. So far, 2023 has been the year of extreme weather events: wildfires in Canada and California, a European heatwave that broke all records, flooding in New York. Just last week, unseasonal rainfall killed thousands in Libya. Closer to our home, Cyclone Freddy destroyed homes across Southern Africa. And this is only a handful of many other events this year. While it is impossible to link an individual event to climate change caused by human activity, experts agree that this year is remarkable as the effect of increased temperatures are amplified by the effects of a periodic El Niño cycle.

Slowly but surely, media coverage of these events is causing people to think more deeply about systemic issues that must be changed in order to slow down the rate of climate change. A report from the Reuters Oxford Institute for Journalism suggests a significant proportion of readers are engaged with climate crisis stories, but also large sections that either aren’t engaged or find them confusing or irrelevant, as the effects seem distant in time and space to their daily lives. For many readers, more pressing concerns take precedence over climate concerns. When access to food, education and healthcare is precarious, worrying about carbon emissions is a low priority.

On the last point, we were also keenly aware of the growing disparity in standards of living between Africa and the rest of the world, especially since the pandemic. When OpenUp teaches data-driven storytelling, we almost always demonstrate the power of visualisation with Hans Rosling’s famous “200 countries in 200 years” video, which shows the remarkable trajectory of human development towards societies that are healthier and wealthier - and how African countries in particular have been held back by systemic issues largely not of their making. It never fails to strike a chord with local journalists, and contextualises the challenge for climate journalists. 

OpenUp’s work tracking economic data and the Human Development Index for Africa Data Hub made it clear that Rosling’s observations are as true today as they were 12 years ago. Recovery from the pandemic has been slow, African nations have been hardest hit by food price (and other) inflation caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The conundrum we saw, then, was in reconciling these two basic facts. 

  • The climate crisis has been predicted and understood for decades, but has not been addressed. Now there is no option but to drastically reduce emissions and reach “net zero” by 2050.
  • African countries are not making fast enough progress to lift populations out of poverty, and meet targets in line with the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. 

What improving standards of living means

Historically, improving standards of living and lifting people out of poverty has required the increased use of fossil fuel-derived energy to power homes, hospitals and industrial activity that deliver Rosling’s “health and wealth” to populations. Many countries have seen rapid and welcome reductions in poverty levels over the last thirty years, in particular India and China. These achievements must be celebrated, but it must also be recognised that by reducing the impact of one existential crisis, that of poverty, the impact of another, a warming climate, has been increased. Reductions in GHG by the Global North have been more than offset by increases in middle income countries.

There are, then, two imperatives that must be addressed: living standards in Africa must rise, but global GHG emissions must fall to “net zero”, as laid out in the Paris Agreement. OpenUp wanted to tell that complex story in a way that would engage and inform readers all over the world, and especially outside Africa, who might instinctively oppose the idea of funding climate initiatives overseas.

The brief for Unsettled Debt and what we learned

We started out wanting to explain the issue of climate debt. Put simply, this is the principle that rich nations got rich by exploiting natural resources, which were often sourced cheaply from poor nations, and the costs of dealing with the consequences of GHG emissions have been carried by others. A debt, then, is owed to mitigate the impact of a changed climate, and enable the Global South to invest in renewable energy to meet its development needs. 

We also wanted to highlight the fact that failure to address this issue would have consequences in the Global North, too. One design note read “even if the US drastically reduces its carbon emissions, Manhattan Island is still going to sink if energy transition in Africa isn’t addressed.” 

We wanted to show that incredible work across Africa is happening and will continue to happen. As the massive private sector investment into rooftop solar is changing South Africa’s energy landscape, citizens and businesses are making a huge difference. Amplifying their work will quite literally change the world. And we wanted to tell these stories about the past, present and potential futures of climate debt using data.

Creating this story took time and teamwork. Yuxi Wang led efforts to identify and verify reliable datasets to tell the story of how integral African resources have been to the development of the Global North, and finding reliable forecasts around investment needed to improve African HDI through renewables. Matt Stark took inspiration from the best interactive storytellers, such as Al Jazeera and El Pais, to develop a story that was impactful, easy to understand and shareable in chunks. Each section of the story was relentlessly edited down and refined, often from paragraphs of initial text and many tables of data, to create a clear narrative with a “golden thread” that would leave no doubt in readers’ minds. Dirk Meerkotter, meanwhile, developed the final interactive, to enable readers to calculate for themselves the impact that addressing climate debt will make. Feedback from across the Africa Data Hub partnerships helped us refine and clarify each key message we wanted readers to take away. We used tools such as Webflow, Figma, Notion and lots of Google Docs and Sheets to wrangle the story into being over a period of more than three months.

Along the way we connected with a large number of journalists, researchers and activists who helped us to refine our story with their insight. We spoke to member organisations of the activist network that is taking the issue of climate debt to COP28 in November. They talked us through the connection between climate finance and the broader debt crisis in the Global South. We learned that the vast majority of money that has been promised to the Global South in climate finance hasn’t materialised. 

We learned, most of all, that this is an issue which is important and ongoing, and we will want to revisit it often in the future. Unsettled Debt: Africa, the climate crisis and you, has been an undertaking more complex and challenging than we anticipated. We hope you enjoy the results and share them with those who need to understand this issue.

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