The Ocean Is A Climate Ally

17:29 minutes

Aerial view of a long, thin, curved island amid dark blue and turquoise waters, a few white clouds down the left side
The Bahamas’ Eleuthera Island is home to mangrove swamps, coral reefs, and shoals. Credit: NASA

Did you know that the ocean absorbs about a quarter of all CO2 emissions? And about 90% of excess heat? It’s the largest carbon sink we have—and one of our biggest allies in the climate movement. 

Ira talks with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, marine biologist and co-founder of the non-profit Urban Ocean Lab, as well as the climate initiative The All We Can Save Project. They chat about climate solutions—like the newly launched Climate Corpsthe power of the ocean, and steps forward. Dr. Johnson is also the curator for Climate Futurism, an art exhibition at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York.

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Segment Guests

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is the founder of Urban Ocean Lab in New York, and co-editor of the book All We Can Save: Truth Courage and Solutions of the Climate Crisis.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Continuing our climate conversations– this time, we’re headed to the oceans, the unsung heroes of the climate. Did you know that the ocean absorbs about a quarter of all CO2 emissions? It’s the largest carbon sink we have and one of our biggest allies in the climate movement.

Here to talk about climate solutions and the power of the ocean is Dr. Ayan Elizabeth Johnson, marine biologist, writer, and cofounder of the nonprofit Urban Ocean Lab as well as the climate initiative the All We Can Save project. She’s joining me from New York. Welcome back to Science Friday.

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Hello, Ira. Thanks for having me back.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Well, as we say on this show, it is climate week in New York. Activists from around the world are here. There are protests, speeches in the street. Have you been participating? What’s it like?

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: It is the most amazing collection of people who care about the future of life on Earth in all the different ways. I went to the climate march on Sunday. I’ve been speaking in various press events, going to dinners, meeting old friends, meeting current and, hopefully, future collaborators. It’s a great time to be in New York and just think about what is possible if we each play our part and figure out how to team up.

IRA FLATOW: OK, I want to talk about the ocean, which is the underappreciated hero when it comes to climate change, right?

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Yeah. The ocean not only has absorbed about a quarter of the carbon dioxide that we’ve emitted into the atmosphere by burning greenhouse gases. But it has also absorbed over 90% of the heat we’ve trapped with those greenhouse gases. So the Earth would be dozens of degrees hotter if it weren’t for the ocean buffering the impacts of all that we humans are throwing at it.

IRA FLATOW: Does it have a limit, though?

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Absolutely. The ocean has already increased in temperature about a degree Celsius. And that is having all sorts of impacts on marine life, on ocean currents, on food security, on fisheries, on hurricanes. We know that warmer oceans fuels stronger and wetter storms. So a lot of things are very much out of balance with the ocean.

IRA FLATOW: But your work focuses on climate solutions, right? People are so worried about the climate. Why should we be looking towards the oceans for help, then?

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Well, it’s estimated that the ocean holds about 20% of our climate solution. And that includes everything from renewable energy offshore, which, right now, is primarily wind energy. That includes reducing the emissions from shipping. That includes my favorite, which is nature itself the wetlands mangrove seagrasses, coral reefs, oyster reefs that are absorbing carbon and protecting our shorelines. And that also includes things like regenerative ocean farming, which is a way to grow seaweeds and shellfish, which is a super low-impact way to feed ourselves and provide lots of jobs in coastal communities.

IRA FLATOW: And so how much can the ocean solutions help, let’s say, energy wise?

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: I think it depends how much we scale and where. We are starting to think about through Urban Ocean Lab, the policy think tank that I am cofounder of, how offshore wind energy can become a main source of power for coastal cities, where, for example, we don’t have enough space for solar panels for all of the energy that’s used. But we can think about wind turbines off shore as a big part of that solution, which I’m excited about because about 40% of Americans live in coastal counties.

20% of us live in coastal cities. So there really is an opportunity to get it right at those local levels up and down all of our coastlines.

IRA FLATOW: Those would be human-made solutions. I know you just mentioned that your favorite solution was nature itself. How much more could nature do for us?

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: That’s a good question. The best example that I can think of is, since I’m sitting here in New York, when hurricane sandy hit the new York New Jersey area, 85% of the wetlands that were historically here had already been destroyed by various forms of development, all the buildings and infrastructure that we have here. But the 15% that remained prevented over $600 million in damage. So when we think about the capacity of the ocean to buffer the impacts of climate change, part of that is storms, and part of that is just the tons of carbon that these coastal ecosystems can sequester.

