The climate crisis is an oceans crisis

Decisions we are making to make the Earth uninhabitable

Ezra Klein in conversation with Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, founder of the Urban Lab and the Ocean Collective. She’s held positions at the NOAA and the EPA, and was named by Outside Magazine as the most influential marine biologist of our time. And she’s able to do something a lot of people aren’t: communicate not just the science of climate change from the ocean perspective, but the role oceans play in the human story.

Photo by LI FEI on Unsplash

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: These things are interacting. And so that’s that’s sort of one example of what is happening with those currents and why they’re important because it actually affects air temperature, and the weather and precipitation in different parts of the world. And also because ocean currents…

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: One of these types of currents is called upwelling, and that’s when deeper colder water comes up to the surface. So it wells up and that brings with it a lot of nutrients and that’s part of what drives really productive fisheries like the anchovies in Peru, or fishing off the coast of California, or off of South Africa. Those areas are really productive fishing spots because there’s this nutrient rich cold water that’s rushing up to the surface. And that starts to slow down, when we have these changes in our ocean climate system.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: And that’s one of the projected impacts of really big concern, that’s been discussed in the latest UN climate report that just came out last month.

Ezra Klein: Yeah, I’m gonna want to put a pin in that and come back to that report, because it wasn’t comforting I didn’t think.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Good luck finding comfort in climate reports.

Ezra Klein: Yeah, I know. They’re not great.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: I cried on the subway when I read that.

Ezra Klein: Really? What did that report say? What did they find?

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: It’s a big report, so there’s a lot of different results in it, but it was the first time I’ve seen a UN report so thoroughly discuss the human health and well being and justice implications of what we’re doing to this planet. The food security for hundreds of millions of people is at risk, because, you know, about half a billion people around the world depend on seafood as their main source of protein and livelihoods.

And so what does that mean when fish populations start to plummet because the waters too hot for them, or they’re moving towards the poles and out of range of these small scale fishermen? And what does it mean when floods that used to come every hundred years are coming every year? And what does it mean to have this happen in the context of seas that are multiple feet higher, and then storm surge on top of that? It broke my heart to think about all the people who are on the front lines of this who really didn’t cause the problem.

When we think about who has caused climate change, it is corporate greed, and government malfeasance, and the creation of this insane fossil fuel-based economy, when we have other options. This is a knowing decision. We’re getting screwed. And the people who are getting screwed the worst are the ones that emitted the least carbon. That’s why I was crying on the subway. It’s totally unfair. It’s just so cruel.

And, at the same time, when we think about hurricane Dorian hitting the Bahamas and decimating that island, and then a boat of a few dozen people trying to come to the US to find a safe place to live and we turn them away.

And those are the things that I think about when I read the science, because it’s not just numbers. It’s whether people live or die. It’s whether people can put food on the table for their families. It’s whether people get washed away to sea, and it’s whether we as one of 8 million species on the planet have a right to do this to the rest. And I just could not believe more wholeheartedly that we have no right to do this.

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