Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a renowned marine biologist. She founded Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for the future of coastal cities, and Ocean Collectiv, an ocean conservation consultancy. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Dr. Johnson about the role of oceans in climate action and how individuals can enact systemic change.
Journal of International Affairs (JIA): You are the founder of the Urban Ocean Lab. Can you tell us what the organization does and why its work is important?
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson (AEJ): I grew up in New York but I left to go to college and stayed away for 18 years. After all this time studying marine biology and working in ocean conservation, it wasn’t until I came home that I really started to think about New York as a coastal city and about the importance of urban ocean conservation. I realized that there wasn’t nearly enough work happening in that space, especially on the policy side of things. A third of Americans live in coastal cities. Ocean conservation is not a coastal elite thing; literally a third of the people in our country are at risk if we don’t think through what the future of coastal cities could look like. We’re really not ready for sea level rise, or storms, or heat, or massive changes in coastal ecosystems.
The Urban Ocean Lab is going to be a hub of thought leadership for the future of coastal cities. How can we design the future for coastal cities? How can we create a legislative framework that would enable us to protect our cities in a changing climate? It’s a policy think tank that’s grounded in design, which makes it different from other think tanks. It’s also unique in that it is focused on the urban-ocean interface.
JIA: You are a trained scientist, and yet you have spent much of your career agitating for climate action. What do you feel is the role of scientists in the climate action movement?
AEJ: It depends on what kind of scientist you are and what skills you have. When I was in graduate school, science communication started to become the new expectation, and I actually don’t agree with that. If you’re a great scientist and you just want to publish great science, that’s a wonderful contribution. If you are a great communicator and you are interested in talking more deeply about the implications of your work, that’s great. Every scientist has their own comfort zone.
I don’t want to put more weight on scientists because doing the research is often a full-time job. Especially because of the way academia is structured right now, scientists get no credit for all of the work that they do to communicate their science. With the race for tenure, those sorts of activities can actually count against you. We need to fix academia if we want scientists to be more engaged in discussions around the implications of their work because right now there’s a huge disincentive to do that. Ultimately, though, I hope that more organizations will be consuming the scientific literature and making sure it’s applied.
JIA: What do you mean when you say “fix academia”?
AEJ: We need to fix the way that we evaluate professors. Currently they’re only evaluated on how many high-profile publications they have. Other activities—engaging the public, testifying before Congress, working with nonprofits—are ostensibly reducing the number of publications that professors produce, and therefore have no benefit within academia.
We still have this old model where scientists are expected to keep their head down and pump out papers and not be full citizens. Scientists are also humans who participate in the world; we should acknowledge that fact when we think about how we’re evaluating people within academia. There’s a lot more to being a good scientist than just having high profile publications, especially in the context of the climate crisis.
JIA: What do you feel is the role of youth in the climate action movement?
AEJ: I see young people as having this incredible moral clarity that a lot of us grownups have lost over the years. We’re used to compromise. But on climate, compromise is doom, and the youth are reminding us of that. Having young people draw that line in the sand has been an enormous gift for the climate movement. They are waking us up to both the severity and the urgency.
We tend to think about kids as “leaders in the future,” but we’re starting to understand that that’s not the case; they’re leaders now. I think about how much influence I had over my family when I was a kid. When I learned about cigarettes being dangerous, I started a campaign to get my parents to stop smoking. When I learned about recycling, I decided we were definitely going to recycle. Kids are having these conversations with their parents and drawing more adults into this work. Young people are leading this movement and shaping the narrative, but they’re also changing hearts and minds along the way.
Young people are also coming of age in the midst of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. They’re able to see how those things connect to the climate movement. So a lot of young people are approaching the climate crisis through the lens of climate justice. Young folks seem innately more aware of these intersectionalities than those who have been thinking about this for longer.
JIA: What is the role of gender in the climate movement?
AEJ: This movement has historically been led by privileged white men. They’ve done a reasonably good job, but they have inevitably missed a lot of things simply because there hasn’t been enough diversity in leadership. This crisis is urgent, so we need everyone on board to have a voice.
When it comes to climate, science is only one part of it. How do we interpret that science into thinking about the cultural transformation that we need? The societal transformation we’re looking for is a whole lot more complex than 100 percent clean energy. How we get there requires a lot of careful thinking because we want to make sure that justice and equity are not pushed aside in favor of expedience. And that’s certainly something that has been done in the past.
I’ve been watching women in this movement collaborate in a way that I’ve never seen before. There’s this beautiful feminine energy that’s being brought to this work right now that is very, very welcoming. I think a lot of people feel welcome in this movement for the first time, and I think that women’s increasing leadership in this space has a lot to do with that.
