What if you faced the burden of tackling two existential threats at once?
Global warming, or the increase in the earth’s atmospheric temperature caused by the release of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, poses a threat to our planet’s life. Our actions as humans have exacerbated the planet’s dangerously warming temperatures, and in recent decades this human-caused threat has become prevalent in both political and social conversations.
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a black female climate expert, is one such activist. A marine biologist, policy expert, and writer, Dr. Johnson founded Ocean Collectiv and Urban Ocean Lab, a social justice consulting firm and think tank, respectively, both of which foster change for environmental protection. Dr. Johnson focuses on ocean conservation, sustainable fishing, ocean zoning, and social justice. Her educational journey parallels her present career in environmental justice, for Johnson received a Bachelor of Arts degree in environmental science and public policy from Harvard University and later earned a Ph.D. in marine biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Reefs, ecosystems that are both critical for biodiversity and sensitive to rising water temperatures and acidity, are experiencing degradation from unsustainable fishing practices and increasing carbon emissions. Most coral contains zooxanthellae, photosynthetic algae. In a mutualistic relationship, the algae are protected by the coral, and the algae’s release of oxygen from the oxidation of water during the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis helps remove the coral’s waste. It is the algae that give the coral their beautiful colors, so when they face unideal temperatures and ph levels from climate change, the coral is left vulnerable and bleached. Dr. Johnson has focused intensely on sustainable management of coral reef resources, which involves pinpointing and solving the environmental causes that destroy coral reefs. During her impactful career, Dr. Johnson has conducted research on Caribbean coral reef trap fisheries and on the impacts of climate change on small islands, whose people experience the most consequences from coral degradation, such as having fewer food resources. Furthermore, she has led the Caribbean’s first successful ocean zoning project, which has aimed to protect vulnerable ocean areas. Her podcast How to Save a Planet and her book All We Can Save have shed light on these tough conversations about climate change.
Despite Dr. Johnson’s impressive career and achievements regarding environmental protection, she has faced deterrence from racism in society. In her passionate and alarming article in the Washington Post titled “I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet,” Dr. Johnson exposes the way racism has prevented black climate activists from achieving their goals. She shows the intersection between climate change and race. Laying out clear data that “black Americans are disproportionately more likely than whites to be concerned about — and affected by — the climate crisis,” Dr. Johnson explains how the effects of climate change are not just environmental, but also racially consequential. “Black neighborhoods” are more affected by “fossil-fueled power plants” and “poor air quality.” Despite Dr. Johnson’s passions to solve such pressings climate issues and focus “all” her “attention on climate,” she has been preoccupied with simply justifying “her existence.” In the midst of a civil rights awakening, issues of police brutality towards people of color and systemic racism have been exposed and examined through a critical race lens. While Dr. Johnson works “on one existential crisis,” she “can’t concentrate because of another.” She draws this connection between racism and climate change to show her readers their intersection the similar toll they take on the world. In her last paragraph, Dr. Johnson uses a direct address to urge her white audiences to become “anti-racist,” which is the only way to help fix the issue of climate change, as the two are “intertwined.”
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s passionate sentiments about racial and environmental justice are not isolated, for young people, including myself, are ready to change our planet and society for the better. Environmental justice requires racial justice, and my generation will be the change we want to see.