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Justice for the Oceans

Emma Johnston and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

We don’t need one hero, we need thousands of people transforming the places where they live, because if what we need to do is transform our electricity transportation, land use, agriculture, manufacturing, buildings…we need leaders in all of those sectors, in every location.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

How can we make a Blue New Deal? 

Healthy oceans are fundamental to a healthy planet. From phytoplankton, the tiny ocean plants that produce the oxygen we breathe, to the rich diversity of other ocean plants and creatures, we depend on our oceans to survive and thrive.  

But our oceans are both under threat and pose a threat. Pollution, overfishing and the destruction of coral reefs are killing them from within, while the impacts of climate change – rising sea levels and storm surges – are transforming the ocean from friend to foe for the many millions who live on the coast.  

Globally-renowned ocean defender Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is clear: saving the oceans is key to fighting the climate crisis. In this conversation Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and leading Australian marine scientist Emma Johnston explore how these issues are playing out in Australia and internationally, the future of the oceans in the age of climate change, how to mobilise support for a Blue New Deal and how women leaders are pioneering global climate action. 

To explore more on Ayana's work or read about important ocean research, head here.

Presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas, UNSW Science and the Powerhouse Museum for the 2021 Sydney Science Festival. Supported by Inspiring Australia as a part of National Science Week.

UNSW Centre for Ideas, Powerhouse Museum, Inspiring Australia and NSW Government logos


Ann Mossop: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney’s brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop, Director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. The conversation you're about to hear, Justice for the Oceans, is between Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, and UNSW Dean of Science, Emma Johnston, and was recorded live. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Emma Johnston: Hello, and welcome to this conversation on Justice for the Oceans. Presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas, UNSW Science and the Powerhouse Museum. And we're speaking today for Sydney Science Festival 2021. My name is Emma Johnston, I'm Dean of Science here at UNSW Sydney and Professor of Marine Ecology and Ecotoxicology. I'm thrilled to be joined by US Marine biologist Dr. Ayana Johnson today. I'd like to begin by acknowledging the Bidjigal people who are the traditional custodians of the lands and seas from which I join you today. I'd like to acknowledge their elders past and present and extend my respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are joining us. It's really important during National Science Week, that I also acknowledge the deep wisdom that emanates from continuing connections to country. Now, I'd like to welcome marine biologist, policy expert and author Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who's joining us from New York today. Many people know Ayana as the co-creator and co-host on the podcast, How to Save the Planet. And if you haven't heard that podcast, do tune in. It was launched in August 2020, and it's about combating climate change with expert led, actionable solutions. It's very evidence based and explains all the science that you need to know in each episode. Ayana has also founded a think tank for coastal cities, The Urban Ocean Lab, and with Dr. Catherine Wilkinson she co-edited the climate anthology, All We can Save, here’s my copy here. It's a wonderful book. They also together co-founded, out of this book, the All We Can Save Project. Most recently, Ayana co-authored The New Blue Deal, which is a roadmap for including the ocean in climate policy. And we'll talk more about this in the conversation tonight. Previously, Ayana was executive director of the Waitt Institute, developed policy at the Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which you may know as NOAA. And she was leader of the March for Science and taught at New York University. So incredible depth and experience here. Dr. Johnson earned her BA from Harvard University in environmental science and public policy, and then did a PhD from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in marine biology. Welcome, Ayana.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Hello. Thanks for having me. And I am joining you from the traditional lands of the Lenape and Canarsie people here in Brooklyn, New York.

Emma Johnston: Wonderful. So many people know you, Ayana, as the co-creator and co-host of the How to Save the Planet podcast, which is a fantastic listening opportunity, and you want to tune in. Launched it quite recently in August 2020, and it's about combating climate change with expert led, actionable solutions. Can you just describe the podcast for us?

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Sure. It took, I had no, first of all, I had no idea how hard it was to make a podcast. I know so much more respect for people who host,and produce, and create these shows. I had this perception that because it was audio only it would be much simpler. And some podcasts are just two people chatting and then they upload it to the internet. But the way that we do it, it's multiple guests for each episode. And then scripting with me and my co-host and co-creator, Alex Bloomberg, between us, were really guiding the audience through these complex topics, right? Whether it's regenerative agriculture, or offshore wind energy, or, are electric cars really better, or is my carbon footprint nonsense, right? Like, there's a lot of science behind all of this. And we don't want to gloss over that. But we want to make sure that we're explaining it in a super clear way. So also, all of our episodes go through like two rounds of fact checking. But it's basically, the premise is, what do we need to do to address the climate crisis, and how are we going to make those things happen? And from that framework, we can talk about all sorts of different things and bring in all sorts of different expert guests, and we're coming up on our one year anniversary of the show being live on air. And it's been such a treat to get to learn from all these different experts, and to help people understand how they can be part of solutions. And how we can take the climate crisis seriously without taking ourselves too seriously. You probably know that we, like, definitely are a little bit goofy sometimes. But you know, sometimes the moment calls for, like, dorky jokes.

