The School for Environment and Sustainability held a virtual conversation on climate action and social justice with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson for the 20th Peter M. Wege Lecture Series. This lecture is typically given once in the fall to honor Peter M. Wege’s contributions to the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems (CSS). This year, organizers added another lecture to the series to commemorate the 30th anniversary of CSS. The Wege Lecture is cosponsored by the CSS, SEAS, the Ford School and the Democracy and Debate organization.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is the co-founder of the Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for urban coastal cities and co-creator of the Spotify/Gimlet podcast “How to Save a Planet”. She also co-founded the feminist climate initiative the All We Can Save Project. Johnson’s work surrounds science, policy, communication and social justice as it pertains to climate solutions. 

The event was moderated by Environment and Sustainability Professor Dr. Sara Hughes. In an email statement to The Michigan Daily, Hughes shared why she felt this conversation was important. 

“I think Dr. Johnson’s Wege lecture is significant because she encourages us to focus on shared solutions, to find joy in our work and to develop an inclusive vision of the future,” Hughes wrote.

At the event, Johnson said she enjoys ocean conservation because it combines several disparate disciplines.  

 “I’ve always been very interested in interdisciplinary work, and so doing ocean conversation  gives you the opportunity to think not just about the science, but the environmental economics, the policy, the sociology and the anthropology,” Johnson said.

Many of the questions Johnson addressed pertained to working in and with disadvantaged communities that have experienced environmental trauma. She emphasized the importance of community-wide engagement when creating climate policy.

“When I was in the Caribbean working with fishing communities, it was very clear that essentially the entire island was a part of that,” Johnson said. “Everyone had some sort of relationship with the ocean — economic, cultural, family, sort of spiritual ties — and so the definition was everyone that lives on this island is part of this community and therefore has a stake in the outcome of what the policy changes should be.”

Johnson spoke about the importance of taking time to gain trust of community members while working in their land. She also said researchers should be cognizant of their role in communities outside of their own.

“We each have something to contribute to a community. You don’t just show up and take things from a community,” Johnson said. “You participate in it, and so I think everyone has a role to play in sort of respecting what your role can be, what it is, what it can grow into, what roles are already existing, how are we how are we being complementary to each other, how are we respecting others expertise, how are we sharing resources and how are we sharing credit.” 

Johnson said she believes much of the resistance to climate solutions can be attributed to exclusion of stakeholders. 

“I think a lot of the resistance that we see to the transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy and towards a regenerative one is because people do not see a place for themselves in this future,” Johnson said. 

Johnson also said research must take into account past discrimination when looking at future remedies. 

“When people talk about diversity and justice you sort of have to look both backwards and forwards at the same time,” Johnson said. “We can’t ignore the past and we can’t just be thinking about the present. We have to be aiming towards something bigger and making sure we don’t make the same mistakes, making sure we don’t screw over the same communities of color and poor communities that always get screwed over.” 

Johnson said that oftentimes, when people talk about climate solutions, it is assumed that communities of color do not care much about climate change. Johnson cited a study by Yale University which found people of color are more likely to be concerned about climate change than white people. According to the study, 49% of white people are “alarmed or concerned” about the climate situation, while 57% of Black people and 69% of Hispanic/Latino people are concerned.

“I think it’s very important to reframe the conversation and think about, like, have we just not been letting people into the climate movement?” Johnson said. 

The conversation also included a question and answer session with students focused on how social justice intersects with climate action. Rackham student Dinah George discussed with the audience the connection between environmental justice today and the Civil Rights Movement.

“The reason why people put so much energy and their lives on the line for civil rights was for the future,” Johnson said. 

Rackham student Meredith Seibold told the audience she was inspired by Dr. Johnson’s ability to work at the intersection of the fields that play into climate solutions. 

“One part of your (Dr. Johnson’s) career I find really interesting is your ability to sort of work at the intersection of science policy, justice and communication to engage a wider group of people and create climate solutions,” Seibold said.

To conclude the event, Hughes summarized the speech as an encouraging reminder of attendees’ power to effect change in climate policy.

“If there’s one message we can take away from our conversation today, it is that together, we can really make a difference on climate change,” Hughes said. 

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