These Scientists Are Leading the Feminist Climate Renaissance

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The movement to combat climate change is gaining more and more traction every day. Communities are becoming increasingly aware of their local and global impact on the world, and young leaders are rising up to help protect the environment. Two of these leaders are Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson. 

Dr. Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, writer, founder of Urban Ocean Lab, and co-creator of the Blue New Deal, a road map for including the ocean in climate policy. Dr. Wilkinson is a strategist, teacher, and a key figure in Project Drawdown, helping the world reach “Drawdown” — the point in the future when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline. Together, these incredible climate warriors collaborated to create an anthology called All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (set to release September 22, 2020). The book “illuminates the expertise and insights of dozens of diverse women leading on climate in the United States [...] and aims to advance a more representative, nuanced, and solution-oriented public conversation on the climate crisis. These women offer a spectrum of ideas and insights for how we can rapidly, radically reshape society.”

CircleAround caught up with Johnson and Wilkinson to discuss their work, and to learn what readers can do to support climate solutions today and in the future. 

CA: How did you get started in your fields?

AJ: I was just a girl in Brooklyn who was totally in love with the ocean and stubborn enough to follow my childhood dream and become a marine biologist. My work for the last two decades has really been on connecting the dots between science, policy, justice, communities, and the stories we tell. That has evolved more and more in the direction of climate change and climate solutions, and thinking about how we accelerate those solutions, because we already have nearly all of the solutions we need. When I met Katherine, who has a ton of overlap in the things she's thinking about and working on and cares about, we decided to team up and see what we could do to instigate the feminist climate renaissance.

KW: This is all true. My advisor in undergrad was fond of the saying, “Specialization is for insects.” And I feel like that's probably a great kind of caveat for my journey. I'm kind of a hopeless inter-disciplinarian, but I have been engaged in environmental issues in one way or another for over two decades. And that has crisscrossed academia, nonprofits, and the private sector. When Ayana and I met, it was like, "Oh you have all this weird mosaic of things you care about and skills you've cultivated." I think pretty immediately we realized there could be some great collaboration here.

CA: How optimistic are you about finding climate solutions and that global governments will provide support? 

AJ:  We basically have most of the solutions we need. It's a matter of how we're going to make those real in the world, how that's going to become the dominant way we do things, how we are going to transition off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. It's really more a matter of speed than anything else. 

And so, it's about building that political will, that awareness, and that opportunity for everyone to figure out what role they can play in accelerating the solutions we already have. And on the topic of government and others that can help provide the support to make all this happen, we do have an election coming up. I'm on Team Vote Climate. That is my number one issue. 

KW: It's really a question of acceleration, right? How do we shift culture? How do we build political power? How do we change behavior? How do we move money from things that are causing the problem, or not really doing us any good into getting to the roots of the challenge, and ultimately cultivating this big transformation we know is at hand? And it reminds me, in All We Can Save, the anthology, Gina McCarthy [former head of the EPA under Obama and current head of the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC] has a line that sort of like, "We have to stop kind of hoping that the government will do the right thing and we have to take responsibility for making the government do its job." I think that's such a great point, especially in an election season. This is a democracy and if our elected officials are not doing what they need to do, to ensure we have a livable future, then it's up to us to get engaged and either see new people elected, run for office ourselves, or show up at the offices of our electeds — all that stuff. We really can be involved. There's so much opportunity, and it's just kind of a question of how we each want to contribute.

AJ: A lot of this has to do with where we're putting our financial resources. What are we funding? And so, one of the sort of shorthand for describing that is we need to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable solutions, invest in community transitions away from fossil fuels. So we have this opportunity, especially now that we are unfortunately in this moment of a coronavirus-induced recession where the government is putting forth all these stimulus funds, recovery funds. And that's an opportunity to invest in building the future that we want. 

CA: Dr. Johnson, you’re currently working on ocean and marine policies. Is there a particular policy we should be focusing our attention on? How can we take action?  

AJ: We really have fallen short on implementing offshore wind [energy sources] in the U.S. It's sort of really ramped up quite quickly in Europe. Wind blows more strongly and more consistently offshore, especially in the Northeast where the waters are also shallow, making it easier to construct offshore wind farms. 

Forty percent of Americans live in coastal counties, so this is not some coastal elite issue. [About] four out of 10 Americans live near the coast and need to get their electricity from somewhere. So this is an opportunity I'm investing some of my time and energy figuring out how we can ramp up. For those who are interested in being a part of that effort, stay tuned, I think once we have a new Congress, there will be some opportunities to encourage the development of that sector. 

Something everyone can do today when it comes to the ocean and climate is eat more seaweed. It's just like being vegetarian on land. The ability of plants to do photosynthesis and absorb all these carbon dioxides actually helps to ameliorate ocean acidification in that local area, and [it helps] absorb excess nutrients and provide habitat for all these other species, and provide like really good, local green jobs. So you can support the artisanal seaweed industry that is starting to flourish in the U.S. Super nutritious and a really good environmental move. 

CA:  Dr. Wilkinson, how do you think people can be more connected to their environments and live more sustainably in general?

KW: The first thing to remember is that we are the environment. So often we think, well, we're humans and then the environment is out there, but actually we are totally knitted together with the living systems of the planet. Just breathing is a profound connection to the health of our air and our atmosphere. It's worth just kind of turning that kaleidoscope that we're deeply connected. And then, it's sort of our choice to be conscious of that day-to-day, and moment-to-moment. And that there are sort of bits of nature all around us, right? A tree, a patch of grass, or, you know, a tomato plant you're growing on your balcony. These are all moments where we can be aware and thoughtful about connection. And it sounds sort of philosophical and fluffy, but I think actually, it's really important because it speaks to the kind of perception we're bringing with us to the world. 

It’s helpful to think about the personal part of our life, the professional part of our life, and then the kind of political, or civic part of our life. We can't do it all — no one can do everything — but there are things we can do. For me, I've been a vegetarian for over 20 years. Am I single-handedly saving the planet? Definitely not, but it's a way to stay sort of grounded in my values and think about what motivates me to do this work professionally.

We need lawyers. We need teachers, we need campaign people, we need elected officials. We need folks who install solar panels. We need folks who repair solar panels. We need bus drivers. When we're talking about a transformation this big, there's something all of us can do with the professional skills we have. And then, you know, we've already talked a lot about election season and civic life by finding a way to get engaged in that kind of collective action that feels good to you. Maybe that's showing up to a march, maybe it's signing petitions. There are lots of ways to participate if you're an introvert, an extrovert, and depending on where you live. So yeah, personal, professional, political, it's a good way to make sure you're kind of running the gamut of options.

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Written By

Katka Lapelosová

Katka is a writer from New York City, currently living in Belgrade, Serbia. See Full Bio

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