Emma Johnston: Absolutely. Got to keep your chin up, don't you? In the current crisis situation. So that’s a wonderfully informative podcast, and also something that you've must have learned a lot from yourself, which is a great opportunity. Let's just talk about you for a moment. You grew up in Brooklyn, which is on the coast, although very a really urbanised coast. What drew you to that ocean, or the sea around you?

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: It certainly wasn't the coastline of Brooklyn. New York City has almost 600 miles of coastline, something like 570 miles of coastline. There's five boroughs, right? There's Manhattan, there's Brooklyn, there's Queens, there’s the Bronx, there’s Staten Island, there's all these other little islands, there's Liberty Island, and Roosevelt Island and Ellis Island. And it's an archipelago. People don't think of that word when they think of New York City. But New York City is an archipelago. And none of that registered for me when I was a kid in Brooklyn. I didn't go to the beach that often, and, you know, where I lived, I certainly couldn't see the water from there, and saw the ocean very rarely. So it was actually a family trip, when I was five, my parents took me to Florida, and I learned to swim down there, and I went to the beach, and I went on a glass bottom boat ride and I saw a coral reef for the first time, and I realised that there was this whole of the universe, and I wanted to know everything about it. And that's what started my lifelong fascination with the sea.

Emma Johnston: That's beautiful, and it's such a common story, I think for people. The first time they get underwater it's like walking into a whole new world. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Yeah. 

Emma Johnston: You think you might have to go to Mars to do that. But in fact, diving below the sea…

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Yeah, I wonder if you can relate to this. Because we, you know, we share some academic areas of focus. I was almost like, why did no one tell me about this before? Like, how could you keep this a secret from me for the last five years?

Emma Johnston: So if you're listening and you haven't been underwater, now's your chance, now's the opportunity. If you can get out of the house, if you're not in lockdown, run to that ocean and dive in. Or the next chance you get. Please do try it. It's one of the most beautiful and inspiring things you can do. And I do feel the same way. In particular, actually, scuba diving was another step into that world where I thought, why did no one tell me that you can breathe underwater? It's just so enabling. Have you done much scuba? 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: You know, I think a lot of people who are interested in becoming marine biologists probably spend a lot more time in and under the water than I did. I mean, I went to graduate school, with a lot of people who were very experienced scuba divers already, or who had grown up sailing, or as lifeguards at the beach. And I didn't have any of those, sort of, hours. I didn't have those hours on the water that a lot of the other students have. I had, like, a more, like, academic and practical interest. Was like, okay, we need to figure out what we're doing with the ocean. Clearly, there needs to be better management and you know, learning that falling in love with something and then realising that it's threatened, of course, your reaction is, well, what are we going to do about it? Right? Because I essentially fell in love with coral reefs as they were dying. You know, in the mid 80s, that's when ecosystems in Florida were really starting to crumble. So my motivation was always conservation, as opposed to exploration, or super detailed natural history, or, you know, biological or chemical oceanography. It was just like, how much can we learn to then make good decisions for policy? And so the reason I started scuba diving was because I realised I couldn't hold my breath long enough to count fish to then make recommendations for fisheries management. So it's like, a little bit in the opposite direction of how a lot of other people who love the ocean approach their science.

Emma Johnston: That's great to hear your story because there are so many ways of getting into science and then using science and I think we sometimes constrain our thinking about what is a scientist. UNSW Sydney is actually spending the whole week celebrating different ways of being a scientist and like opening up science to a diversity of people. So you've just identified a different pathway in, and in fact, a different development of your science training. So you, when was it that you thought, I'm actually loving science, I'm really good at it, but I need to do a bit more, I need to actually jump into the policy component of using your science?

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: I guess I would say I don't even know that I was really good at it. I just really cared. And I think, so often kids, if you don't get A's in your science classes, you assume you're not good enough at it. And being a researcher is very different than being, like, a college student, right? Like when you're an undergraduate student, it's all about memorising everything to do well on the tests, often, there's a lot of material to cover, right? In biology and chemistry and ecology and physics and statistics and whatever you're taking. And some people like me, I wasn't, I did very well as a student in high school but when I got to college, I wouldn't say my, certainly my best grades were not in science. And it wasn't the easiest for me, but it was the most interesting. And that's what leads you actually to become a good scientist, is if you are very curious, and you ask important questions, then you use the scientific method and your training and your collaborators to figure out how to answer those questions. So, if there are folks listening, are like, well, I don't get A's in biology, I can't become a marine biologist. It's actually not exactly that way, for a lot of people. It's like this passion, and curiosity that leads to discoveries, right? It's not who can memorise the most facts. And so just as you were saying, like, that is another reason why we need to broaden who feels welcome in the field of science. Because if we have a broader diversity of people deciding on the hypotheses, the questions that we're asking, as scientists, the research that we're focusing on, then we'll learn a lot more. And so for me, as the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, who, you know, he grew up swimming and fishing and with a very different relationship to the sea, and I was always so curious about that, through his stories. And hearing that, you know, in his lifetime, the coral reef ecosystems of Jamaica had really crumbled before his eyes. And to then think, well, like, what can I as the next generation do to help? Was a lot of my motivation and understanding how deeply intertwined Caribbean cultures are with the sea. I mean, the thought of not being able to take a grandparent, not being able to take their grandkid fishing, because there's nothing to catch. It's heartbreaking, right? This is something that is passed down from generations. Or to think you can't have a fish fry on the beach, or the waters too polluted, you know, to go swimming with your family and friends. Like, these are not just disruptions to nature, but also disruptions to culture. And so I have always been motivated by ocean conservation as a matter of cultural preservation. You, sort of, mentioned that in your opening remarks acknowledging the Indigenous Peoples who have had these connections to different parts of the coastline in Australia. And I think sometimes in the very rigorous science circles, we undervalue the humanity of why we need to get this work right. Of conservation, of addressing the climate crisis, and then also, as you said, undervalue the real expertise that comes from being connected to a place and an ecosystem for so many generations, and having a cultural, sort of, folklore based in, in fact, but passed down through folklore of how ecosystems have changed over time in reaction to different, sort of, national trends in nature, and what we can learn from those for the future. 

