How a scientist made sure the oceans weren’t forgotten

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a self-proclaimed US marine scientist and political nerd, recalls going through the 2019 Green New Deal policy and being stunned to see no mention of the oceans.

The 14-page document was proposed by Democrats in Congress to tackle climate change with the goal of global net zero emissions by 2050 and the creation of new clean energy industries.

“My knee-jerk reaction was that if this proposal didn’t include the ocean, it just would never be enough,” Dr Johnson told UNSW Science Dean Professor Emma Johnston at the Justice for the event. Oceans last weekend.

The event was hosted by the UNSW Ideas Center as part of the UNSW Science Week festivities.

Professor Johnston, also a marine biologist specializing in coastal ecology, led a discussion that explored the future of our oceans at this critical time of climate change.

“Because the ocean is the most affected by many climate impacts… it has absorbed over 90% of the heat that we trapped with greenhouse gases,” said Dr. Johnson.

“It absorbs about a third of the carbon dioxide we gave off by burning fossil fuels and that has drastically changed the ocean.”

Professor Emma Johnston, Dean of Science at UNSW, interviewed marine scientist Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson at the Justice for the Oceans event. Photo: UNSW Center for Ideas.

New blue offer

Last year, Dr Johnson co-wrote the Blue New Deal, a roadmap to including the ocean in climate policy, for Democrat Elizabeth Warren as part of her 2020 presidential campaign.

“What I thought about when I saw this congressional resolution [Green New Deal] it is that “they are leaving out a lot of solutions,” she said.

“Because the ocean is not only a victim, it is also a hero.”

Coastal ecosystems such as mangroves can absorb four times more carbon per hectare than a forest and provide protection against storms “which are increasingly frequent and violent”.

There are many other benefits of the ocean, such as offshore wind turbines, floating solar panels, tidal power, growing seaweed and seashells, “things you don’t have to feed that absorb.” a lot of carbon and can be very nutritious… and provide a lot of jobs ”.

Dr Johnson described how her fascination with the sea began as a child, growing up in Brooklyn, New York.

She didn’t go to the beach often, but when she was five, her family took her to Florida where she learned to swim.

“I went to the beach and got on a glass bottom boat and saw a coral reef for the first time,” she said.

“And I realized there was this whole other universe and I wanted to know everything about it… I was like, why didn’t anyone tell me about it?”

Dr Johnson said that while many of her college mates were “experienced divers, or who had grown up sailing or as lifeguards on the beach”, she had a more academic interest in studying science. marines.

“Clearly there has to be better management and learning that after you fall in love with something and realize that it is threatened, of course your reaction is, ‘Well, let’s go. we do about it? “

Cultural disturbances

As the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, Dr Johnson said she grew up understanding how deeply Caribbean cultures were linked to the sea.

“I have always been so curious to know, through [my dad’s] stories, and hearing that during her lifetime, Jamaica’s coral reef ecosystems really collapsed before her eyes, ”she said.

“It’s the idea that a grandparent can’t take their grandson fishing because there’s nothing to catch, it’s heartbreaking.

“And it’s something that is passed down from generation to generation. Or think that you can’t fry a fish on the beach, or that the water is too polluted to go swimming with your family and friends.

“Like, it’s not just disturbances of nature, but also disturbances of culture. “

For this reason, she said it is important to broaden the diversity “of the people who decide the assumptions”.

Dr Johnson said she wouldn’t describe herself as being good at science, “I really cared.”

“When I got to college… my best grades were definitely not in science and it wasn’t the easiest for me, but it was the most interesting,” she said.

“For many people, it is this passion and curiosity that leads to discovery, it is not who can memorize the most facts.”

Dr Johnson said she was “very grateful” for her scientific training as a way to help her translate science to inform policy making.

“I’m one of those weirdos who did a doctorate in marine biology, never intended to be a researcher, never intended to be an academic or a professor, but I was like, I really want to understand that sort of thing. ”she said.

Early in her career, Dr Johnson was a former Executive Director of the Waitt Institute, a nonprofit organization that creates sustainable ocean plans with governments and local stakeholders as in the Caribbean.

She has also developed policies at the US Environmental Protection Authority and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Coastal city solutions

In recent years, Dr Johnson has co-founded the Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank that offers policy solutions to coastal cities, where much of humanity lives.

In the United States, about a third of the population lives in coastal cities, reflecting the global trend, and 40% of Americans live in coastal counties.

“So how do we prepare for the impacts of climate change that are already certain to come, and we adapt accordingly? She said.

“Urban Ocean Lab focuses on cities because cities as a level of government can make a lot of their own decisions about policies and how they want to approach things. “

Dr Johnson said she was now focusing her political work on three pressing issues for the ocean: how to manage fisheries sustainably; how to fix ocean pollution from untreated sewage and plastic waste; and destruction of coastal ecosystems for housing and infrastructure.

“I moved my job to say ‘How do we make sure we include the ocean when it comes to climate policy?’” She said.

Besides governments, Dr Johnson also wants to inspire the general public to take action on climate change.

She created and co-hosts the popular American podcast How to save a planet, which asks the questions of what and how people need to do to solve the climate crisis.

Last year she published the anthology All we can save, written by “not globally known” collaborators who work on climate solutions.

Raising women

The aim of the book was to raise the platform and the voices of women who were overlooked for their important work, and at the same time, to show the many ways others can contribute to climate solutions.

“I would say that one of the biggest failures of the modern environmental movement has often been asking everyone to do the same,” she said.

“As everyone walks, everyone makes a donation, everyone spreads the word, everyone votes and likes to do these things, please do these things, I do these things, I will not m ‘Stop.

“But if we don’t bring to the table what we’re particularly good at, then this is a real missed opportunity.”

Women have often been excluded from decision-making on climate issues, the marine scientist said.

“And we know that quantitatively that worsens the results,” she said.

“When there are more women parliamentarians, we get more and better environmental policy and it is better enforced and we sign treaties and we do things to reduce the impacts of climate change. “

Need more leaders

She said the environmental movement could learn from the Black Lives Matter movement, which has “many people in different cities organizing their people for them, around local politics or injustice.”

“We don’t need a single hero, we need thousands of people who are transforming their places of life, because if we are to transform our electricity transport, land use, agriculture, manufacturing , buildings… we need leaders in all of these areas. sectors, in every location.

While the work of building consensus on ocean management takes time, she said it’s a frustrating truth that “if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together. “.

“But at the same time, we absolutely cannot wait for everyone to agree 100% on everything, because we will never get anywhere,” she said.

“There must also be a limit … we must restore and protect things.”

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