Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson on the Blue New Deal, and Taking an Intersectional Approach on Climate Change

Sep 17 · 17 min read

Welcome to Climate Week! On Drilled this week we’re doing a series focused on taking an intersectional approach to climate change. And I wanted to start with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson because I love her take on what intersectional means in this case; that it’s not just race and gender, which is how we often talk about it, but also class, geography, expertise … And that by looking at the problem and looking for solutions through a variety of these intersecting lenses we give ourselves the best chance for finding real solutions. It’s about really using the full capacity of all of the brain power and knowledge and talent on the planet to get at this problem. Here’s Dr. Johnson talking about what she works on and her take on all of this stuff.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson So my career started in earnest in the Caribbean, in a place that’s an archipelago of low-lying islands that are surrounded by coral reefs with mangroves and sea grasses. It’s very easy to understand how those coastal ecosystems, when they’re intact, provide really important protection. And they also are the habitat for all of the commercially harvested species. So with no corals and without mangroves and seagrasses the conch and lobster and fin fish populations have nowhere to live and so then fishermen have nothing to catch. And then when there’s a storm the island is unprotected. I guess I think about this sort of from an ecosystem perspective of all these different ways that these coastal ecosystems protect us and all the ways in which they are threatened by climate change. So corals obviously are at risk because of warming waters and ocean acidification. And then there’s everything that these more intense storms are doing to damage these coastal habitats as well. So I think about it from the perspective of how these ecosystems have become compromised by climate change. On top of all the other things we were already throwing at them, right? All the pollution and actual habitat destruction and overfishing that was already happening, climate is for sure the straw that’s breaking this camel’s back.

And so there’s a question of how can we reduce all those other harms that we’re throwing at the ocean until climate change hopefully gets addressed, so there is still something left to recover.

There’s this ecosystem question and then there’s this economic question because I think it’s easy to forget that economics 101, that natural resources are the foundation of the economy. That’s the input, it’s the wood and iron and the fish and all of it comes from nature. And so without that, you lose the jobs, you lose the tourism. People go to visit the Caribbean because it’s beautiful, because nature is intact. And so that’s threatened. If it’s not safe, and if the water is polluted no wants to go in it, or the beaches are covered with plastic or blooms of algae. All of that puts tourism at risk in addition to local food security and other jobs that depend on the ocean.

So this idea of a Blue New Deal, I really love this framing because it puts the ocean in the same context as the land or on par with the land in that we have an opportunity to think about all the jobs and all the equity issues and all of the opportunities for climate mitigation that come along with doing a better job of including the ocean as part of the climate conversation.

Amy Westervelt I think there was a part in this Grist op-ed that you co-authored that talked specifically about how okay great, there’s this eco friendly farming thing in the Green New Deal. But what about regenerative ocean farming? And I think it has been largely overlooked by a lot of policy discussions so I’m curious about that. First, could I have you describe exactly what regenerative farming is but then also want to know why you think the ocean has been so consistently left out of these discussions.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson So first I’ll say I co-authored this Grist op-ed, “The Big Blue Gap in the Green New Deal,” with the CEO of Surfrider, which is the largest grassroots ocean activism group in the US. And then Bren Smith who is an ocean farmer and a former commercial fisherman. And so, it was really wonderful to put our heads together on what role we thought the ocean could play in the context of a Green New Deal because we have such different perspectives. And Bren Smith is this person who’s really pioneering the field of regenerative ocean farming and led our thinking on that element of it. The idea of regenerative is the same on land or in the ocean, it’s how can we grow food in a way that regenerates or restores ecosystems?

Whether that’s the health of the soil or the biodiversity of everything from microbes to the species that are living around the fields to water quality and habitat for marine species as well, so growing seaweed and shellfish farming in the ocean can actually improve coastal ecosystems; they absorb tons of carbon just by growing. Photosynthesis is the O.G. here right? It doesn’t get credit.

Amy Westervelt Right, it’s the OG carbon capture!