So I think that transition for me from, oh, this is really cool, I want to know everything about the ocean. To, oh my goodness, we have to do something to help the ocean. And then the people who depend on the ocean, you know, need better information in order to make good management decisions. That happened for me, like most clearly, when I was in college, and I went on a study abroad program to Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean. And I lived in a small fishing village of just a few 100 people and saw how dependent they were on catching lobster and conch. And that there was this marine park established there to protect the lobster and conch but it had been established without really a lot of science behind where the boundaries were drawn. And turned out they included a nursery habitat for conch inside just unwittingly, which was great because conch were reproducing and they were protected while they were babies, but, but they didn't know that at the time, right? And the courses that I took that semester were marine biology, and environmental policy, and environmental economics, and then living in a fishing village and seeing how these things were all playing out. And so that was when I realised that ocean conservation is this amazing puzzle. Right? It is, it is the natural science, it is the social science, it is the, you know, the economics, it's the culture, it's the policy, it's the politics, it's the oceanography, it's the ecology. And then I was like, oh, I could spend my entire life working on this, right? Because the thing that my brain really lights up about is understanding these, these webs, not only within any ecosystem, but within all of the things that affect it. And, and so that, I think I probably don't have, necessarily, like, the disposition to be, like, a lab scientist or a field biologist. In fact, I'm certain I don't really have naturally the disposition to be either of those things. But I've really been very grateful for my scientific education as a way to help me translate science for informing policymaking. So I'm one of those weirdos who did a PhD in marine biology, without ever intending to be a researcher, without ever intending to be an academic or a professor, but I was like, I want to understand this stuff really well so that when I go out in the world to help with policymaking, or just speak with communities, I really can be grounded in an understanding of the way that ocean systems work. And so you can imagine to approach an advisor and be like, I don't want to be a scientist, but I want a PhD in marine biology, led to some sort of, like, what? Okay, tell me more about this. But I'm so glad it all worked out the way it did.

Emma Johnston: So, the stories that I'm picking up on there, though, are really following your passion, because it's the passion that's gonna give you the motivation and the energy to get you through the hard bits of a PhD, for example. But then it's not necessarily a direct path from there, into, you know, what most people will project as a research scientist. It's fascinating that you've essentially described the increasing connections between disciplines that are so necessary for conservation. in the modern age, and that you've actually lived through them. And I, because I feel that we're seeing this across the board in ecosystem science is that increasing recognition of the role of people in conservation, the stewardship, the necessity to understand values and connections. And at the moment, it's really interesting, I'm co-chief author of The State of Environment Report from Australia, which is finishing this year in 2021. We do it every five years. And for the first time ever, we have Indigenous co-authors for every chapter. And the first thing that we did was sit down and write a set of, kind of, guidelines for how we would collaborate, respectfully acknowledging the different knowledge systems, and making sure that we didn't appropriate knowledge, but also making sure that we respected and could combine the two. And it's been a journey. It's been a journey that should have taken place probably 30 years ago. But you know, it's great to be on that journey now. So I do see you're ahead of the game in that conversation that you're having. And I'm going to talk to you a little bit about the book that you've just recently written in a minute. But first, I wanted to – because I think that's part of that conversation – but first, I wanted to just get your thoughts on, what are the current most urgent issues for the ocean? Because you've described some historical ones that really actually shaped your thinking about the collapse of ecosystems near Florida in the 80s. But some of the issues that we're facing now are continuations of those problems, but some of them are new. Can you talk to us about what you think the  major crisis issues are?

