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Q&A: The ocean as hero, not victim

A marine biologist talks about the fate of coastal cities, protecting the ocean, and why fighting climate change means engaging communities of color.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson spoke at the World Ocean Festival in 2017.Global Brain

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, founder of a think tank called the Urban Ocean Lab, co-host of Gimlet’s new How to Save a Planet podcast, and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis.” The book features essays by women in a wide range of fields who are leading the way on solutions to the climate problem.

I spoke to her about the future of oceans, the fate of coastal cities like Boston and New York, and the connections she sees between racial justice and solving the climate crisis. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.


What do you want people to know about the state of our oceans?

Humans have done a lot of damage to our oceans. Think about overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and then climate change being a massive threat on top of all that, with fish populations already moving toward the poles in search of cooler water.

But what I would like people to understand is not actually the bad stuff. It’s all of the ways in which the ocean can be a major part of our climate solution. I think of the ocean, actually, as a hero instead of a victim. The ocean has been buffering the impacts of climate change; it has already absorbed about a third of the carbon dioxide we’ve emitted by burning fossil fuels and over 90 percent of the heat that’s been trapped by greenhouse gases. Coastal ecosystems have been protecting us from storms. Offshore wind energy can and should be a much bigger part of where we’re getting our electricity and that can ramp up dramatically. Ocean farming — not of big carnivorous fish but of seaweed and oysters and mussels and clams — can actually help restore the ocean at the same time as providing this very low-carbon-footprint food source for us and lots of jobs.


Oceans are a source of renewable energy, a source of sustainable food, a source of ecosystems that can protect us and absorb tons of carbon. If we protect the ocean, it can protect us.

You and I both live in coastal cities, New York and Boston respectively. What’s the future of coastal cities like ours?

Given how much sea level is projected to rise, the strengthening of storms, and the fact that we’ve lost a lot of our coastal ecosystems already, there are a lot of people who are at risk. The flood zones are quite large and growing. This is a topic that gets talked about in the context of Miami, but it’s actually something that affects all coastal cities. Forty percent of Americans live in coastal counties and we’re just not prepared for what’s coming.

There’s an opportunity for shared lessons and for developing a community of practice across these coastal cities. Cities can be more nimble than states or the federal government can be, they can be laboratories for change.

Do people who live along coasts just need to start getting our heads around the fact that we’ll need to move out of harm’s way, instead of rebuilding after each storm in the same place?

In some sense, the answer is yes. It’s always a really hard thing to say; my chest tightens just thinking about it. Because it’s not just finding a new house, it’s your community. It’s your culture. It’s your home. So I don’t say that lightly. But if we don’t adapt to the changes that are already here, and are coming, then that is another kind of pain and heartache that will be arriving.


After a storm or a flood event, that’s a really important moment to say: “Is there a better way to do this as opposed to rebuilding slightly better in the same place?” And this is where I think we need so many more artists and designers and architects thinking about what the future could look like so that we’re not all holding on to the past so tightly.

Activists are talking a lot these days about how the climate crisis and racial injustice are connected. You see that idea in the Green New Deal. But not everyone pins down what they mean when they say that. What do you see as the connections?

First, I’d say I see them as intertwined, but not the same thing. There are a lot of issues about climate that have nothing to do with race. There are a lot of race issues that are not about climate, obviously.

But I would love for people to just think more holistically about justice. And I think that would actually help. I think we need to zoom out and think about what kind of humans we want to be in the world.


There are many ways in which the history of white supremacy in this country has led to communities of color, Black communities, being disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change, whether we’re thinking about Hurricane Katrina or we’re thinking about air pollution [in formerly red-lined neighborhoods]. These storms and exposure to toxins have much greater impact on communities of color and on poor communities.

I also just don’t see how we win at addressing the climate crisis unless we involve people of color. It is not a merely technical challenge that we’re facing. It’s not like we can get a bunch of engineers in a room and then climate change will be solved. It is about how we implement solutions. It is about how we replicate and scale them. It is about how communities change the way that they do things. It is about agriculture and buildings and transportation and electricity. Solving the climate crisis is about everything. And so we need to find ways that everyone can be a part of this transformation that we need and be a part of the plentiful solutions that we already have available.

Research done at Yale and George Mason Universities shows people of color are more concerned already about the climate crisis. Wouldn’t it make sense to prioritize the people who are already on board who already care? The climate crisis is so big that we need to build the biggest possible team.


Do you feel any more hope since the protests that began after George Floyd’s death that there will be progress on climate justice and protecting oceans?

I feel like a lot more is possible than it was weeks ago or months ago. I wouldn’t say I’m hopeful or optimistic, but that there’s just so much more possibility in terms of how the Overton window has shifted, how much the conversation has shifted. What we do with this moment is still very much an open question, but it’s a question that we now have the footing to ask in a new way.