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson I mean how amazing is it? People are finally starting to think about planting trees on land. There’s huge opportunity to think about that in a Marine context too as a way to absorb carbon. And in fact wetlands hold five times more carbon in their soil than tropical rainforests. So we’re really blowing it if we don’t think about the ocean and we want just bang for the buck because not only do wetlands hold so much more carbon in their soil but they also protect against storm surge and things like that. So this idea of regenerative ocean farming is we can regenerate or restore ocean and coastal ecosystems by growing food, and by specifically growing seaweed seaweeds and shellfish. So oysters, mussels, clams, scallops because seaweed and shellfish don’t need to be fed. They just filter what they need out of the seawater and in fact that can be really important to reducing excess nutrients as well as addressing ocean acidification locally because they’re absorbing all that excess carbon in the water that would otherwise lead to acidifying it. So there’s these… I’m not a person who’s on a quest for the constant win-win but there is a definite one here.

I mean sometimes someone has to lose in order to move forward and save the planet. And I think it’s just crazy and naive that we’re trying to incessantly find win wins.

But I will say that I think here there’s this great chance for that, where you can in some way help mitigate climate impacts while feeding people nutritious healthy food and providing jobs in coastal communities. And that’s the kind of thing that I think is so great when we think about the framing of the Green New Deal is that it really is trying to tackle climate and inequality and employment at the same time, as the original New Deal did.

Amy Westervelt I know you mentioned in this story that wetlands help to mitigate storm surge too and can actually be more effective than sea walls. Can I have you explain how that works too? Because we sure are hearing a lot about seawalls right now.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Sure. So seawalls are literally a wall that tries to keep out the ocean and it is this hard approach to protection so you put up a wall and the waves bash into it and then are hopefully reflected back.

But the engineering of that literally breaks down because you’re having waves bash against this hard thing. And so ultimately the seawalls will need to be rebuilt but also the waves hitting the bottom of the wall can basically put so much pressure on the bottom with a lot of push that then the top of the wall teeters out and they can collapse that way. And they’re just extremely expensive to build. I mean these are huge engineering projects. You know in the hundreds of millions of dollars range depending on how much of the coastline you want to protect when we think about protecting the entire coastline of the United States or of the world it’s just, the cost is prohibitive. It’s astronomical. So we need to be thinking about other ways to protect our coastlines. And one of those is that ecosystems did it better. Whether those are wetlands or corals or seagrasses or mangroves all these things do an incredible job of reducing the power of waves as the water surges through them, just all the friction of hitting these structurally complex ecosystems slows down the waves and the surge and makes it less powerful. And so there’s an opportunity to look to nature by restoring it and then also by mimicking it a bit more, instead of building walls we can build these more intricate structures that reduce the strength and power of waves instead of just trying to keep them out.

It seems like such a powerful metaphor, right? Like walls don’t work. Borders are fake.

Amy Westervelt Right, man-made solutions always for everything.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Yeah and I think the seawall question leads to a larger question which is in the context of rising sea levels which have already risen a foot in the last century and in the US on average you know we’re looking at three, six, nine, twelve feet of sea level rise in the next few decades. By the end of the century we don’t know. I mean it depends how much ice melts at the poles but the thought that we could just build ever higher and higher walls is like even more absurd than thinking that we could solve this problem with walls.

And so there’s this real need to move the conversation from how do we just hold back the entire ocean which is absurd to how do we deal with the inevitability of sea level rising to the extent that it will inundate a lot of coastal areas. So what does the future need to look like to accommodate this impending reality? I mean the science is not clear on exactly how many feet it’s going to be but it’s going to be a whole bunch of feet. So there’s this concept of managed retreat or a planned retreat, and we definitely need a better term for it, but it’s this idea that we need to actually move out of some of these low-lying areas instead of just trying to hold back the ocean and incessantly rebuild in slightly better ways. We need to say, “Look you know we blew it on climate change and now we have to give some of this land back to nature,” and the question becomes how do we do that in a way that’s respectful of the communities that have been living there, of the traditions that are grounded in those places, of the people whose jobs and food security depend on those places. And the longer we wait to have that conversation the more people are hurt or go bankrupt or lose their homes because of it. So I think as much as nature can help to sort of mitigate the impacts of climate change as can seawalls, it’s time for a brutally honest conversation about the fact that we can’t hold back the entire ocean. And how are we going to move people out of harm’s way?

Amy Westervelt I’m so concerned about that whole conversation and how much people are sort of delaying it because I feel like the thing that’s going to not get discussed is the equity and ethics question.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Absolutely. This is not a conversation about people who have vacation homes in the Hamptons. Like, they’ll figure it out. But the poor communities and communities of color on the coast are really going to get screwed. I mean they already have, right? Every storm we see that happen.

But the very first step should be stop building.