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Yeah. My PhD advisor had been really focused on overfishing and the history of overfishing. Dr. Jeremy Jackson. He was a historical ecologist, he put together all this data to understand, like, how much used to even be there? Do we have the right baseline when we're talking about how do we think about our goals for restoring and protecting ecosystems? So that very much informed my early thinking. I was very focused on how do we sustainably manage fishing and restore fish populations, and how do we put marine protected areas in place? So overfishing was like the first thing that I was really concerned about. And then as I was travelling around the Caribbean, you're seeing all this pollution, right? You're seeing untreated sewage flow into the ocean and you're seeing these, like, shiny iridescent oil slicks, it looks like, on the surface that are just sunscreen from tourists. And you're seeing actual oil spills, and you're seeing all the plastic waste in the ocean. So I started to think more about pollution. And you also see, as you travel around populated coastlines, you see all these coastal ecosystems being damaged. You see, mangroves and seagrasses, and wetlands being destroyed for homes, for infrastructure, for tourism and recreation. And so those were the three that I focused on, because even though I knew about climate change, I was just like, it's very, it's a, it's very big. Like, this is a very big problem, like, I could actually potentially help increase, like, improve fishing regulations. I could, like, envision how I could be a part of a team. 

Emma Johnston: We spoke of that, yeah.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Yeah. That would, like, make those changes. And, maybe be a part of a team that could create a marine park, or protect a place, or prevent pollution, like those are things that you can, to a much greater extent, deal with at a local level. And then the island where I had been working, Barbuda in the Caribbean, was hit by Hurricane Irma. And I realised that even if you do everything right locally, you're still part of this global system. And I knew that intellectually, right? I had read a lot about climate change, and a lot of the scientific projections, and a lot of the changes that had already been occurring. But that was the moment where I was like, I need to shift my work to think not about ocean conservation as, like, I almost thought of it as those local efforts were buying time until the world got its act together on climate, and, you know, major governments really stepped up their work. And then I started to think about, well what other roles would I be able to play? And I think this is one of the most important lessons I've learned in the last few years. The question is not, what most needs to be done? It's like, what can I actually do that's useful? Which, they overlap, but they're not the same thing. Right? So I've shifted my work to say like, how do we make sure that we're including the ocean when it comes to climate policy? And so I've been able to take the things that I've worked on before and sort of, like, leverage that for becoming more of a part of the climate policy and climate communication world.

Emma Johnston: Yeah. Talk to us more about that. So this is the, kind of, building glue into the Green New Deal. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Emma Johnston: Is this part of what you're doing?

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: So, when the US, you know, Congress released this resolution, called the Green New Deal. The, sort of, surprise fact is, it's only 13 pages long, like double spaced, pretty large font, first page is just the 90 Something co-sponsors of the resolution. So anyone can read it, it's actually in quite plain English. And I always encourage people to do that. Because there's all these misunderstandings about what it even is, what's in there, what's not in there. And for people who actually want to weigh in on the conversation of, well, what do we want included in our climate policy, helps to know what the proposals actually are, especially when they'll only take you seven minutes to read. And so when I read it, I got to page 11, or 12, before I saw the word ocean, or coast, or fish, or anything, and my reaction was just, this is just, if this proposal doesn't include the ocean, it's just never going to be enough. Because in the same way, the ocean is bearing the brunt of a lot of impacts of climate, as you very well know. I mean, the ocean has absorbed over 90% of the heat that we've trapped with greenhouse gases, it's absorbed, about a third of the carbon dioxide we've emitted by burning fossil fuels. And this has, like, changed, the ocean dramatically, changed, currents changed, pH changed, you know, where different species are comfortable living in terms of their temperature range, etc, etc. So what I thought of when I saw this, this congressional resolution was, they're leaving out a lot of solutions, right? Because the ocean is not just a victim. It's also a hero. It is the place that these coastal ecosystems like mangroves and seagrasses and wetlands can absorb four times more carbon per acre, per hectare, than then a forest on land, we should maybe give coastal ecosystems a little more credit instead of only being obsessed with planting trees. Right? So I was thinking about how we protect and restore coastal ecosystems that are also protecting us from the storms which are increasingly frequent and severe. And the same with offshore renewable energy. What are we going to do about offshore wind turbines? How are we going to harness that energy to help power our homes and businesses? What about floating solar panels and tidal energy and all these other things that are in development? Right? Like, why aren't we talking about that? Why aren't we talking about ocean farming of seaweeds and shellfish, these things that you don't need to feed that absorb a lot of carbon and can be very nutritious, low carbon footprint food for folks, and provide a lot of jobs locally. So when none of that was in there, and the same with adaptation to climate, right? How are we adapting to sea level rise? How are we adapting to changes in storm patterns? That's a government infrastructure question that's taking care of coastal communities question, it’s a justice question, because we know that people who have the fewest resources are often located in highest highest risk areas, and have the fewest resources to recover from being impacted by extreme weather. So it's sort of, like, very nerdy and specific, but when I read the Green New Deal, I was like, they left out the blue stuff. So I started getting involved in coordinating colleagues to say like, well, what would a Blue New Deal look like to complement the Green New Deal?

Emma Johnston: That's fascinating. And, and it's not surprising to me that the whole oceans might be left out. But it might be surprising to a lot of people who are listening today that it's so easy to forget the oceans. I'm just wondering if you've started to talk now about solutions, which I think is so important, and you’ve actually created a urban marine solutions lab, specifically for that, can you tell us a bit about what that lab aims to do? Is it a think tank?

