Nfamara Dampha, a researcher from the University of Minnesota's Institute on Environment, at COP27 in Egypt. Credit: Submitted image

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Nfamara Dampha watched eagerly as international parties crafted agreements on climate change solutions at the 27th Conference of Parties, an annual international conference held last month in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. 

He observed, impressed, as delegations deliberated on documents line-by-line, even arguing over comma placement. “There is actual, real negotiation happening,” Dampha said. 

Dampha, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, hopes to return to the Conference of Parties in the future, potentially to negotiate on behalf of his home country, The Gambia, a small West African nation. He attended his first conference this year as part of a delegation from the University of Minnesota. 

“I want to continue to be part of it, because developing nations need strong voices,” Dampha told Sahan Journal.  

He and other Minnesota delegates witnessed an historic agreement for the world’s wealthiest, most polluting nations—like the United States—to pay for adaptation and mitigation funding in poor countries that are already feeling the worst effects of climate change. 

The vote to create that fund, known as “loss and damage” in climate negotiations, is a major victory for the global environmental justice movement.

But who will put money into that fund, how much it will be, and who will receive the money has yet to be determined. And the conference failed to reach an agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. 

Minnesota delegates returning from the international conference are discussing the success and shortcomings of the conference, highlighting the role the state’s institutions can play in creating international partnerships, and examining the roles of nature-based solutions to climate change. 

Low expectations, mixed results 

The 27th Conference of Parties had the lowest expectations in the history of the event, which began in 1995, according to J. Drake Hamilton, senior director of science policy for the Minnesota nonprofit Fresh Energy. She’s attended seven conferences, and said she and others felt Egypt failed to put forward a bold agenda. 

 “We expected some amount of limited but insufficient action on emissions, and some conspicuous and maddening lack of action on climate change, climate justice, climate finance, and loss and damage. Instead, we got basically the opposite of our expectations,” Hamilton said. 

Hamilton first heard loss-and-damage talks at the conference back in 2005. Having the international community agree to establish a fund is a significant step, she said, despite looming questions on implementation. 

According to the agreement, the loss-and-damage fund would initially draw on contributions from developed countries and private and public sources such as international financial institutions. While major emerging economies such as China wouldn’t automatically have to contribute, that option remains on the table. The European Union and the United States argue that China and other large polluters currently classified as developing countries have the financial clout and responsibility to pay their way.

The fund would be largely aimed at helping the most vulnerable nations, though there could also be room for middle-income countries severely battered by climate disasters.

While the new agreement doesn’t ratchet up calls for reducing emissions, it does retain language to keep alive the global goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The Egyptian presidency kept offering proposals that harkened back to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement language, which also mentioned a looser goal of 2 degrees Celsius. The world has warmed 1.1 degrees (2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the Industrial Revolution. 

Meanwhile, the developed world still has not kept its 2009 pledge to spend $100 billion a year in other climate aid—designed to help poor nations develop green energy and adapt to future warming.

The loss-and-damage money shouldn’t be seen as charity, Dampha said, but rather as an investment. Wealthy nations like the United States feel the impact of climate displacement issues in the form of mass migration. 

“Either you pay to fix it where they live, or they will come to where you are,” Dampha said. 

He emphasized the importance of the fund building the capacity of developing countries to implement their own climate change adaptations. Unless there is financing for the infrastructure needed to succeed, other funding could be squandered, he warned. 

Global impact 

In Egypt, Dampha was featured in a panel hosted by Fresh Energy about Minnesota’s role in decarbonizing the Midwest. 

The Midwest region would have the fifth-highest emissions in the world if it were its own country, Hamilton said. “It means if the U.S. is going to meet President Biden’s goals, we must decarbonize every sector in Minnesota and across the Midwest,” she said. 

“If the U.S. is going to meet President Biden’s goals, we must decarbonize every sector in Minnesota and across the Midwest.”

J. Drake Hamilton of Fresh Energy

Minnesota is making progress on lowering its emissions, with a 30 percent drop in energy generation greenhouse gasses since 2005. But it is still well behind its goal to reduce emissions in all sectors by 80 percent by 2050, a state report found. 

That means the state must do more to rapidly phase out fossil fuels, Dampha said. And while pushing for progress at home, Minnesota and its largest institutions shouldn’t wait for the federal government to form international connections that can reduce global emissions. Minnesota’s universities, cities, and large nonprofits should be helping to invest in decarbonization efforts worldwide, he said. 

Dampha worked for The Gambia’s natural disaster management agency after earning an undergraduate degree in Africa. That work inspired him to further study climate change, and he moved to the United States to pursue his master’s degree and a Ph.D. in climate change adaptation and natural resource management at the University of Minnesota. Since completing his doctorate, he has continued to work for the university as a researcher and consulted for the World Bank on projects across the globe. 

Dampha leads the Gambian Association of Minnesota, a group representing about 2,000 people. He lives in Brooklyn Park, and helped establish a sister-city connection between that northwest suburb and Banjul, The Gambia’s capital city.

Small steps like that can make a big difference, he said, if the cities can help one another build capacity and techniques to adapt to the changing climate.

“Let’s move away from our comfort zones, and challenge our institutions and challenge ourselves,” Dampha said. 

Nature-based solutions

Minnesota can’t fully decarbonize simply by transitioning to renewable energy sources, Hamilton said, but must start sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. 

To do that, Dampha said, the state should be using its forests as a carbon sink, and helping other countries build capacity to do the same. Trees and plants extract carbon from the atmosphere, and allowing the world’s forests to flourish again is a natural way to help absorb pollution. 

Dampha studies natural capital, the idea of trying to place a tangible monetary value on natural resources that researchers believe will help spur the investments necessary to limit the devastation of climate change. He’s a lead scientist at the Natural Capital Project, a global coalition whose partners include the University of Minnesota and California’s Stanford University. He and his colleagues are building models to properly value the benefits of forests, natural resources, and biodiversity. 

Understanding the full value of plants and animals, and the impact of biodiversity on air and water quality, is a daunting undertaking, he said, but must be attempted. 

“I think the unaccounted value of nature’s contribution has to be recognized, and be assessed, and be incorporated into our decision-making,” Dampha said.

“The unaccounted value of nature’s contribution [to fighting global warming] has to be recognized, and be assessed, and be incorporated into our decision-making.”

Nfamara Dampha, University of Minnesota

Restoring ecosystems has major potential to improve quality of life, he said. Land degradation leads to crop failures, rising temperatures lead to heavy rain events, and the two combine to create landslides and flooding that can devastate an area. Investing in biodiversity to make lands more resilient has tangible benefits to society that are often overlooked. 

While working with the World Bank, Dampha went to the East African nation of Burundi, where he helped design a new road. He encouraged Burundi’s government to work in concert with nature to prevent erosion and damaging downstream events. The project reinforced the need to incorporate nature into economic growth for developing countries, and underscored Dampha’s belief that loss-and-damage financing must go toward helping poor nations build capacity to develop their own plans to restore natural ecosystems. 

He plans to keep attending the international conference and to keep seeking out methods for nations, universities, and nonprofits across the world to learn from one another and help the world make progress on climate change. 

“At every COP (Conference of Parties) the progress is slow, but we’re moving toward the right direction,” Dampha said. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...