“When people say we have to save the planet, my question is: ‘Who are we saving it for?’ Because often, the answer is not for everyone.”
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a leading marine biologist working on designing the future of coastal cities. All of her work is rooted in social justice and, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, she notes: “Racism derails our efforts to save the planet.” Between launching a new podcast called How to Save a Planet, and releasing an anthology of writings about climate change, Johnson took some time to speak with Wake-Up Call about environmental racism and steps policymakers need to take to create climate justice for all.
Wake-Up Call: Why is the climate emergency as pressing as our current Covid-19 emergency?
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: When it comes to the climate crisis, quite simply, we’re running out of time. Science tells us that we are barreling towards all these different tipping points, whether that’s for sea ice, ocean currents, permafrost, or coral reef. All of these things are really teetering at the edge. And yes, we have multiple crises that we’re dealing with right now, but that doesn’t mean that we can neglect climate change because the clock is ticking.
And there are abrupt punctuations: Massive wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts and heatwaves. All of this is slowly building. It’s like, you’re a frog in a pot of boiling water. And then all of a sudden — well it’s too hot.
We’ve been very lucky as humans to have a pretty stable climate for the last tens of thousands of years. And we’re about to be out of that comfort zone for what humans can comfortably live in. We were seeing temperatures of 125 in Baghdad this week. That’s not a temperature where you can walk around in and get on with your day.
Covid-19 is killing Black Americans at twice the rate of their white counterparts. How is climate injustice a factor in this?
Oil refineries and power plants are often near communities of color and poor communities, which means they have higher rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. They’re already dealing with weakened lungs and immune systems because of fossil fuels, which puts them at a higher risk for Covid-19.
Then, if we think about how people get through summer, they tend to gather in air-conditioned spaces. There are cooling centers during heat waves for people who can’t afford air conditioners. And that can become a risk factor as well.
Could you tell me more about the history of environmental racism in the U .S.? How has pollution disproportionately impacted communities of color?
When people say we have to save the planet, my question is: “Who are we saving it for?” Because often, the answer is not for everyone.
As a Marine biologist, I think about which beaches are dirty and which water is clean and safe to swim in. Polluters can get away with pollution in places where people don’t have the power and resources to fight them, in communities that have been disenfranchised and marginalized in one way or another. We see that with air, water, chemical, and land pollution. There are a lot of maps that can describe the overlap between communities of color, low-income communities, and exposure to toxins. And we know Black communities are much more likely to have that exposure.
That’s sort of the general landscape of the problem when it comes to environmental injustice. And of course, these communities have been fighting it from the very beginning. We’ve seen local environmental justice groups trying to stand up for their rights to clean air and clean water, but some people have a louder voice and more influence than others.
How do you want to see policymakers address these issues going forward and how can people on the ground fight for justice?
The role of government is to protect the citizens and not just let corporations pollute the environment. One of the things I was really excited to see just this last week was a new bill introduced in Congress called the Climate Equity Act, by Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Alexander Ocasio-Cortez. It has all of these different elements in it that require you to take climate justice, and the air, water, and public health of marginalized communities, into account when allocating federal funds. Another aspect is the legal system. We should be suing people and holding them accountable for illegal polluting.
You’re launching a new podcast, ‘How To Save a Planet.’ What do you hope to explore?
It’s a podcast about climate solutions. I think it’s really important because we often talk about the problem and not quite so much what we can do about it. Each episode kind of takes on a different solution or opportunity.
What does it look like to transition from fossil fuels to renewable? How do we transform agriculture so that it’s actually absorbing more carbon in the soil instead of releasing it? What does it look like to farm the ocean in a way that’s regenerative and part of the climate solution? And at the end of each episode, we’ll actually give people an opportunity for getting involved.
You also co-edited a new book coming out, an anthology titled ‘All We Can Save.’ What did you have in mind when curating this and what do you hope people get from it?
There are essays by 41 different women who are leading on climate — everyone from NASA climate scientists, soil scientists, to policy experts, artists and architects, and farmers. It includes poetry, art, and is just this really incredible collection of wisdom. In particular, we curated it as an anthology of writings by women climate leaders, because for the last few decades, the voices we’ve been hearing most loudly on climate have been a pretty small group of men.
It’s important that it’s an anthology because the work of addressing the climate crisis is so multifaceted. We need a mosaic of experts in order to make sure we have a habitable planet in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.