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: It is a think tank. So, Urban Ocean Lab is a think tank for the future of coastal cities. And it came to be simply because I'm just a nerd who always wanted to work in a think tank, and the think tank I wanted to work at didn't exist. So I teamed up with two colleagues and co-founded this nonprofit organisation, Urban Ocean Lab. And as the title says, it is urban, this urban ocean interface, we don't talk enough about the fact that a huge proportion of humanity lives in coastal cities. In the US, it's about a third, I think, globally, it's somewhere similar to that. And we have 40% of Americans who live in coastal counties. So the question is, like, how are we preparing for the impacts of climate change that are already certain to come? And adapting accordingly? So, Urban Ocean Lab is focused on cities, because cities, as you know, as a level of government, can make a lot of their own decisions about policy and how they want to approach things. And so when we say Urban Ocean Lab, we think about ‘lab’ in two senses. In one sense, you know, a think tank is a laboratory for ideas, but also that cities are a laboratory for what's possible at the state, regional or federal level. And so it was really exciting to us to think about how, how we could have this, like, interconnection, and sharing of best practices, and this case studies that would help inform policy making more broadly. So that's the idea.

Emma Johnston: I was really excited to hear about it, because, you know, in Australia, we are a coastal community as well, about 85% of us live within 50kms of the coast. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Really? 

Emma Johnston: Yeah, we're living really close to the coast. And then we're also highly urbanised, we tend to live in these large cities. And so there's been a really strong focus from the marine scientists that I know, working on this motion solutions, not really from a policy perspective, which is why I think your work is so interesting, but from the practical perspective of how do we build better cities, you know, eco engineering, how do we rebuild our oyster reefs? How do we replant our seagrass? How do we live with salt marshes, for example. So there's a lot of research going on at UNSW, specifically, in those areas, but unless we get the policy positions right, you know, the opportunity to scale up those scientific approaches is really limited. So, Sydney Harbour Research Program, which I directed initially, has now expanded to the World Harbour Program. And we have 13 harbours involved, and they're all running experiments, like, how you build a better seawall, so that you can get more diversity into the seawall, and more productivity.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: That’s very cool.

Emma Johnston: And I was thinking that this is the underpinning science for what you're actually doing to try and facilitate. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Yeah, I now want to, like, go read everything that's ever come out about that initiative. 

Emma Johnston: Yeah, no, it's great, but I feel like this is an area where the policy needs to meet the science…

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Yeah, yep. 

Emma Johnston: And I think industry partners in particular are also really interested, they want to build better, you know, they are very… we're seeing a green orientation, we just need to make it a bit of a blue orientation as well, from our industries around Australia, at least, which is, which is wonderful to see. Now, just moving on from this area, and I think it's pretty cool, but I really want to talk about the voices. You touched on the idea that you wanted to find a place that you could assist with, in, you know, mitigating the urgency of the crises that are facing the oceans. So instead of saying, I'm going to be the hero, climate campaigner who is, you know, the front-facing person of all of the conversations about climate and the oceans, you've actually come to a point and said, no, no, no, what can I contribute? And I feel like that's a really strong message that's coming out of this wonderful book, All We Can Save, which is about bringing opportunities for people to see themselves in the climate solution space. But from a huge diversity of perspectives. Can you talk to me about, you know, how you're trying to change the culture to enable, you know, more activity? What’s motivating you to do that? 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: So, All We Can Save is an anthology, right? It has 41 different contributors, writing about their expertise, their perspective, their stories about working on climate solutions, people, from farmers, to lawyers, to indigenous activists, to scientists, to policymakers, to people who work on political campaigns, to supermodels, to artists, there are ways that all of us can be a part of these solutions. And so my co-editor of this anthology, Dr. Catherine Wilkinson, and I, really thought about how, how can we create an anthology that does a few things at the same time? One, highlight all of these women leading on climate, who, unfortunately, are not yet world famous, but we think should be, because their work is so remarkable. How can we, sort of, elevate the the platform and the voices of these folks, show that there's like a whole group of people doing important work that were being overlooked by, you know, major nonprofits, or by the mainstream media, and at the same time, show, look how many ways there are to contribute. Look, how many doors there are to walk through. Each essay is like a door, you could walk through into like, what, what if I helped in this way? What if my contribution were more like this? Because I think a lot of the, I would say, one of the major failings of the modern environmental movement has often been to ask everyone to do the same thing. Like everyone, march, everyone donate, everyone spread the word, everyone vote and like, do those things, please do those things, I do those things, I'm not going to stop. But if we don't bring to the table the thing that we are particularly good at, then it's a real missed opportunity. So what I can do, as someone who's trained in marine biology, and is a policy nerd is to work at that intersection, right? And what you can do, describing this initiative that you had been a leader of around harbours and ports, and like, what are we going to do there? Like mixing your access to collaborators and governments with science. Like, that's really cool. And so to the extent that this anthology, All We Can Save, can show, just that there is a place for everyone in this work. That was something that we were really excited to do, and to frame it in a way that's very forward looking. So the subtitle is truth, courage and solutions for the climate crisis. It's not like scary facts, and then we all give up and go cry. Okay, what's next? Like, what are we going to do next? Here are a lot of examples of what's been done, and the successes and the lessons learned. And all of these different examples, like what inspires you? What do you want to be a part of and join? And none of these essays are about like, and I'm the hero, it's like, this is the team that did this, this is the coalition that did this. You know, these were the challenges and so it's very real without, like, wallowing in…