If we’re still doing massive amounts of new construction in places like Miami Beach — someone sent me a picture of Miami Beach the other day and just the number of construction cranes out there I was like you guys, come on.

Amy Westervelt The same kinds of conversations are happening around areas like in California that keep getting burned down by wildfires. You know, does it make sense to rebuild here? And if not where do we move people and how do we figure that out and who pays for it? All that kind of stuff.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson And it’s really hard with homeowners obviously. And I think the insurance industry is actually going to have a huge role to play in this because what can and cannot be insured will determine what gets built or not. I mean I assume someone is still actually insuring this new construction in Miami Beach or else they wouldn’t be building it. And so there is that element of it too. And then there’s this dichotomy of sorts between renters and owners, right? Renters have a bit more flexibility in this context. They can leave more easily. But owners who invested their life savings in a house on the coast? That’s their home. I mean what happens? You know what? Maybe that was part of their plan for saving for retirement. So how do we sort of extricate ourselves from this super complex scenario of ownership and value and a just transition.

But we have to stop building in these places because the more construction there is the more people are going to reasonably dig their heels in and say like “No this is mine I own it, I want to protect this” and then continually ask government to help them protect it.

And so there’s also a question of should we be doing a better job of warning people about the risk of their investment? Like, your house has a 50 percent chance of burning down in the next 10 years if you buy here or being flooded in the next six months if you buy here, you should know about that.

Amy Westervelt So then I do want to get your opinion on why you think the ocean has been often left out of some of the solutions conversations. I know historically there was this moment in the 60s where people thought “hey it’s totally fine because the ocean will just absorb all the carbon.”

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson It has actually done a really good job of that! The ocean has absorbed about 30 percent of the carbon that we measured and about 90 percent of the excess heat. So the ocean is actually doing its very best to protect us from our worst behavior.

Amy Westervelt Right. But it’s impacting the ocean too, right?

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Right. The ocean is warming and then the ocean acidification piece just blows my mind actually because... So what happens is you know a lot of this CO2 gets absorbed into the ocean and that actually changes the chemistry of the seawater. When that CO2 interacts with other things and makes it more acidic, so carbonic acid and carbonate are the byproducts of that breakdown. And so, we’ve actually changed the chemistry of the entire ocean. I don’t think people appreciate that when we say that the ocean is acidifying? We’ve changed the PH of the entire ocean. The ocean’s really big! We changed the chemistry of 70 percent of the world’s surface. And most of the livable area on the planet, because it’s so deep and has so much volume that’s where there’s space for life. And we’ve just changed the entire thing.

So when people have a hard time getting their heads around the scale of what we’ve done, I always think about ocean acidification. And why people don’t often consider the ocean in the context of climate change? I think it’s just a lack of understanding of the way that these systems work. We don’t often talk about how much CO2 the ocean is absorbing and how much heat it’s absorbing. And so how would people know and make that connection? I mean storms are the thing that gets talked about and coral reefs get talked about. But there’s a million other impacts and opportunities. Lobster is the one that I think of. Lobster used to be in New York, it was super common in New York’s waters and in Massachusetts and now they’re basically gone from Long Island Sound. They’re more and more rare in Massachusetts and even in Maine they’re starting to see the effects of climate change and the fishermen there are like “We know this is a dying industry.” So they’re just, you know, people are developing their exit plans and it’s like Nova Scotia is where the lobster are now. Canada has the best habitat. So there’s this great map of species marine species migration toward the poles. They’re just trying to stay at the right temperature so they’re just like moving to the poles to find cooler water.

And then what that does to coastal economies, where often fishing is the foundation. You have the fishermen themselves, the people who repair boats, and the people who process the seafood, and the seafood restaurants and there’s a whole tourism economy and like the recreational fishing industry and all the tour guides and yeah it’s a really big deal. It’s also how we feed ourselves.

Amy Westervelt That’s the thing when you spend time in those communities. I feel like most fishermen even if they are sort of ideologically disinclined to say climate change is man made, there’s no one that will say it’s not happening, you know because they see it all the time and they know that now they have to have multiple permits for different fisheries and they have to go farther and farther away.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson And also that’s just more dangerous for them, too, having to go off shore.

