Young Readers Ask is an Orion web series where young readers interview authors about books.
GERONIMO LAVALLE, age nine, is a fourth grader at Dos Puentes, a public dual-language elementary school in Washington Heights, New York City. He prefers animals to humans and looks forward to volunteering at the Manhattan Animal Care Center when the pandemic is over. His favorite podcast is Story Pirates, and he’s currently rereading the Harry Potter series.
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, writer, and Brooklyn native. She is cofounder of the nonprofit think tank Urban Ocean Lab, codirector of the climate initiative The All We Can Save Project, and cohost of the podcast How to Save a Planet. Her mission is to build community around climate solutions.
Geronimo LaValle interviewed Dr. Johnson about a new anthology she coedited with Katharine K. Wilkinson, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (One World, September 2020).
From the publisher: “All We Can Save illuminates the expertise and insights of dozens of diverse women leading on climate in the United States—scientists, journalists, farmers, lawyers, teachers, activists, innovators, wonks, and designers, across generations, geographies, and race—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.”
Geronimo LaValle: Is there a way to give a medicine to keep coral alive?
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Right now, the most important medicine to keep corals alive is seawater at their favorite temperature, because corals get stressed out and can die when the water gets too hot. The best way to keep the water from getting too hot is to address climate change by (1) stopping the burning of fossil fuels, and (2) protecting and restoring ecosystems that absorb lots of excess carbon from the atmosphere that would otherwise warm the planet and the ocean.
There are lots of other steps we can also take to help keep corals healthy. We can protect the areas where they live by establishing parks in the ocean where fishing and drilling and mining are prohibited. We can protect the species that help keep reefs healthy, like parrotfish that eat algae off of coral reefs with their beak-like mouths. And they poop sand (some species over 800 pounds of it per year!), keeping beaches beachy.
Some scientists are also experimenting with putting up sun shields to protect corals from the sun on really hot days, and breeding corals that are better able to withstand the heat. That might help on a local scale, but since there are coral reefs all over the tropics, intensive options like this probably won’t work on a global scale.
GL: I’m worried the world is already too destroyed to get better. How can we convince people to stop polluting the ocean with plastic?
AEJ: A lot of people already know that plastic is bad for the environment, and for the ocean in particular. The big problem is “single-use” plastic that is meant to be used only once, like straws or candy wrappers or grocery bags—these are very hard to recycle! So, yes, we should each reduce, reuse, and recycle. But right now, for lots of products, there aren’t yet good alternatives to plastic. For example, if you want to buy a bag of chips, they almost always come in a plastic bag. (And I really like chips.)
GL: Me, too. Sour cream and onion is my favorite flavor.
AEJ: We need to shift the focus from individual people who consume plastic (many of whom are doing their best and are just too busy or overwhelmed to focus on plastic) to the big companies who are making plastic. Getting these corporations to stop polluting the ocean with plastic is going to be hard, because right now they are making heaps of money by turning fossil fuels into plastics. And much of the plastic they make is packaging that gets used only once before it is thrown away and then takes hundreds of years to break down, hurting the environment in the process. So we need to get together and put pressure on the companies and the government to change their policies. We need to push for better recycling, more environmentally friendly materials (like making packaging out of seaweed!), and to stop plastic before it gets to the ocean.
GL: Are there sea creatures who can help us de-pollute the ocean?
AEJ: Yes! Shellfish—like oysters, clams, and mussels—are excellent de-polluters. These types of animals are called “filter feeders,” meaning they get their food by filtering nutrients and plankton (teeny animals and plants) out of the seawater. So, as they go about their normal day, they filter out things like some of the excess agricultural fertilizers and pesticides that run down rivers to the sea and cause pollution.
Sea creatures can also help us de-pollute the ocean by absorbing carbon dioxide pollution. About 30 percent of the carbon dioxide that is released by burning greenhouse gases gets absorbed by the ocean, which ends up making seawater more acidic. Shellfish are important for carbon pollution too because they absorb it to build their shells, but ocean plants like seaweeds and mangroves and sea grasses are the real heroes for absorbing carbon pollution in the ocean. However, right now there is too much pollution and these creatures can’t keep up. So, to give the ocean a break, we need to strengthen and enforce the laws that prevent pollution.
GL: Why aren’t more Black women marine biologists?
AEJ: Let’s start with the false reasons. It’s not because Black people and women love the ocean less, and it’s not because Black women aren’t interested in becoming marine biologists. It’s because Black women have less access to the training and advice and funding that would help them make their marine biologist dreams come true. Between racism and sexism and all the factors of America’s brutal history that have disadvantaged both Black people and women, there are just lots of hurdles to overcome.
Despite these hurdles, there are a bunch of us Black women marine biologists out there, and some of them recently created a group called Black in Marine Science. Here is their website so you can learn more about some of them and about their scientific research.
GL: How did you become a marine biologist?
AEJ: When I was five years old, I went on a family vacation to Key West, Florida. My parents took me for a ride on a glass-bottom boat and I got to see a coral reef for the first time. It was amazing!
