Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

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Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, and conservation strategist.


  • Each of us can contribute, though. With our votes, our voices, our food choices, our skills and our dollars. We must overhaul both corporate practices and government policies. We must transform culture. Building community around solutions is the most important thing. I am never going to give up working to protect and restore this magnificent planet. Every bit of habitat we preserve, every tenth of a degree of warming we prevent, really does matter. Thankfully, I'm not motivated by hope, but rather a desire to be useful.
  • I don’t have a lot of hope per se. This is a question I get asked a lot, and I’m always like, Why do you think I’m hopeful? I know way too much about the science, that’d be a little bit irrational. But I do think that what I have is a deep understanding of the fact that we still have a range of possible futures. Every scientific report, every graph, there’s a range: We could have two degrees [Celsius] of warming, or we could have four degrees of warming. We could have a little bit of coral reefs left, or we could have none. We could have 20 hurricanes a year, or we could have 10. And that really makes a difference. So basically what gets me out of bed every day is fighting for the best possible future, knowing that climate has changed and will continue to change even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases now, just because we’ve set all of these things in motion.

Interview with On Being (2022)[edit]

  • We are one of 8 million or so species on this planet.
  • there was this moment on a glass-bottom boat (when I was five). And to see a coral reef for the first time, and to see all of these magnificently colored fish swimming around, and to see this literal window into this other world — I was just in awe. And it’s this, like, whole city that’s happening down there, right? It’s not just these little sections where all the fish are the same. It’s this super vibrant and dynamic alternate universe — this ecosystem.
  • I think when the thing that you love is threatened, the natural reaction is to try to save it. And I fell in love with Caribbean coral reefs right as they were starting to crumble.
  • Sylvia Earle, what a pioneer...her generation — they were explorers...They’re like, what is even down there? How do we understand this? And then: Oh [bleep], this is in trouble. And they all became conservationists, right? We saw that same professional transformation with Jacques Cousteau.
  • being the daughter of a Jamaican and thinking about people all around the world in coastal communities, who depend on the ocean for their food security, for their livelihoods, for their cultures, that if we lose the health of ocean ecosystems, we lose something much, much greater than the way it’s often framed in conservation, as an issue of biodiversity, more technically. And it’s really just — for me, it’s like, as much as I love fish and octopuses and kelp and all these things, it’s really about people, why I do this work.
  • the ocean has been, for most of human history, very much this open access, shared resource that’s just been plundered by whoever could get there first with the highest-tech equipment, whatever that meant at the time. And that hasn’t gone that well. And so this idea that we could make a plan, a marine spatial plan, an ocean zoning map for deciding what should happen where, and when, and how to reduce the conflicts between different uses, where things can harmoniously coexist; how to make sure we’re not putting shipping lanes where whales are trying to migrate; and we’re thinking about where offshore wind energy should be sited and where regenerative ocean farming should happen and where fishing should happen — all these things need a place. And it’s much more helpful for industry if they have some certainty about the regulatory framework within which they’re trying to develop their business plans.
  • this is actually a huge problem with ocean philanthropy, too, is that people want to pay nonprofit groups to do the work to establish protected areas, but not to maintain them, not to enforce them, not to monitor them.
  • I wrote about this intersection between ocean conservation and social justice, because I feel like we don’t talk about that enough.
  • I dare you to stand in a redwood grove and not be humbled, or to dive on a coral reef and see even just the glimmer of its former magnificence and have some respect for these ecosystems and the fact that we are sharing this planet.
  • I think that climate communication has focused too much on the problem...I focus on the getting our act together part, because I think that’s the pivot that we need right now. We have more than enough information. I’m grateful for the science, and it’s helping us make more nuanced and clear decisions, but the broad strokes that everyone needs to pitch in, have been there for a long time.
  • that’s something that Naomi Klein talks about a lot, is how we are sort of in this moment where imagination is one of the most valuable things we can bring to the table. And a failure of imagination means a failure of the spectrum of futures that are available to us. And I just, I like to think of — so I remind myself and others that there is still such a wide spectrum of possible futures, and we do get some choice in which ones we have.
  • there’s a lot of different art we could be making to help people see their way into the future.
  • It was Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, coeditor of All We Can Save, who introduced me to Eunice (Newton Foote). I feel like I’m on a first-name basis with her, even though she was doing her research in 1856, when she discovered that carbon dioxide was a greenhouse gas and would warm the planet. A woman discovered this through experimentation in her backyard and was essentially erased from history. An Irish physicist a few years later came to a very similar discovery and was credited as “the father of climate science.”
  • this idea that we can be motivated by love, I think it’s just — it’s just the more delightful way to approach something that is the work of our lifetimes: to do it, thinking about not just the love of other species, but the love of other humans, the love of ecosystems, the love of places. I mean, we all have places that we’re deeply attached to, and many of them are changing for the worse. And so this potential to have that be our driving force is, to me, why I focus on solutions instead of raging against the machine.
  • I think it’s also deeply unwise to have so much dependence on one person, who could be assassinated, as we’ve seen in civil rights movements; who could burn out, as we’ve seen in environmental movements; who might just want to take a break and have a family. So I think this is a moment that calls for many leaders, because what we need is transformation in every community, in every sector of the economy, in every ecosystem, with the hundreds of climate solutions we have.
  • I think it’s so funny that people say it’s too expensive to solve climate change, because it’s just like, what’s your alternative?
  • if you’re motivated purely by counting pennies and not by saving life on Earth, then we’re just not speaking the same language.
  • The word that I’ve started using more and more is “transformation,” because we’ve talked about a transition away from fossil fuels; we’ve talked about what we’re going to stop doing; we’ve talked about how we need to do other stuff. But I think the word “transformation” has embedded within it the sense of possibility: what are we going to become?