Emma Johnston: It’s so important not to wallow isn’t it? And also to be inclusive in its process. But I'm thinking now that we're actually seeing some of the natural disasters that are climate driven, really, you know, accelerate in Australia, US, you know, we've had incredible, never seen before wildfires that are destroying, you know, millions and millions and millions of hectares of natural bush, but also people's homes, people’s lives, and animals and plants. We've also seen droughts, we’ve seen floods, we’ve been seeing you know, stronger storms and stronger cyclones. It does feel like a crisis to a lot of people. And I wonder if you've got any words of advice for, especially our younger people who are thinking about studying science or thinking about helping out in the climate action space, of how to keep the chin up, but also what they might be able to do to build the resilience of the communities that we're working with. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: I think part of this has to do with just my constitution. So I don't want to assume that other people will be able to, sort of, muster the same mindset. But for me, always doing something feels way better than just watching the world burn. Right? At the very least, at the end of my life, I'll get to say, I tried, like I really tried. And I've no idea if any of the stuff that I do is gonna work, it's gonna have a big effect or not, like, I hope that some of it might, right? But I think we are at the stage where we have to act without any certainty of what the outcome of our actions will be. And I know that that is a big leap sometimes, like, we don't know if we're going to be able to keep planetary warming under two degrees celsius. But of course, we have to try and like there's something each of us can do to contribute to that. And that's where my head goes, like we have most of the solutions we need, right? We actually know how to do 100% renewable energy, we know what the pathway to that looks like, we have most of the technology that we need to get there, right? We have solar panels and wind turbines, we have the same for electricity, we can electrify transportation, we can farm regeneratively. We can shift manufacturing, to make buildings more efficient, and design them in ways that need less energy, like we have all of these things already that we can do. It's just a matter of how quickly we are going to implement all these solutions. And so, I, when we think of it as a matter of like, which climate solution do I want to work on? And how can I make that thing happen faster? Like, what are the special skills that I can bring to the table for doing that work? That's how I like to think about it. And for young people in particular, I get this question a lot from college students that like, what can I do? And I'm like, get out your coloured pencils, and draw a Venn diagram, draw these three circles of what are you good at? What are your skills and resources? What do you have to bring to the table? What is the work that needs doing of all this sort of climate and justice problems? Like which one do you want to work on, because none of us can do it all. And then what brings you joy? Like what gets you out of bed in the morning? Like, what are you passionate about? And try to figure out, like, what is, like, right in the middle of those things? Because then you'll have, like, the energy to keep doing this work, you'll feel really useful, and you'll be solving this problem. And for a lot of people, there are many answers to what you could do. But you gotta to pick something and just try it. And I think trial and error then is maybe an underappreciated approach, like, the thing that is a problem is, when we stop trying things. So just, like, try something. That doesn't work? Try another thing. And always think about, as you said, like, what is the community that we're doing this with? Not for, but with. Like, who's the team? Is there a local organisation you can contribute your skills to? Is there, you know, a policy initiative that people are working on, like, what is the team you can be a part of, or enlarge?

Emma Johnston: Just on that particular issue, because I think that's critical, both the teams, it's easy to think that actually, you know, being science trained, you go off and be a scientist, but how much have you noticed that actually the teams are missing people with the science training? Like Is there room for us to be further into politics, further into policy, further into economics but bringing a science background?

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Absolutely, I think people so value having up-to-date factual information with which to do economic modelling and projections, or with which to propose options for community adaptation. So science is absolutely a very key element. No one has ever been, like, disappointed that I was a marine biologist. They’re like, great, tell me everything about the ocean! I'm sure you've experienced the same thing, people are like, that's boring and useless, and I have no questions, people will always have this curiosity. And so I think I'm glad that we're finally seeing it. I'm curious if you're seeing the same thing, like, more and more scientists say I want to make sure my knowledge is used and is useful.

Emma Johnston: Definitely there's a lot of engagement and outreach. It is somewhat generational, I find that the younger generations are really engaged and outward looking. And if you get to more senior researchers, there's still a sense that they might come undone, I feel like there's a little bit of timidity, about engaging in a public debate. And I think it's about protecting professional reputations as well. And maybe having been a bit burnt from previous interactions with the media. But there's a bravery around the younger generations. And I think there's a normality about engaging in multiple platforms, as a scientist, but also bringing your whole self, you know, the fact that you might like chocolate, or whatever it is, is coming into the conversation, which I think is then opening up science to a greater range of people. But it's still the case that only maybe about 10% of our federal politicians actually have any science training, engineering, or medicine or science. So it's still a very small proportion of our, I guess, our leaders who have a science background. Now in your books and various documents that I've read, in your podcast, you have talked about the climate crisis as being a leadership crisis. Can you talk to me a little bit about what you mean there, and how do we solve this leadership crisis?