GL: I’ve been there, too! I held a sea star and I petted a nurse shark.
AEJ: I got to hold a sea urchin in my hand and feel its hundreds of tube feet crawling on my palm. My mind was blown. I fell madly in love with the ocean and decided right then to become a marine biologist.
After that, it was a combination of being stubborn and lucky and working really hard that made my dream come true. I took a lot of science classes, I asked a lot of questions, I read a lot of scientific articles, and I did my own research and wrote my own articles. To get a PhD, you have to write a really long report called a dissertation that explains all the research you’ve done—I did my research in the Caribbean, trying to figure out how to sustainably manage coral reefs, and my dissertation was 202 pages long with lots and lots of graphs.
GL: That’s long. That’s as long as a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book.
AEJ: Then you give a lecture that explains your dissertation. A group of professors read the report and listen to your lecture and then, if they decide it’s good enough, you earn a doctorate degree and then you are a doctor of marine biology.
GL: How can we make the ocean cooler again?
AEJ: The first step to making the ocean cooler is to stop making it warmer. Again, the most important steps are to stop burning fossil fuels and to protect and restore ecosystems—really that would solve so many things! Burning fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases, which traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Much of this heat is then absorbed by the ocean, warming its waters. If it weren’t for the ocean helping to absorb all this excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases, Earth would be 36°C hotter. We’ve got to switch from getting our energy from burning fossil fuels to getting our energy from renewable sources like the wind. This switch to renewable energy is already under way and we’ve got to get lots of people involved in the work so we can make it all happen super-duper fast.
GL: But not enough people are helping! And the fossil fuel people don’t care. Melting glaciers scare me because I think I will drown. Can people help the glaciers to stop melting?
AEJ: Sea level rise scares me sometimes, too. The planet is changing a lot because of climate change and it is important to make plans for how to stay safe. But the good news is that the sea level is not going to rise so fast that you will drown. According to scientists’ best estimates, sea level will rise somewhere from 0.5 to 2 meters over the next eighty years. So you will have plenty of time to move out of the way. Similar to the previous question about ocean heat, the best thing we can do for our melting glaciers is to switch to clean, renewable energy, and to protect and restore ecosystems.
We need to focus on planning to make sure towns and cities near the coast have a way to help people move to higher ground. It’s going to take a lot of effort to figure out how to do this, so we should start now. My contribution to helping to figure this out was to cofound a nonprofit organization called Urban Ocean Lab to get lots of smart folks working together on this topic.
GL: Can we keep sharks and other sea animals okay even if Earth gets warmer?
AEJ: The sad answer is that they won’t all be okay. Some sea animals are able to adapt to warmer waters better than others. Bowhead whales, for example, are actually doing better now that the ocean has warmed up a little because it has allowed for their food source, little creatures called krill, to grow. Some species of fish are adapting by moving toward the poles to find cooler waters. But some animals, like corals, can’t just swim to a better spot. Overall, just like humans, every species has a specific range of temperatures where it is comfortable, so we should be doing everything we can to keep the ocean’s temperature as close to that comfort zone as possible.
GL: What are scientists like you doing to help the ocean and the land?
AEJ: Beyond conducting research to help understand exactly what is going on and how to best prepare for the changes that are coming, scientists are doing something else that is extremely important: we are talking to people about climate solutions. Most people in the U.S. know that climate change is happening, but only a fraction of those people believe that climate change will affect them in their lifetime. But, in fact, climate change is affecting us today, and the faster we switch to clean, renewable energy and protect and restore ecosystems, the safer and healthier we will all be.
So we’ve got to talk about all the solutions we have—from solar and wind power, to regenerative farming, to more public transit and bicycling, to packaging made of things like seaweed instead of fossil fuel–based plastics, to more energy-efficient appliances, to planting trees, to creating more parks to protect nature, to electing politicians who are committed to making sure we have great climate policies. It is important to talk about all this stuff so that we understand what’s going on and then think about what we can each do to help.
GL: We can use electric cars, and they should make them less expensive and faster.
AEJ: Talking about solutions, about all the things we can do, is way less scary than doing nothing and worrying about it. And it feels really good to team up with friends and family and each do our part to make these big solutions happen. You certainly don’t need to be a scientist to help. Everyone has a role they can play, and it’s up to each of us to figure out how to best use our skills and resources to contribute. And the best news of all is that it can be fun! If you team up with people you like, the work of dealing with climate change can be super interesting and creative and joyous. Sometimes I feel like that’s the best kept secret of it all.
GL: Maybe it would take a big group of people because humans have polluted Earth so much.
A follow-up note from Geronimo’s mother, Emily Raboteau: Although All We Can Save is above Geronimo’s reading level, I appreciated that its solution-oriented approach to the climate crisis may help with his climate anxiety about living in a coastal city. I read the book with gratitude and summarized parts of it for him, based on his questions and concerns. I also showed him Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s TED Talk, “A Love Story for the Coral Reef Crisis,” to prepare him for this conversation.
This Young Readers Ask was coproduced by Orion reviews editor Kerri Arsenault and Orion contributing editor Emily Raboteau.