Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Is the Climate Leader We Need
The marine biologist has become a leading voice in the movement by deftly communicating what few people understand: that cleaning up the planet requires a commitment to social justice
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It’s amazing that Ayana Elizabeth Johnson found the time to talk to me. To cite just some of the things the 40-year-old Brooklynite has been up to in the past year: running a conservation consulting firm, Ocean Collectiv; founding a coastal-cities think tank, Urban Ocean Lab; advising Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign on the Blue New Deal, an ocean-focused strategy for reducing carbon emissions and boosting the economy; taking over Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Instagram account to guide a dialogue on environmental justice; editing an anthology of essays by women climate leaders; and launching a podcast with industry heavyweight Alex Blumberg ambitiously titled How to Save a Planet.
So, yes, she’s been busy. And with good reason. With her expertise, personal story, and collaborative grassroots approach to problem solving, Johnson has emerged as a uniquely powerful voice in the environmental movement. She is one of a small number of scientists who operates at the nexus of climate change and racial justice, and the only one who has been able to connect the dots between those issues in a way that might actually get us somewhere.
Plus, she’s a natural entertainer. “Ayana is genuinely funny,” says Blumberg, the cofounder of podcasting juggernaut Gimlet Media, which sold to Spotify last year for a reported $230 million. As cohosts of How to Save a Planet, they examine achievable solutions to climate change. A common question they ask guests: How screwed are we? (Spoiler: It depends. We have a choice of possible futures.) “She’s an actual subject-matter expert who’s charismatic and can crack a joke and think on her feet. That’s rare.”
When I spoke to Johnson during a gap in her schedule, she described a life and career journey that began when she was on a family vacation in Florida at age five, sitting on the back of a glass-bottom boat with other kids throwing cheese popcorn to the fish. She is allergic to dairy and was covered in hives by the time her mom pulled her into the boat’s cabin to rinse off. There she found herself alone staring down through the glass at the life below. “I had a private view of this underwater magical world,” she says. That was all it took: she fell in love with coral reefs.
Johnson’s father was an architect, her mother a public-school teacher, and she was a brainy kid who spent hours digging up worms in their Brooklyn backyard. She studied environmental science and public policy at Harvard University, then earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In 2007, she began her graduate field work, in Curaçao and Bonaire, by redesigning fish traps to reduce bycatch and getting local officials to require their use. Her low-tech solution cut the capture of ornamental fish by some 80 percent and also convinced her that she “didn’t want to just write research papers that nobody was going to read, that wouldn’t result in any action.”
In that spirit, her dissertation on sustainably managed coral reefs was informed by interviews with hundreds of Caribbean fishermen and divers. The core of what she asked them: “If you could write the rules to manage fishing in the ocean, what would they be?” Their responses showed her the importance of engaging communities in the creation of policies that would alter their lives. “The hours I spent interrupting dominoes games and hanging out at the docks really changed the way I see the world,” Johnson says. She later applied that collaborative model in her work with the Waitt Institute, a nonprofit focused on restoring fish populations, where she cofounded and directed an initiative that supported the citizens of Barbuda as they crafted their own marine regulations. The result was one of the most progressive and comprehensive ocean management policies in the region.
“My love of nature and humanity drive my work. It’s not some abstract interest in policy or science.”
In 2016, Johnson moved back to Brooklyn to seek a career that would enable her to have the biggest impact in ocean conservation and climate change. She took on a series of freelance gigs: working with XPrize on a contest for the best use of ocean data, aiding Greenpeace on a coral-reef initiative, and authoring a report for the World Wildlife Fund on waste in the seafood supply chain. She was getting so many offers she couldn’t handle it all alone—and she didn’t want to. So she called up “a dozen of the coolest people I knew” and in 2017 formed Ocean Collectiv with the goal of supporting conservation groups “that are trying to do something differently—and in a way that is always really careful about the justice implications of the work.”
Returning to New York gave Johnson a new appreciation for the city’s shoreline and eventually spurred her to cofound the think tank Urban Ocean Lab with entrepreneur and designer Marquise Stillwell and veteran congressional policy advisor Jean Flemma. Their hope is to cultivate policies that help America’s coastal cities adapt to the threats of rising sea levels and more powerful storms. Johnson points out that the role the oceans play in climate change is often overlooked: when congressional Democrats released the Green New Deal, the oceans were barely mentioned. This prompted her to coauthor an op-ed for the environmental outlet Grist calling out the “big blue gap” in the plan, and that led to her being tapped to work with Warren’s campaign.
Even after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Johnson was a swirl of activity. Then came George Floyd’s death and the country’s explosive response. Suddenly she wasn’t able to get anything done, a fact that she expressed in a passionate op-ed for The Washington Post that sharply identified the intersection of environmentalism and racism: “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?”
“I wrote that out of fury and grief,” she told me. “To say, ‘White environmentalists, I know you just want to ignore racism because our environmental challenges are already massive. And I, too, wish we could ignore it, but I am proof that you can’t ignore it and still get this work done.’ ”
The piece elevated Johnson to a new level of intellectual leadership in the environmental movement. There was perhaps no one who better understood what needed to be explained—or who was more capable of doing the explaining. On that same family vacation where she gazed in wonder at a coral reef, her father taught her to swim in a hotel pool. It was a joyous trip, but decades later her parents let her know that it had been tainted by racism. “My dad’s Black and my mom’s white,” Johnson says. “When my dad showed up, none of the white people would get in the pool.”
For Johnson, the environmental and civil rights movements are linked by a shared moral clarity and a relentless effort to make things better. “When I was five, I wanted to be a marine biologist,” she says. “And then at ten I wanted to be the lawyer who got the next Martin Luther King out of jail.”
She’s bringing that same urgency to How to Save a Planet, which launched on August 20. She and Blumberg have an odd-couple-like dynamic, which may well help them in their bid to produce “the podcast about climate change that people actually want to listen to,” Johnson says with a laugh. The anthology she coedited, All We Can Save ($29; One World), offers another unexpected approach to climate activism. The contributors include scientists, lawyers, and think-tank policy experts, but also farmers, artists, designers, and poets.
“My love of nature and humanity drive my work,” Johnson says. “It’s not some abstract interest in policy or science—those are tools for understanding the world and shaping it into something that is verdant and fair.”