The Inseparable Link Between Climate Change And Racial Justice : Short Wave Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson wrote a Washington Post op-ed about the ways the fight around climate change and racial justice go hand in hand. Host Maddie Sofia talks with her about that and how Ayana says the fight against climate change could be stronger if people of color weren't being constantly exhausted by racism.

The Inseparable Link Between Climate Change And Racial Justice

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, and she was set to have a very productive 2020. There's the work with her think tank, Urban Ocean Lab...

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: So thinking about the future of coastal cities from a design perspective as well as from a policy perspective.

SOFIA: ...And then the books...

JOHNSON: One is an anthology of essays by women climate leaders, and the other is a book that I'm writing on climate solutions that are at the intersection of science and policy and culture and justice.

SOFIA: ...A fellowship she's creating...

JOHNSON: An award for women climate leaders, especially women of color.

SOFIA: Then there's also the small things Ayana wanted to do this year.

JOHNSON: And even just planting a vegetable garden with my mother at our farm upstate in New York. This just - I got a lot going on this year (laughter).

SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah, you sure do.


SOFIA: But with the killing of George Floyd by police last month and the massive protests that followed, Ayana says all of that work stopped - had to stop. She wrote about what this moment is like for her in The Washington Post.

In your op-ed, you included a quote from Toni Morrison.


SOFIA: "The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again your reason for being."

JOHNSON: Yeah. Just cuts to the core, doesn't it?

SOFIA: Yeah.

JOHNSON: I mean, I have led, relatively speaking, a pretty charmed life. And so as far as, you know, my ability to focus on my work, I'm usually pretty good at it. I'm usually pretty productive and in a sort of, you know, robotic way. I'm just like, this work is important. I'm really committed to it. Like, let's just keep charging ahead to get it done.

So this op-ed, for me, really grew out of a moment where I was just like, I can't. I just can't charge ahead. I have to stop and pay attention to what is happening in this country. And I hope that that is something that hit a lot of people - that business as usual is just not an option anymore. This is obviously an inflection point in American history.


SOFIA: Ayana says the fight around climate change and racial justice go hand in hand. So today on the show, a conversation with Ayana about that inescapable link and how much better the fight against climate change could be if the people who cared the most weren't being constantly exhausted by racism.

I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOFIA: So talk to me about why you decided to write this piece.

JOHNSON: I decided to write this because the environmental community was initially really silent on Black Lives Matter. It was something people didn't want to deal with. Like, climate change is complicated enough as it is, right? We don't really need to add all these layers of complexity around race and social justice. It would be more convenient to be able to ignore them.

But then I realized that I had an opportunity to help environmentalists connect the dots in a way maybe they hadn't before. People talk about climate justice as the intersection between race and climate because people of color are more strongly affected by the impacts of climate change - whether that's storms or droughts or heat waves.

But there is another dot we don't connect, and that's to why we don't see more people of color leading the environmental movement. And people are always assuming. There's this stereotype that people of color don't care about climate. And I really wanted the opportunity to just say, we do care and we're trying. And if you would just stop killing us, we would be able to help a little bit more with this crisis that all of us are facing.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, you wrote in your op-ed that even at its most benign, racism is incredibly time-consuming.


SOFIA: Talk to me a little bit more about that.

JOHNSON: At moments like this, you just need to check in on your people, right?

SOFIA: Yeah, sure.

JOHNSON: Are your friends OK? Is your family OK? Is your community OK? How can you contribute? How can you look out for each other? In what ways are you going to take a stand? How are we going to engage politically? How are we going to fundraise for the organizations that are, you know, leading these efforts?

All of that is time-consuming. All of that is time that could be spent doing any number of other things. And so when Toni Morrison says racism is a distraction, that's what I think of. I just think of all of the minutes that you have to spend reading these horror stories in the news and figuring out how to stop them from happening.

SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah. One part of your piece that I found particularly powerful was, you know, you were talking about how black folks have to deal with all this, how they have to spend time doing this - that they don't want to have to be protesting for the basic right to live and breathe. And you said, you know, consider the discoveries not made, the books not written. And I just like - oof (ph). It was - I thought that was really powerful, Ayana.