So a wetland, for example, could absorb three, four, or even five times as much carbon as the same amount of area in a tropical forest. So we often overlook marshy areas when we’re thinking about climate solutions and think just about planting trees. But we certainly need to expand our purview on that to just think about photosynthesis more broadly.

IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing. I never realized how much–

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Yeah, shout out to wetlands, shout out to the ocean.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. No, I mean even the wetlands because everybody has wetlands on the coasts, right? Even in the lakes and rivers. So there’s a huge potential, then.

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Super important ecosystem as well as a source for of– a home for a lot of biodiversity and a habitat for a lot of juveniles of species that end up being important for fisheries and more.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, because you have this you have this tug of war going on now because we have more intense storms that are ripping apart the wetlands, right? We just saw this with the storm, the hurricane moving up the coast. So now we have to pay more attention to rejuvenating those wetlands.

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: And one thing that we know is that for every dollar or so that’s invested in coastal ecosystem restoration and protection, that saves us $7 in damages from storms. And we also know that coastal ecosystems can be more effective coastline protection than even a seawall. They have this more dynamic ability to adapt to a changing environment. So a lot of the times when we think about the future and we think about infrastructure, we think primarily about all of that concrete and steel as opposed to green infrastructure, which is nature itself in all of its permutations and the ways that we can support its rejuvenation.

IRA FLATOW: Very interesting. OK, so I want you to put on your visionary hat now and tell me what you would like to see happen for the ocean and climate. What is your vision?

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: And I think the first step is just to appreciate the role that the ocean can play in climate solutions. And think about scaling up all of that work. Think about renewable energy, wind energy offshore with jobs in coastal communities, and regenerative ocean farms dotting the coastline, seaweed from those farms that’s becoming fertilizer, that’s becoming animal feed, that’s becoming part of our food system, endless oysters that we could all be eating that are filtering excess nutrients out of the water and are part of a healthy ecosystem, protecting our shorelines, providing us delicious snacks to eat.

I’m thinking about all of the green jobs that are possible, especially this week as we celebrate the Biden administration’s creation of an American Climate Corps, training a whole generation of young people to work in these industries of restoring ecosystems and renewable energy.

IRA FLATOW: Let me do a little more on that. Is that really a big event? How important is that?

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Huge deal. So this has been an idea that’s been floating around for years now. It’s modeled off of president FDR’s concept of a civilian conservation corps that was part of the New Deal, which was badly implemented and left a lot of people out, left out people of color, left out women. But it was really focused on getting our national parks system in place and for park rangers and trail creation.

And Governor Jay Inslee resurrected this concept and put together a new version of it that he called the Civilian Climate Corps, the CCC. And that idea was a much more inclusive vision for putting Americans to work to do all of this climate adaptation that is needed because of the changes that are already happening and are going to accelerate. And so this idea was put forth in his presidential campaign. When he left the race as a climate candidate, Elizabeth Warren picked up this concept and carried that forward.

When she left the race, Biden was encouraged to champion this idea. And he included it in his platform. And after he was elected, he has been trying to make good on this promise, including it in the Build Back Better act, which was then a much smaller version of that proposal, as you know, was passed as the Inflation Reduction Act. And this Civilian Climate Corps idea got stripped at the last minute as the senate was trying to get this finalized and over the finish line.

But the Biden team didn’t give up on this idea because it is so important to make sure that we have job opportunities for young people, green job opportunities that we’re training people for the economy of the future and the sectors that are going to need employees. So I was just so over the moon yesterday to know that, through the Americorps program, they had created what Biden is calling the American Climate Corps, which aims to train 20,000 young people in its first year. And hopefully, that proof of concept will lead to future appropriations from Congress so this program can really grow.

And there are similar programs in a lot of different states across the country already. And so to me, this is really an inflection point for like, how do we start to build the future? And that starts with people who are trained to do the physical transformation that’s needed. It prioritizes wetland restoration, and forests, and coastlines, and energy conservation, and water management as well as things that we normally think of green jobs, like solar and wind energy.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And does it fulfill a core tenet of your kind of work, the intersection of climate, race-social justice culture also?

