Last week I sat under a tin roof in the center of Onuenyim village, near the Cross River in southeastern Nigeria, listening to the town crier beat a stick against a hollowed log to call the villagers to a meeting. Turkeys strutted nearby; women in brightly patterned wrap skirts pounded cassava with wooden mortars and pestles and spread rice to dry in the sun, much like their ancestors of centuries ago. Schoolchildren regarded us with curiosity on their way to classes, giggling and whispering behind their hands.
I was in Onuenyim with a team of Nigerian and American scientists, including economists, ecologists, water scientists, and an engineer with expertise in flood management, to discuss climate adaptation. After four years of research on the impacts of climate change on Nigerian agriculture, we had returned to the villages in which we had collected data to disseminate what we had learned. We hoped that our findings would help the people of Onuenyim, most of whom lacked formal education, electricity, or running water, prepare for the changes in temperature and rainfall which they were already observing, and which global models predict will become even more severe.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, transforming the tin roof into a baking oven, we discussed planting schedules, flood regimes, aquaculture, and infrastructure, with the help of our translator (a local teacher currently compiling a dictionary of the Izhi language spoken in Onuenyim). We talked about the floods that destroy yam before the harvest. We talked about the intense rain that washes out the roads, making it impossible for farmers to get their crop to the market to sell before it spoils. We talked about potential solutions—retention ponds and tree planting; runoff ditches and early maturing crop varieties. I hoped desperately that some of the information we shared (and will continue to share) would help the villagers cope with the disruptions caused by a changing climate.
Yet, my heart was heavy as we discussed all of these topics, and especially as the villagers thanked us graciously at the end of the program. I felt like a hypocrite. After all, the climatic changes wreaking havoc in Onuenyim are the result of 200 years of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere, the biggest portion of which were put there by my home country, the United States. The burning of coal, oil, and gas since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution allowed me to grow up in a country with electricity, internet, vaccines, plane travel, and clean water–all of which the residents of Onuenyim lack. My lifestyle, and the lifestyles of all those who benefit from growing up in industrialized economies, have been subsidized by the very energy inputs that contribute to the metamorphosis of the Cross River from a bearer of life into an unpredictable, hungry monster that devours yam fields and rice paddies.
This is why we must talk about climate justice. It would be fundamentally unjust for me to stop at helping the residents of Onuenyim adapt to the mess that we in the industrialized world have made. We in the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, and yes, China, who put the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, have a responsibility to push our leaders towards climate reparations which would fund green energy and adaptation measures in the countries which will be hardest hit by climate change (particularly, island nations and countries in sub-Saharan Africa). The Green Climate Fund has been established by the United Nations as a mechanism for this; although the current administration in the United States has halted commitments to the fund, it has raised $10 billion for projects in the Global South (although this isn’t nearly enough). We can also advocate for climate mitigation at home, which means *both* reducing carbon in our own lifestyles *and* pushing our local, state, and federal leaders to take bold action towards transitioning to a zero-carbon society.
Climate injustice is like any other systemic injustice–it must first be acknowledged if it is to be addressed. As painful as it is for me to come to terms with the fact that my lifestyle is partly responsible for others’ suffering, it is something I cannot look away from, any more than I could look away from the earnest, hungry faces of the villagers in Onuenyim. But guilt is only useful as an emotion if it spurs us to action. I left Onuenyim with a renewed commitment to advocate for climate action in my home country. Systemic injustice requires systemic change—and a shared vision of a global society that is more just and sustainable.