Interview with Democracy Now (2021)[edit]

  • We are simply not seeing very much climate coverage at all in the mainstream media. What we see is last year about 0.4% of the major news shows’ minutes were about climate, 0.4%. So we’re not talking about what we’re supposed to do. And only 30% of the coverage that does exist on climate in major news outlets talks about solutions. So we’re just not having the deep conversations about what we do next.
  • Katharine and I decided to put together this anthology to bring a whole new cadre of climate leaders to the fore, to expand the number of voices people were looking to in times of crisis, to share the wisdom from women climate leaders, and to have this focus on solutions, as the subtitle reflects, that this is about truth, courage and solutions, not like doom, gloom and give up, but really thinking about what’s next for the climate movement and the need for it to be a very leaderful movement if we’re going to succeed.
  • The ocean produces about half of the oxygen we breathe. It has also already absorbed about a third of the carbon dioxide that we have emitted by burning fossil fuels, which has turned the ocean more acidic than it has been in human history. So we have an increasingly acidic ocean, an increasingly warmer ocean. That’s very bad for the creatures that are trying to live in there. Some are trying to flee towards the poles, when they can move, like fish. Others, like corals, are often now frying in place. So we have just a very different ocean than we had even a hundred years ago.
  • when I and other ocean policy folks looked at the Green New Deal, we realized the ocean and all the solutions it’s trying to offer us for how to address the climate crisis were essentially left out.
  • this is a chickens-coming-home-to-roost moment. And I’m seeing a lot of my friends who — sort of aware, of course, that climate change is happening, but hasn’t really, like, hit them — we’re seeing people wake up right now.

"I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet." Article (2020)[edit]

  • As a marine biologist and policy nerd, building community around climate solutions is my life’s work. But I’m also a black person in the United States of America. I work on one existential crisis, but these days I can’t concentrate because of another.
  • How can we expect black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streets, in our communities, and even within our own homes? How can people of color effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive and life-shortening racism?
  • Even at its most benign, racism is incredibly time consuming. Black people don’t want to be protesting for our basic rights to live and breathe. We don’t want to constantly justify our existence. Racism, injustice and police brutality are awful on their own, but are additionally pernicious because of the brain power and creative hours they steal from us. I think of one black friend of mine who wanted to be an astronomer, but gave up that dream because organizing for social justice was more pressing. Consider the discoveries not made, the books not written, the ecosystems not protected, the art not created, the gardens not tended.
  • People of color disproportionately bear climate impacts, from storms to heat waves to pollution. Fossil-fueled power plants and refineries are disproportionately located in black neighborhoods, leading to poor air quality and putting people at higher risk for coronavirus. Such issues are finally being covered in the news media more fully.
  • to white people who care about maintaining a habitable planet, I need you to become actively anti-racist. I need you to understand that our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither. I need you to step up. Please. Because I am exhausted.

Interview with NPR (2020)[edit]

  • this op-ed, for me, really grew out of a moment where I was just like, I can't. I just can't charge ahead. I have to stop and pay attention to what is happening in this country. And I hope that that is something that hit a lot of people - that business as usual is just not an option anymore. This is obviously an inflection point in American history.
  • People talk about climate justice as the intersection between race and climate because people of color are more strongly affected by the impacts of climate change - whether that's storms or droughts or heat waves.
  • I decided to write this because the environmental community was initially really silent on Black Lives Matter.
  • the fact that we have so many Americans who can't follow their dreams because they know that their first responsibility is to protect their communities is just gut wrenching to me.

External links[edit]

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