Global climate justice: a Q&A with IonE Research Scientist Nfamara Dampha
The impacts of climate change can be felt around the world. Solving this crisis calls for global cooperation, but who is responsible to lead this effort? How can we ensure it centers a global climate justice framework – where communities now and in the future have equitable access to natural resources – especially when those disproportionately burdened by climate impacts have historically been left without a spot at the decision-making table?
Dr. Nfamara Dampha, pictured above at COP27, is a Research Scientist in Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services at Institute on the Environment and native of The Gambia. He shares his perspective on a global climate justice approach to achieving a sustainable future.
In your own words, how would you define climate justice?
Justice to me – and this is not any sort of standard definition – but climate justice, to me, is a decision-making conceptual framework. And this means it’s also a decision-making tool that helps us promote shared accountability and responsibility for a just sustainable transition for all, irrespective of our socioeconomic and geopolitical realities.
We’re talking about a just and equitable transition for all in a climate that, as you know, is changing rapidly. And there are all of these different pieces of it, right?
You need something to tell decision makers: “Hey, we have the evidence that this is a shared responsibility, and it is a shared obligation.” I have to call it an obligation. We have to ensure that people are held accountable. And we have to make sure it is based on equity, fairness, and justice – for a just and a sustainable transition for all.
So, without giving a specific definition, that’s how I think about it. As a conceptual decision-making framework.
I’m hearing you emphasize a “just transition” – what does a just transition for all entail?
Oh, that’s a phenomenal question. I like to call it a just, sustainable transition, and what that means is: ensuring we all live a decent standard of living without being heavily affected by these environmental challenges.
There’s a just, sustainable transition in almost every sector you can think of. It’s about making sure everyone has access to affordable and clean energy, and access to water resources, for example. And it’s not just about access to natural resources, but about using them in a way that makes us great stewards. We need to be cognizant of the fact that these are resources the future generation will need.
If you think about it at the global scale, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to ensure that there is just transition for all. For me, at the global stage, it’s a conceptual idea. We have to move towards this idea of inclusivity and cooperation, and co-development, of things with people who have been left behind; people who have been systematically marginalized in their own countries. There cannot be any justice if there is no place for people to be at the decision-making table.
Why is a global approach to climate justice so important?
This question is so important because we first have to look at how decisions are made at different scales. At the national scale, we have institutions mandated to make decisions, like a city council or a government. But at the global level, we do not have a global government, right? So we need global cooperation. Because every state – every nation – is sovereign. They can do whatever they want to do.
So if we do not have a global framework in place, the United States, for example, cannot be held responsible or accountable for its actions by any other state or any other country.
And this brings us to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which specifically said that the global nature of climate change calls for the widest cooperation. And that cooperation has to be based on certain principles, including your socioeconomic status and your contribution to the problem.
Rich countries emit a disproportionate amount more greenhouse gasses than poor countries, but oftentimes bear less of the direct environmental impacts. Can you speak to how climate change impacts marginalized communities?
So there are two pieces to that question. The first piece is the problem. The second piece is: What is causing the problem? Who is contributing?
An average American emits 16 tons. What I emit here now as an average American is 50 times more than my brother in The Gambia. If we don’t cut down these ways of living, the problem will still persist. At the moment, the impact of the problem is causing significant harm to vulnerable communities.
In natural resource dependent economies, like sub-Saharan Africa, for example, there are a lot of climate-related problems in almost every sector you can think of. Their livelihoods depend on agriculture. Climate change is causing a significant impact. There is drought and lack of water in many of those places. Food scarcity becomes a major problem. There has been a lot of out-migration; climate-induced migration.
As sea levels rise in coastline areas, precipitation-related problems are causing significant losses from damages due to flooding – including in my own country. Sometimes they don’t have the resources to relocate, and they remain in those flood hotspots. It also causes destruction of the economic system. It’s difficult to travel because bridges get damaged. People don’t have access to markets. Kids don’t go to school. We’ve had incidents of death as a result. There’s homelessness.
These are the direct impacts. And the people bearing those impacts are the people who have absolutely nothing to do with the problem. The proportion of their emissions is so insignificant. It is so insignificant.
So who is responsible for achieving global climate justice?
The ones responsible for achieving justice are us. It’s developed nations and also emerging economies, like China, India, and South Africa. I would say that the evidence is clear. If you look at annual emissions, China is number one. The United States is number two. So, we know who created those emissions and that is where the discussion should go. You should pay as you contribute to the problem. This is definitely a shared responsibility.
This is not charity. It is just being decent enough to say, “I understand and recognize that I have caused harm to you and your relationship with your environment. As a result, I am responsible to pay.”
I don’t completely agree when people say, “How do we explain this to the taxpayers?” I’m a taxpayer. If you explain this to me, I realize there is a moral responsibility for me to contribute to solving the problem.
What interests you the most about global climate justice with regards to your work as a research scientist in natural capital and ecosystem services?
In my own portfolio at IonE, I see natural capital as one of the solutions to address climate justice! When we say natural capital, we’re talking about the use of land, water, and air. The capital – those assets – they provide what we call “ecosystem services” or nature’s contributions to improving human wellbeing.
We already know on the global stage what nature-based solutions can do. For a couple of things – one is for climate mitigation. About 37% of the emissions reduction expected to meet the Paris Climate Agreement could come from nature-based solutions. Reforesting, for example, allows trees to remove and sequester carbon, and their storage is significant. This is just one example, but there are many.
Are there any current policies, efforts or movements that excite you when thinking about achieving this goal?
What excites me most is the fact that awareness is increasing. People are becoming aware, and are becoming responsible and accountable. This conversation is happening at a larger scale today than it was ten years ago. From elementary level to university level, I think there is more mainstreaming of climate education in our curricula than used to be the case. So the kids today can learn about climate change at a very young age. I learned about climate change mainly when I was at university. So that excites me a lot.
I think the evidence on the role of nature and recognizing its vital contributions, not just for economic growth, but for decarbonization, is increasing as well. And I think that this is important because for many, many decades we have ignored the role of nature.
Join us May 25, 2023, for People & Planet: Climate Justice: A moral obligation or a charity for who? as Dampha and Rainbow Research Executive Director Sam Grant deconstruct the principle of “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities” – part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was ratified by 198 nations in 1994. Our speakers will connect the global and the local in a candid conversation that ranges from climate and environmental justice issues in Minnesota to national and international differentiated responsibilities in the work to redress climate vulnerabilities, inequalities, and injustice – from intra- and intergenerational perspectives.
Dana Hernandez (she/her) is an IonE communications specialist. Her professional interests include environmental communications and intersectional storytelling.