Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Inspires Students to Apply Their Gifts to Solving the Climate Crisis

By Rebecca Goldfine
This year's Kibbe Science Lecturer was Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist who has founded a think tank to help coastal cities adapt to climate change. She is also the cohost of the popular podcast How to Save a Planet, and co-founder of the All We Can Save Project. 
Ayana Johnson
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, writer, and Brooklyn native. She earned a BA in environmental science and public policy from Harvard University, and a PhD in marine biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. 

In her Thursday evening discussion, Johnson touched on a range of topics, including how her extraordinary career trajectory has melded science, activism, and policy. She also spoke about the connections between the environment and the Black Lives Matter movement, arguing in general for building greater inclusivity into our solutions and adaptations to climate change.

The lecture was moderated by two Bowdoin professors, Associate Professor of Earth and Oceanograhic Science (EOS) Emily Peterman and Visiting Assistant Professor of EOS Stefan Gray.

At the start of her talk, Johnson shared a message that is particularly apt for students trying to figure out how they will help mitigate the climate crisis. She described drawing a Venn diagram earlier in her own life to pinpoint the overlap of her talents, aptitudes, and interests, and the problems she wanted to help solve.

"I encourage everyone to think about their own version of the Venn diagram," she said. "What are you good at? What is the work that needs doing? What is the solution you want to work toward? And what brings you joy?"

Johnson co-founded Urban Ocean Lab in 2018 because, after assessing her own skills and passions, she knew she wanted to "be part of building the bridge between science and policy." Her Venn diagram includes a PhD in marine science and a desire to work on justice.

Urban Ocean Lab, a "think tank for coastal cities," is currently researching the "best practices, lessons learned, and innovations" of waterfront cities around the world as they grapple with rising seas. A report on its findings will be released soon, Johnson said.

One strategy she's currently studying is "managed retreats" from the coastline, or the coordination of moving people away from the ocean rather than continuing to rebuild in the face of inevitable higher tides, severe flooding, and more catastrophic storms.

"How do we figure out what it means to respectfully, with an eye to community cohesion and culture, help people move out of harm’s way," she said. "What does it actually mean to adapt when you're dealing with the ocean moving toward you, slowly or quickly."

Johnson works on the climate according to a set of values that includes community input and the principles and practices of social and environmental justice. Any plan for change must include many different stakeholders, she argues, especially those historically overlooked in the environmental movement.

After the murder of George Floyd last summer and the ensuing protests demanding an end to police violence against Black people, Johnson wrote an editorial in the Washington Post, "I'm a Black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet."  

She cited polling statistics from Yale and George Mason Universities, which found that 49 percent of white Americans care about climate change, while 57 percent of Black Americans and 69 percent of Latinx people report being concerned. Yet, the environmental movement is dominated by white people.

"What would it mean if all of these people who already cared could stop worrying about their day-to-day health and safety and work on this other thing that we need everybody to pitch in on?" she said.

"It seems like this horrifying loss of potential, wisdom, creativity, and muscle that we need to transform our economy, our society, our food systems, our transportation, our buildings, our electricity," she continued. "And to think that there are 23 million Black Americans who would be down to help but are so worried about their basic safety that maybe they can't prioritize working on climate solutions as much as they would like to!"

She called her op-ed a letteror call to actionto white environmentalists. "If you don't help us address racism, we cannot help you solve the climate crisis."

At another point in the talk, Johnson again mentioned the need to include a broad swath of the population in another effort she's invested in: harnessing the oceans to help manage climate change. (She is the co-author of the Blue New Deal, a roadmap for including the ocean in climate policy.) 

Developing offshore wind energy, restoring coastal ecosystems that can buffer rising seas, investing in algae biofuel, and growing kelp and shellfish farms could all help stave off environmental disaster. But, if mismanaged, they have the potential to exacerbate inequality, too.

"How do we work with coastal communities to make sure they get the benefits [of offshore wind energy and other future marine industries]? And that there is job training available?" she said. "We need to not leave anyone behind in this transition."

In her remarks about the farming of seaweed and shellfish, Johnson posed the question, "Who are the farmers going to be? What will the industry look like? How do we do it so that it doesn't repeat the mistake of big agriculture on land? How do we make sure women, people of color, and indigenous communities have a stake in this burgeoning new industry?"

There is a role for everyone—no matter what job they have, who they are, or what they know—in solving the climate crisis, she reinforced. Even if someone doesn't grasp all the complexities of climate science, they can still be part of the "work that needs doing."

"We need to lower the bar on what we expect the average person to know on the technical side, but raise the bar on what we expect the average person to contribute to the solutions," Johnson said.

She criticized the environmental movement for its narrow focus on encouraging individuals to decrease their carbon footprint and take limited actions otherwise. "The environmental movement has failed in a specific way," she said. "It has asked everyone to do the same thing: everyone march, everyone donate, everyone vote, everyone spread the word. But how foolish is it if we don't ask people to do what they're good at in service of climate solutions." 

Farmers, doctors, lawyers, artists, investors—they each have unique and important ways to contribute, she said. 

"How do we use our access, skills, resources, and networks to make change that is bigger than ourselves?" she asked. "We're past the days of only climate scientists working on climate. No matter what your major is in college, you can use that for making the world a little better."

The Kibbe Science Lecture Fund was established by Frank W. Kibbe ’37 and his wife, Lucy H. Kibbe.