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Absolutely because they’re aiming this program at young people from historically disadvantaged communities, making sure to not repeat the mistakes of the past, where similar government programs really were only open to and benefiting white men, a small segment of our current population. So I love the idea that this is something that will be open to everyone and really encouraging a diverse cohort of young people who are helping to build the future.

IRA FLATOW: Mhmm. Now, I know you founded the Urban Ocean Lab. Why focus on cities in the first place? That sounds almost counterintuitive.

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Well, about 20% of Americans live in a coastal city. So that’s one in five people in this country who live in places that need to be ready to adapt to our changing climate, thinking about sea level rise, thinking about storms, thinking about all of these opportunities we just described with coastal ecosystems and our food system. And so in addition to just the percentage of people who live in coastal cities, it’s also a really discrete unit of government.

While it can be very hard to get federal policy changed, cities can often be much more nimble in how they approach policy making and trying out new initiatives. And they’re always learning from each other, from mayor to mayor, from conservation and environment department in one city to another. And so we thought Urban Ocean Lab would be a great opportunity to champion some of these policy ideas, make sure there is a resource hub that we’re sharing lessons learned, that we’re proposing different policy solutions so that these different cities aren’t reinventing the wheel and have the policy analysis they need to consider what might be appropriate there.

So our work has been ramping up. We recently just released a document identifying over $30 billion that are available for coastal cities in the Inflation Reduction Act. So we’re also trying to connect the dots between the resources available and the places that need to start implementing more and more of these projects.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking about how the ocean may offer us some climate solutions with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. Let’s talk about policy. You’ve brought it up. I’ve heard about the Green New Deal. But you’ve been working on the blue new deal.

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: What is that? Well, when I read the Green New Deal, which I would encourage everyone to read because it’s actually only 12 pages long– it’s double spaced. It’s super readable. A lot of times we think about policy as something we could never understand, or it’s 100 of pages.

But the Green New Deal was really just this framework describing what it would look like if we included climate in American and federal policy in a really broad, and deep, and meaningful way, making the transformation that we need in our society and our economy to address this crisis.

And I read it. And I thought, this is a really exciting vision. But it basically leaves out the ocean. And because the ocean is 20% of our climate solution, because of its 70% of our planet, because 40% of Americans live in coastal counties, if we don’t include the ocean in a significant way in our federal climate policy, it simply will not be complete. And so with a bunch of colleagues, I started to develop this concept of what would a blue new deal include.

And that includes a lot of the things we’ve already mentioned but also our shipping, and ports, and coastal infrastructure as well as fisheries, and ways to address sea level rise, and protect and restore coastal ecosystems, et cetera, and all the infrastructure we’re going to need to develop offshore renewable energy. That requires policy frameworks. How are we permitting seaweed farming? How are we dealing with all of the working waterfront that’s needed for renewable energy offshore?

So it was a really exciting exercise in thinking about this that was championed by Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. And a lot of the elements of that have been included in the Biden administration’s work. So the blue new deal was just an attempt to say, hey, guys. Don’t forget about the ocean.

IRA FLATOW: I was just talking to paleontologist Michael Mann, and he is actually saying, let’s not think that the sky is falling here. We have to work out of an idea of hope because there is time to turn things around because talking about climate change is scary. Do you agree with that?

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: I think the word that I lean towards more than hope– I wouldn’t call myself an optimist, per se. But I think there is a huge amount of possibility. I think we all have an opportunity to contribute to shaping the future. I think we have almost all of the climate solutions that we need in order to make the transformation that needs to happen.

And so it’s really just a matter of how quickly we’re going to implement all of these solutions that we have. We know how to green buildings. We know how to improve transportation. We know how to conserve energy. We know how to farm regeneratively.

It’s just a matter of how quickly people will take up these solutions and charge ahead with them. So there’s a huge amount of possibility. How quickly will we actually do it, I have no idea. But every day, I wake up and see what I can do to contribute to moving these things forward.

Climate change is one of those things where every little bit matters. There’s not a magic number or date after which we have succeeded or failed. This is the work of our lifetimes. And as much as we can rein in climate disaster, the better off we’ll be.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you so much for taking time to be with us today.

AYAN ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Always a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, marine biologist writer and cofounder of the nonprofit Urban Ocean Lab as well as the climate initiative the All We Can Save project. She was joining us from New York.

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