JIA: What is the role of race in the climate action movement and how can we be better about recognizing people of color who are part of it?
AEJ: We can be better about recognizing it by just recognizing it. There are people who have been doing this work for decades who are still having trouble raising money, and part of recognizing the work of leaders of color is actually funding them. If we say we care about diversity in this work, we need to put our money where our mouth is.
People’s approach to climate work is very much influenced by the life that they’ve lived to that point. For example, I grew up in Brooklyn in the ‘80s, so I think a lot about how climate change is going to affect the inner city. Other people will approach the issue in their own ways, so it’s important to have as many backgrounds at the table as possible.
It’s also important to have diverse scientists. My dad was from Jamaica and I heard all these stories growing up about how plentiful the ocean used to be and how it wasn’t that way anymore. So I decided to do my research in the Caribbean to help figure out what sustainable management that prioritizes the needs of communities might look like. Your background doesn’t bias your science, but it makes you ask different scientific questions. Making sure we have a diversity of people, a diversity of research questions, and a full spectrum of data is super important when we make policy decisions.
JIA: What are some of the major problems facing the world oceans today?
AEJ: One of the major changes in the ocean has been the temperature of the water. The ocean has absorbed 93 percent of the excess heat that we’ve trapped with greenhouse gases. So the temperature of sea water is increasing and that has a big impact on marine life. A lot of species are migrating towards the poles to try to find cooler waters. Warmer water holds less oxygen, so fish are having trouble breathing. And with that warmer water there’s more evaporation, which means that storms are wetter and more dangerous.
There’s ocean acidification; about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide that we’ve emitted by burning fossil fuels has been absorbed by the ocean. We’ve changed the chemistry of the entire ocean. We have changed the pH of seawater globally by how much carbon dioxide we’ve forced it to absorb. For coral and shellfish that’s a real threat.
And then of course there’s sea level rise. This is a result not just of melting ice but also increasing temperature, because warm water expands. The ocean is actually expanding as it heats up. Sea level rise means that storm surges are bigger, but it poses a fundamental question: What do we do with the fact that a lot of places are going to be inundated? Sea level rise is predicted to be up to one or two meters by the end of this century. And we’re not prepared for that.
Another one of the big impacts of a changing climate is that the amount of plankton is declining. Plankton is the base of the food chain and produces a significant portion of the oxygen that we breathe. That is a huge cause for concern, not just because we all want to keep breathing, but also because reducing plankton at the base of the food web disrupts everything else.
We’re in this moment where all of these elements of the science have shown us that we need to change the way that we interact with the ocean and with nature. While we have, of course, locked ourselves into some amount of climate change, what we do really matters because we still have a wide range of possible futures.
JIA: What is the role of public policy in protecting the oceans? What sort of policies would you like to see adopted?
AEJ: I’m really excited about the framework of the Green New Deal. I think it’s really important that we consider this as a moment for massive policy change, that it’s not just a little tweak here or there. We have to think about all of these things— agriculture, public transit, access to clean air, ecosystem restoration—as connected. We have to think about who’s going to do these jobs and making sure there’s job training and that people have health care so they can switch jobs. New policies are needed on many different fronts. And any new policy has to be comprehensive, and it has to be bold because the science is very clear on how little time we have to overhaul our status quo.
JIA: When it comes to ocean conservation and climate action writ large, what do you think is the balance between individual action and public policy?
AEJ: I think the focus has been far too much on individual action. Of course I do what I can to reduce my carbon footprint and live lightly on the planet. But my individual actions are not going to change things. What matters is what we do together. When people ask me, “What can I do?” I say that’s the wrong question. The question is, “What can we do together?”
My mantra in the last few years has become that building community is the most important thing. I encourage people to join organizations, to gather their friends, their community, their church, their team, their family, and think about what they can do in these larger groups. While individual actions do add up, it’s really about creating a cultural shift. If we’re setting much higher expectations for our government, you’ll start to see really exciting things happen.
There’s also a really important opportunity and moment for everyone to think about how their skills map onto solutions. Whether you’re a writer or a lawyer or a scientist or an artist or a chef, climate change provides this incredible opportunity for every single person to be a part of the solution. When you ask yourself, “What can I do?” think about what you are good at and how can you find a way to incorporate that into the movement. If we’re all just doing the same thing—if we’re all just yelling at each other to ride bikes more—that’s not enough. There are systems in place that we need to change. We should all use this moment as an opportunity to think creatively about where we can plug in with what we’re good at to make the changes that we need to see.