Amy Westervelt Yeah, right, exactly. I also wanted to ask you about why it’s important to take a more intersectional feminist approach to climate change and the benefits of that or where you feel like that will actually help to drive the conversation forward.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Just on the last piece before I tackle that I want to also make it clear that I don’t think that as our population of the world approaches 8 billion and seafood is the largest source of protein for a lot of those people, I don’t think that wild animals in the ocean will be able to sustainably feed us. We need to come up with other ways to feed ourselves. And so you know the US has one of the largest exclusive economic zones area of ocean that any nation controls. So we have a lot of opportunity to think about how we want to manage that sustainably and to feed ourselves. And I think that we have to shift from catching these huge wild animals, in the case of tuna, which are higher up on the food chain than what would be a lion in the savanna. They are basically like whatever eats a dragon that eats a lion is a tuna because there are so many levels in the ocean food chain. So that’s never going to be sustainable. Eating lower on the food chain is important in ocean systems, but we also need to think about how we just grow things instead of catching wild things because we would never expect to live off of wild animals on land for our nation’s population and yet we expect that of the ocean and in a changing climate as well. And that’s just unrealistic.

Amy Westervelt It drives me crazy when people are like “I’m a vegetarian except for seafood,” I’m like actually…

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson It’s always a funny exception to me as a marine biologist I’m like OK cool. Yeah people will say I love to eat octopus and I’m like “They’re probably smarter than you and definitely smarter than every cow.” That’s why this idea of regenerative ocean farming is so important, right? How can we grow sustainably and even restoratively the food that we need? And in a way that’s healthier — you know, a lot of Americans are iodine deficient, for example, which eating more of this stuff could help with.

But to your other question this like taking an intersectional approach here is super important and because I’m thinking about regenerative ocean farming right now, I think it’s really exciting that as that industry grows there are a lot of women who are leading it and taking a really collaborative approach to sharing best practices instead of competing with each other they’re like OK what’s working for you? How do we make that work? How do we build community around this? And working with processing folks on shore as well as scientists to really figure out what the future of this industry looks like because unfortunately it’s still quite young at the commercial level.

Certainly indigenous communities have been harvesting and cultivating shellfish and seaweed on the coast for a long time but doing it at this large commercial scale is very new. And so there is an opportunity to go back to those indigenous and First Nation practices and learn from those. Hawaii, as you mentioned is a great example. They had fish ponds where they were raising fish and seaweed for centuries. And so there’s that element of it which I really appreciate, that it’s a young industry and it’s not evolving as a male-dominated one and it’s evolving hopefully in a way that respects what’s been done and tried in the past and in a way that’s grounded in science.

So when I think about intersectionality I think about areas of expertise. And I think about geography in addition to race and class and gender which I think is really important because we have in the US a huge country. Gender dynamics are at play everywhere, racial dynamics differ from place to place depending on the demographics of that place. Areas of expertise is a huge one there. Geography — there’s so many specificities in geography of just the history of the ocean and the species that are there, and obviously of the climate impacts that people have to deal with.

So, I have been thinking about intersectionality a bit more broadly than maybe we normally do. I think most people think of it as race and gender. I like to think of class as an element of that too, socioeconomic considerations because they determine what opportunities people have to be a part of this changing world.

And geography. I mean it’s a huge country and we’ve got to figure out how everyone can be part of the solution.

So how do we bring to bear all these different skills from scientists to policymakers to farmers to boat captains to all these different experts?

To use a very embarrassing pun, this is really an all hands on deck moment. Climate change is gonna get all of us. No one is immune. And so when I think about intersectionality, I think about the critical importance of making sure everyone has an opportunity to play a part in the solutions and everyone benefits from those solutions more so than just checking boxes about like oh did we talk to black people about this, or women. Are women OK with this? It’s like why are we missing the opportunity to involve huge portions of our population’s brainpower in the solutions?

Because when we have these old models that are very exclusionary and very driven by wealth and access and old boys networks and all of these people who already had the opportunities before getting the next wave of them we miss the opportunity to actually bring our full collective intelligence to bear on coming up with ways to move forward.

And that’s the biggest loss when we don’t take an intersectional approach, it’s that we might actually fail to solve the problems.

As a black woman and a marine biologist from Brooklyn, I care who grew up in the hood. Like I care about all those things because I care about equity. But I also want to solve the problem. So there are multiple reasons we need to get this right.


Written by

Print and radio reporter. Founder, Critical Frequency. Host/reporter Drilled podcast.

Critical Frequency

Chronicling independent podcasting as the industry matures.

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