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: I mean, if we had had all the leaders we needed, we wouldn't be in this mess is, I guess, is sort of the premise. And that we not only at this moment, need different leaders, we need just more leaders. We've had a lot of social movement throughout world history, where when we look back, we see like one individual at the helm. And that's actually a very fragile way to lead a movement, because something happens to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. something happens to Gandhi, right? Something happens, and then how do we make sure that the movement carries on? Of course, there are so many people around them doing important work and making it all happen. But as far as, like, the public perception, it's been very interesting to see, for example, Black Lives Matter, I mean,  in the United States really be what we would call a leader full movement, right? There are a lot of people in all these different cities, all organising their people in their place, around local, you know, policies, or injustices. And I see that as a very interesting and important model for environmental issues. Because we know that there are different environmental issues in every place, there are different challenges for how to adapt to the climate crisis. In every place, there are different policy proposals in every place, right? So we need leaders in every place, driving those things forward. We don't need like one hero, we need thousands of people transforming the places where they live. Because, if what we need to do is transform our electricity, transportation, land use, agriculture, manufacturing, buildings, like all of it. We need leaders and all of those sectors in every location. So, to the extent that the anthology, the podcast, the yammering that I do in general has a goal, it's to make more people feel like there's a place for them in this work. And that they are like, if you haven't received an invitation like welcome to, to climate work. And that has been a real joy to see people figure out like, oh, I can help with this thing, or I can help with this thing. And this idea of a leadership crisis is certainly what motivates a lot of my work. And with Catherine, my co editor, we actually founded a nonprofit to carry forward the work of this book, of nurturing a leaderfull and connected climate movement that is rooted in the wisdom of women, who have very often been left out of the conversation, very often been left out of the elite ranks in academia, in academic science, in politics and policy, we know quantitatively that that is making the outcomes worse, when there are more women members of parliament we get more and better environmental policy, and it's more well enforced, and we sign these treaties, and we, like, do the things right? To reduce the impacts of climate change.

Emma Johnston: And the companies are actually more likely to have sustainability policies and sustainable business models as well. Yes. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: There you go. 

Emma Johnston: There's a huge contribution missing there. Women are often left to pick up the pieces though, which is interesting. So a lot of repair work done. So, you've talked a lot about how important it is to engage everybody in the climate solutions. I want to get to a slightly tougher problem here, where say, for example, in Australia, where we all live together on the coast, and we all connect with the coast differently, and we have different user needs. Sometimes those needs conflict with the fisherperson, the person who wants to snorkel, for example, you know, you're in the same space, you're in each other's space. And obviously, spatial management has been used a lot to try and get everyone calm and to efficiently manage whole marine ecosystems. Is that still where we're at? Spacial management, is that the solution to these complex problems? Or is there something deeper, that I think relates to what you're talking about, about having lots of people moving in the same direction, motivated by the same desires, which we are, to protect our oceans?

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: I mean, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority where where you have contributed your expertise is, you know, one of the world's foremost examples of like, how do we think about managing an ecosystem, on a large scale, there's a lot of things people want to do in the ocean, and you can't do them all in the same place at the same time, there are conflicts, and we need to have a plan to manage those. And so spatial management, as you call it, or ocean zoning, right? Having like dedicated areas for different activities, I still think is a really important foundation. Because if we, if we don't have a plan for how to use ocean spaces, like, of course, things will go awry. So I think having that plan is important. But the question is also like, how do we come up with that plan? How do we enforce that plan? How do we, like, inform people about the plan? How do we maybe iterate on that plan as the climate changes, and therefore, like, the needs change? And so I think that this spatial management, ocean zoning is still a useful framework and tool, but that as a society, as we think more interdisciplinarily, as we come full circle to value Indigenous wisdom, as we deal with a world that's changing really quickly, I think it's a matter of like, what information do we input into these spatial management decision making frameworks so that we have something that works for people, and one of the things that I'm concerned about is, when it comes to fishing, the fish are moving, they're like, going towards the poles in search of cooler water, which, of course, throws a lot of things out of balance. And it means that we need to be able to be much more dynamic in our approaches. And so the, sort of, frustrating thing for me and many people is, that this work of building consensus, this work of building coalitions, this work of collective decision making about what's going to happen, where it's very time consuming. You have to build trust, you have to have many conversations. And as someone who loves to work alone, and just like check things off my to do list. I also know, you know, you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. And it's this frustrating truth, right? That, like, I can't solve it by myself. I can like, write an op- ed about how someone can do something about it. But I can't actually transform policy or society alone. And so that work of building collaborations and that work of building community around solutions is, unfortunately, something that we can't skip. And I feel like more scientists and policymakers are starting to appreciate that, and build processes that incorporate that. But at the same time, like, we absolutely can't wait until everyone 100% agrees about everything, because we never get anything done. So, like there has to also be a limit like listen, listen, listen, iterate, be as inclusive as you can. But also, like, let's make some decisions and, and act with the precautionary principle at this point, like we have to protect and restore things.