JOHNSON: Yeah. (Laughter) I'm tearing up thinking about it now. I mean, it's just - it's such a waste. Like...

SOFIA: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...The brilliance, the opportunity, the art, the climate solutions, the engineering. I mean, I mentioned in the op-ed a particular friend who wanted to be an astronomer and put that aside because she knew that she'd be able to make major contributions to social justice, and she has. She is an amazing leader who has really changed a lot of the ways we think about this work.

SOFIA: Yeah.

JOHNSON: And the fact that we have so many Americans who can't follow their dreams because they know that their first responsibility is to protect their communities is just gut wrenching to me. How can we expect them to do that when faced with racism this dire and dangerous on this order of magnitude?

SOFIA: Yeah, completely, completely.

So a lot of times when we hear conversations about people of color and climate change, those conversations mostly focus on how climate change disproportionately affects communities of color. Which is true of course, but you wrote about why people of color are absolutely critical and well-poised to successfully address the climate.

JOHNSON: People of color care more about the climate crisis. There's this misconception that environmentalists are like, I don't know, white dudes wearing Patagonia jackets and driving a Prius and like standing on top of a mountain like looking out at a forest. That, like, that is the environmentalist. But it's just not true.

When we look at the polling data, we learn that only 49% of white Americans are concerned or alarmed about the climate crisis, whereas 57% of black people and 70% of Latinx people are concerned or alarmed. And so if we want to succeed at addressing this crisis, we should be certainly engaging the people who already care. And there are 23 million black Americans who are already deeply concerned about the climate.

SOFIA: Right.

JOHNSON: And wouldn't it be great if they could be more involved in the solutions, in leading their communities towards the radical changes that we need to see in our energy, in our transportation, in our food systems, in our buildings? There's a lot of work to do, and I would love to see more people be able to focus on that. Because if we don't create the societal shifts we need - towards equality, towards eliminating racism - then we simply won't have enough people working on climate to actually win.

This is a fight we need to win.

SOFIA: Ayana, what would you like to leave our listeners with? Do you have any thoughts that you just want to leave us with?

JOHNSON: I would like white people who care about the climate to know that we can't solve climate change without people of color. It's just not possible.

SOFIA: Yeah.

JOHNSON: You asked me about the reason that I wrote this. Like, what motivated me to write this piece? And one of the reasons I wrote this is because, I think often when we think about - whether it's Black Lives Matter or the climate movement - a lot of times people think that we all need to be doing the same thing. Like, we all should be marching. We all should be donating. We all should be voting. And we all should be, you know, talking to our friends and family and educating ourselves - and all that is true. But I think for all of these major issues, there's also something unique that everyone can contribute.

And so when I was thinking about this particular moment in American history and how I might be able to participate, I thought, I can help people understand the connections between climate and race in a way that might break through to more people - because I'm black, because I'm a woman, because I'm from New York City and I grew up in Brooklyn in the '80s, when it was extremely dangerous and we were all terrified of the police, you know? I mean, I think this is a moment where we all have to use whatever skills we can bring to the table, whatever platforms we have.

And so I really didn't expect as many people to read this op-ed as ended up reading it. It was a piece of writing born out of fury and grief. And I'm really glad that it's broken through to people, and that I was able to contribute to the public discourse in this moment and kind of shake white environmentalists and say, like, we need you on this issue, too. You can't separate them. I wish it were that simple. I wish I could focus all my energy on climate change.

But it's humans who are being affected by the climate crisis, and it's humans who have to solve it. So if we're going to build the biggest possible team, we're going to need black people. We're going to need people of all races to be a part of the solution, so let's help each other. Let's have each other's backs in this way, and that will carry over into all the other work that we need to do together.


SOFIA: All right, Ayana. I appreciate you. I know that you are super-busy, and I know that doing interviews like this take an emotional toll as well as time. So thank you so much for spending some time with us.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.


SOFIA: You can find a link to Ayana's op-ed in today's episode notes. This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, fact-checked by Rebecca Ramirez and edited by Viet Le. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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