Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson sees her work on ocean conservation as linked to issues of social justice and climate. In an e360 interview, she talks about the need to diversify climate science and activism and bring in the perspectives and energy of people of color and women.
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Ocean justice, as Ayana Elizabeth Johnson describes it, is where ocean conservation and issues of social equity meet: Who suffers most from flooding and pollution, and who benefits from conservation measures? As sea levels rise and storms intensify, such questions will only grow more urgent, and fairness must be a central consideration as societies figure out how to answer them, Johnson says.
A marine biologist, Johnson is founder and CEO of the consulting group Ocean Collectiv and founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities. Her concerns about social inclusion cover both race and gender. She has written about how racism slows climate action and has co-edited a forthcoming anthology of women’s writing on climate. The book, she says, is an effort to bring female voices to the center of a conversation that has too often been dominated by men.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Johnson describes the links between climate change, racial justice, gender equality, and the oceans. “There is a gender aspect to who gets hit hardest by climate change,” she says. “At the same time, we look to who is continually being held up as the thought leaders on climate. In the U.S., it’s often a very small group of white men. They will never represent the full spectrum of perspectives on solutions.”
Johnson points to polling data that shows Black and Latino people are more concerned about climate change than whites. The climate movement’s failure to engage them in climate action, she says, “is a losing strategy, because you’re not reaching out to the people who already care.”
Yale Environment 360: A lot of your work focuses on ocean justice. What does that mean?
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Ocean justice is where ocean conservation and social justice intersect. If we think about where is the water the most polluted, who gets impacted by storms, who is most dependent on the ocean and suffers when there’s overfishing, it often is poor communities and communities of color along the coastline. When we think about ocean conservation, it can’t just be for the spots in front of fancy resorts or the homes of wealthy individuals. We should also be thinking about not just who bears the brunt of the impacts on the ocean, but who gets the benefit when we do take care of it.
e360: What does that mean in terms of action?
Johnson: It depends who you are. If you’re a conservation group, that starts with looking at your portfolio projects and assessing who they benefit, who you’re including in the development of your strategies, who you’re prioritizing, where resources are going.
Then there’s the policy level. For example, there’s a lot of NIMBY-ism when it comes to renewable offshore energy. All these wealthy communities on Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard or in the Hamptons don’t want wind turbines offshore, even though they’re now so far offshore that you can’t really see them. The power lines that come on shore are six inches in diameter and buried 20 feet below the surface. They’re still saying, “We don’t want that here,” even though they’re communities that often support environmentalism more broadly. That just really needs to shift.
“Low-income housing is often built in flood zones. There’s certainly a justice issue with how we deal with sea level rise.”
e360: What about social justice when it comes to impacts?
Johnson: Sea level rise is a challenge that is so big that most people aren’t dealing with it. But it’s not going away. We need to be really creative and face this head on. The sea level is not going to rise inches. It’s going to rise feet, or potentially multiple meters by the end of this century. On top of that, you’re going to have storm surges and high tides. That’s going to completely change what’s possible and where along the coastline. Of course, poor communities — and many communities of color are poor, because of the history of racism in development — they’re the ones who have the fewest resources to move. They’re the ones who are most often in harm’s way. Low-income housing is often built in flood zones. There’s certainly a justice issue with how we deal with sea level rise.
There’s also a justice element when we think about which communities get protected with sea walls, which communities have the resources to simply fortify their coast with barriers that shift the impacts downstream or down current.
And we need to think about how to move people out of harm’s way. There’s going to have to be some very hard conversations about what it looks like to relocate entire communities, entire towns. You have generations of deep cultural ties to a place and to that bit of coastline. But it’s simply not going to be safe and viable to continue living there.
e360: You’ve said oceans are too often left out of the climate conversation. Why and how should we include them?
Johnson: I don’t think people are aware of how large a role the ocean plays in the climate system. That ocean currents and temperatures actually affect the climate. That a warmer ocean makes for stronger hurricanes. That warm waters shift ocean currents, which can change the climate in whole continents. That the ocean has actually already absorbed 90 percent of the heat we’ve trapped by burning fossil fuels, and absorbed about a third of the CO2 we’ve emitted. When we don’t think about that, we’re just not thinking about the whole problem.
We’re also not thinking about all the solutions. We need a flip of the script from seeing the ocean as this victim of overfishing, pollution, and warming to seeing it also as the hero when it comes to climate solutions.
e360: What are some of those solutions?
Johnson: Solar and wind energy can be deployed offshore. Government analysis shows installing wind energy from Maine to Maryland could basically power the Northeast as well as providing 36,000 jobs. That is important especially in areas that are really densely populated, where there just aren’t swathes of empty land for putting in solar panels and wind turbines.
“It’s very hard to focus on the climate crisis when you’re… fighting for your basic rights to live and breathe.”
Another area is coastal ecosystems. Wetlands store five times more carbon in their soils than a forest on land does. They’re very powerful for carbon sequestration, and for protecting us from stronger storms. Coastal ecosystems can actually be more effective than seawalls as well as less expensive. Not just protecting them, but also restoring them, is a key part of the menu of ocean solutions.