Emma Johnston: And the world is speeding up, so this process of building agility into our governance, not only justice, but speed, is going to be one of the great challenges that we face over the next decade. It is the decade of the ocean though, which is fantastic and sustainable oceans. And so if anything would bring us together to try and work on these new solutions. I think it's this decade. And it's National Science Week, as we go to air in Australia.  I don’t know if you have National Science Week in the US. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Not like you do. 

Emma Johnston: We love National Science Week, and it's our chance to get out and talk to the nation, but also talk with the nation. So if you had your opportunity, which you do right now, to talk to all of Australia about National Science Week, we can encourage the next generation of scientists, what would you say?

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: I… My first reaction to that is just like, I love science. And I hope that whoever's listening who loves science finds a way to keep that as part of their life forever, even if it's not your full time job. I think the fact that you have a National Science Week is just so cool. Because it gives everyone the chance to engage with science, to deepen their understanding of nature, and all these different phenomena in the world around us, which is really how I see science. Science is really how we understand the world around us. From, you know, the physics, to the chemistry, to the biology and ecology. And I think the more we hold on to that curiosity, that drives perhaps our like, childlike fascination with how the world works, I think that we'll all be better for it. Because so often I have people who are so entrenched in their views that you give them new information, and they're just not capable of having an open mind about, oh, well, now that I know all this new stuff, I should, let my perspective change, let me let the policies that I, you know, support change. And I think the scientific process of developing a hypothesis and testing it, and letting that data inform then the next thing we do, is such a great model for how I think we can solve social problems as well. Like, let's ask questions, let's collect information, let's like form our collaborators. Like, you think about your lab, right? Your co-researchers in the field or the lab, talk about the results together, then you write the paper together and analyse the information and, and then suggest what needs to happen next. And so I think, even though not everyone in Australia is going to become a scientist this week, who isn't already, I think we can all have sort of like a re-invigorated commitment to science and the scientific process and to valuing rigorously gleaned information about the world and how important that is for allowing us to make really good decisions that protect our safety, our well being, our livelihoods, and our cultures.

Emma Johnston: It's a wonderful way of looking at it. And I, makes me want to be a scientist all over again. But I’m still a scientist. You know, thank you so much. You've had so many wonderful things to share with us today. And they've been incredibly inspiring, and I'm sure the audience will be saying the same thing. I think the idea that even if you're not a scientist, or you're a scientist for a short part of your life, that you hold on to curiosity, and that desire to understand the world is just such a beautiful thought to take us into the future. So thank you very much, Diana, for joining us and giving us your time today. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Thank you so much. 

Emma Johnston: Thank you for tuning in to Justice for the Oceans. I'd like to thank our special guest, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, for such a wonderful and inspiring conversation. I'd like to encourage everyone listening today to find out more about her work through her podcast How to Save the Planet. Read her op-eds and pick up a copy of the book, All You Can Save.  To hear about upcoming events and podcasts from UNSW Sydney, please subscribe to the UNSW Centre for Ideas newsletter, or visit

Ann Mossop: Thanks for listening. Justice for the Oceans was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas, and UNSW Science, and the Powerhouse Museum for the 2021 Sydney Science Festival. It was also supported by Inspiring Australia as a part of National Science Week. For more information visit, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert and writer from New York. She founded Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities, and is co-creator and co-host of the How to Save a Planet podcast. With Dr Katharine Wilkinson, she co-edited the climate anthology All We Can Save, and co-founded the All We Can Save Project. Most recently, she co-authored the Blue New Deal, a roadmap for including the ocean in climate policy. Previously, she was executive director of the Waitt Institute, developed policy at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was a leader of the March for Science and taught at New York University. Dr Johnson earned a BA from Harvard University in environmental science and public policy, and a PhD from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in marine biology. She publishes widely, including in The New York TimesWashington PostLos Angeles TimesTime, and Scientific American. She is on the 2021 Time 100 Next List and was named one of Elle’s 27 Women Leading on Climate. Outside Magazine called her “the most influential marine biologist of our time”. Her mission is to build community around solutions to our climate crisis. Follow her at @ayanaeliza

Emma Johnston Headshot

Emma Johnston

Professor Emma Johnston AO is a marine scientist at UNSW Sydney and a national advocate for improved environmental management and conservation. Emma studies human impacts in the oceans including pervasive threats such as climate change, plastic pollution, and invasive species. Emma conducts her research in diverse marine environments from the Great Barrier Reef to icy Antarctica and provides management recommendations to industry and government. In recognition of her contributions to environmental science, communications, and management, Emma has received numerous awards including the Australian Academy of Science’s Nancy Millis Medal, the Royal Society of New South Wales Clark Medal, the Eureka prize for Science Communication, and in 2018 she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO). She is immediate past President of Science & Technology Australia, a current Board Member of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and Co-Chief Author of the Australian Government’s State of Environment Report 2021. Emma is a high-profile science communicator and television presenter for the ongoing BBC/Foxtel series, Coast Australia and has appeared multiple times on ABC CatalystThe Drum and Q&A. Emma is currently Dean of Science and Professor of Marine Ecology and Ecotoxicology at UNSW Sydney. 

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