Then there’s regenerative ocean farming, which is just starting to burgeon. That’s very similar to the philosophy of regenerative farming on land. The ocean is actually even more environmentally friendly because it doesn’t require any fresh water or fertilizer or pesticides. Regenerative farming is not fish. It’s the seaweeds and oysters and mussels and clams. All these things that don’t need to be fed, they just live off of sunlight and the nutrients that are already in the water. And in some cases, they’re absorbing excess nutrients that are running off of land because of the use of fertilizers in agriculture, and which might otherwise contribute to dead zones.
e360: One broader issue you’ve written about is how racism hampers the fight against climate change. Can you describe some of those effects?
Johnson: There’s the personal level on which it’s very hard to focus on the climate crisis when you’re dealing with the crisis of state-sanctioned violence and mass incarceration, and your friends and family being at risk for being murdered by the police for no reason, and fighting for your basic rights to live and breathe. That is the priority, unfortunately, for many communities, which means there are people who are not able to focus on being a part of climate solutions even though they care. Addressing the climate crisis will take the biggest team possible. Anything that hinders people from bringing their full intellect and creativity and force to solutions is a problem.
e360: Do you see racism and climate change as springing from common roots?
Johnson: For sure. The mindset of domination over nature — manifest destiny and trophy hunting and all of these kinds of things — is quite a white construct. It has created this scenario where we feel detached from nature as opposed to understanding that we are fundamentally dependent on it. That’s how capitalism created and dominated by white people has gotten us into this mess. There are the executives at fossil fuel companies who knew in the 1970s from their own scientists that burning fossil fuels could cause climate change and decided to prioritize their profits instead. Those were all white men. Another manifestation of this is the fascination with geo-engineering, which is certainly something that follows that same supremacy over nature approach. That assumes that more climate change is the answer. We need a mindset of more Indigenous ways of living in harmony with nature, as opposed to attempting to dominate and manipulate it.
We know from social science research that white men have a much higher tolerance for risk because things tend to work out for them. That is actually putting all of us at risk because these dangerous decisions are being made. We can’t just all hunker down into bunkers and be okay. Climate change is a global problem and it’s coming for people of color and poor people first. But in the end, it’s coming for all of us. No matter how wealthy you are, you still need to eat — we’re shifting the climate in ways that disrupt and endanger our food security. No matter how privileged you are, the storms are still coming, the heat waves are still coming.
e360: You’ve talked about people of color being more supportive of climate action than white people. Why has the climate movement failed to recognize that, and what’s lost by not including people of color in the conversation about climate?
Johnson: There’s been this very effective mythology around the white, rugged, outdoorsy environmentalist being the average environmentalist when in fact communities of color have always been close to nature and caring for it and concerned about it. I wish more people knew that. Even I had no idea that there was such a gap in terms of percentage points until I read the polling by Yale and George Mason that showed 49 percent of white people are concerned about climate change, compared to 57 percent of Black people and 70 percent of Latinx people. Failing to prioritize engaging people of color is a losing strategy, because you’re not reaching out to the people who already care.
The fascinating thing is the reason the Latinx community is far and away the most concerned about climate, it’s associated with having more egalitarian world views and a stronger sense that your community, your friends, your family expect you to do something. Not just to know about it, but to be a part of the solution. It’s really interesting when we think about the societal and cultural shifts that are going to be needed to address this problem. Solving the climate crisis is not just an engineering problem. It’s a social norm problem as well. We have to shift what we expect and how we see the world.
“Women being left out [as leaders in climate science] means we’re losing half the brain power of the planet.”
e360: You co-edited [with Katharine Wilkinson] a forthcoming anthology of women’s climate writing [All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis], and you argue that the climate crisis is not gender-neutral. How so?
Johnson: In a lot of places in the world, women are primarily responsible for getting water, for maintaining gardens. Those are all things that become harder and more difficult because of our changing climate. After natural disasters — or increasingly unnatural disasters — it’s often women who are most at risk. There’s a lot of sexual violence associated with these scenarios. Also women turning to sex work which they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten into because of food scarcity. Girls getting married off younger because their families are so financially constrained because of the ways climate is impacting them. There is a gender aspect to who gets hit hardest by climate change.
At the same time, we look to who is continually being held up as the thought leaders on climate and what the solutions are. In the U.S., it’s often a very small group of white men. They will never represent the full spectrum of perspectives on solutions. Different perspectives determine what scientific questions are even being researched. So understanding the problem and its impact, and understanding what solutions are going to be most effective, really requires that we diversify the field. Women being left out means we’re losing half of the brain power of the planet.
e360: You write about climate leadership that is both feminine and feminist.
Johnson: Despite all the barriers that sexism has created, there are so many incredible women doing critical work. When we think about the youth climate movement and the climate strikes, the leaders of that are teenage girls. It’s not driven by ego. They are repeating what’s working from country to country. They’re learning from each other. There’s been an amazing community and network that’s been created. It’s so beautiful to imagine what could happen if we thought more in terms of relationships and community as opposed to technological solutions and single leaders. And if we thought about the roles we can each best play in solving a problem that could not be more fully an “all hands on deck” situation.
The way society suppresses men’s expression of emotion is really hard, because we’re dealing with a very scary existential threat. When I read scientific reports and read the news about climate, I’m often brought to tears by these terrifying projections of the future. We need to be able to have an emotionally intelligent response, as opposed to shutting down the fear and grief and rage.