Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
Alex Blumberg: And I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the show where we talk about what we need to do to address climate change, and how to make those things happen.
Alex: So just one week after Joe Biden took office, he signed an executive order called, The Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. And this is a document which lays out a plan for what the Biden Administration wants the US government to do on climate change. And there's lots of stuff in this plan, some of which we've talked about before on this very show, Ayana.
Ayana: Yeah, there's a lot, a lot of ground covered in there.
Alex: Like plans to move the country to a carbon-free electricity, to transition the nation's vehicles to electric. Big plans to increase public transportation.
Ayana: But it's not like Joe Biden just sat down his first day in the White House and just wrote all of this.
Ayana: It represents the work of easily hundreds of people who have been working on climate policy for many years, on the research that goes into it, all the science. And those ideas have been carried forward and championed, and eventually became a part of this document.
Alex: Right. In fact, I would go so far as to say that every line in this document probably has a pretty big story behind it.
Ayana: I'd buy that.
Alex: And today, we're gonna be telling one of those stories. Specifically, the story behind a line that appears in Section 214 of this document. Ayana, you want to read this line?
Ayana: Yeah. "Coastal communities have an essential role to play in mitigating climate change and strengthening resilience by protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems, such as wetlands, seagrasses, coral and oyster reefs, and mangrove and kelp forests, to protect vulnerable coastlines, sequester carbon, and support biodiversity and fisheries."
Alex: It just so happens we know one of the people who was instrumental in getting those words in there, and we're gonna have her on the show today. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, welcome to the program! [laughs]
Ayana: [laughs] Thank you so much for having me, Alex Blumberg. It's a pleasure to be here with you.
Alex: You! Ayana, you have something to do with how all this ocean-y stuff ended up as part of the White House plan to address climate change.
Ayana: I've got some inside scoop I could reveal.
Alex: And we're gonna tell the story of that inside scoop, because this story reveals a lot about how the laws and policies that shape our world—and we hope help transition us to a more climate-friendly future—how they originate.
Ayana: So today on the show, we will offer you a peek behind the curtain of how climate policy actually gets made in the United States. And we'll walk you through my sort of meandering and eventful journey advocating for ocean policy, and share how something goes from just being an idea to maybe eventually becoming federal policy.
Alex: And along the way, we're gonna meet some of the people who are driving climate policy in the United States right now. And we'll talk about your very favorite subject, Ayana.
Ayana: And why anyone who cares about climate has to care about the ocean, too. And why we need not just a Green New Deal, but also a Blue one.
Alex: We'll do all that right after this break.
Alex: Welcome back. Today we are chatting with a special guest who you all know very well.
Ayana: It's me!
Alex: It's you indeed. [laughs] My co-host Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who is going to tell a story of how you helped get all that ocean-related stuff into the White House's plan to tackle climate change.
Ayana: And the operative word there, Alex, is "helped," right? There are tons of people who have been working on this stuff for decades, who really care about it, who are experts, who are chiming in. But since I am obviously most familiar with my perspective and experiences here, we'll tell this particular version of the story through my eyes.
Alex: And it starts back before we even knew who would be president.
Ayana: Oh, for sure.
Alex: And there was this other big proposal that everyone was talking about: the Green New Deal.
Ayana: And of course, we've talked about the Green New Deal here on the show before. We did an episode explaining how young advocates from all different organizations really helped to put this idea on the federal policy agenda, this concept of transforming the US economy as key to driving down greenhouse gas emissions, and creating millions of new jobs and supporting justice.
Alex: And in early 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced a resolution in Congress laying out this vision of a Green New Deal.
Ayana: And when I heard about the Green New Deal, of course, I was very curious about it. Like, "Ooh! Climate policy for America? That sounds neat." But then as I was reading through it, I got to page 13 out of 14, and I finally saw the word "oceans."
Ayana: So the word "oceans" appears only once in the Green New Deal resolution, and it's in Section 4, Subsection L.
Ayana: And all it says is we should probably protect public lands and waters and the ocean. There's nothing about coasts or fish or coastal ecosystems.
Alex: And what's missed if you're overlooking the ocean in this way?
Ayana: Oh, Alex, I am so glad you asked. So what goes unappreciated is that the ocean actually is a really big part of the climate system. It actually drives our climate and weather patterns to a large degree.
Ayana: And one of the things that the ocean has done is buffer us from the impacts of climate change. So when we burn fossil fuels and emit all these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the ocean has actually already absorbed about a third of the carbon dioxide that we have emitted. And it has also absorbed over 90 percent of the heat that those greenhouse gases have trapped in the atmosphere since the mid-1950s.
Alex: So were it not for the ocean, things for us land-dwellers would be way worse than they are right now.
Ayana: Oh gosh, yeah. The atmosphere would be, like, 95 degrees Fahrenheit hotter if the ocean hadn't absorbed all of that heat, yeah.
Alex: That's crazy.
Ayana: That's crazy.
Ayana: So thank you, ocean. [laughs]
Alex: But also, I imagine that's not super great for the ocean either.
Ayana: It is definitively bad for the ocean. So everything that lives in the ocean has a pretty narrow comfort zone when it comes to temperature—just like us. So as the ocean heats up, the fish are slowly but surely migrating towards the poles as they look for cooler water that will be comfortable for them. And corals can't swim, so they are often essentially getting fried in place, and that's a process called "coral bleaching." And then we have ocean currents and the weather patterns that they drive—like monsoons—and that is even changing. And this warming water is also getting under the ice and melting it from below.
Alex: Warming water sounds like, on an emotional level like, "Mmm! Warm bath." But it's actually just wreaking havoc with the ocean and all the weather that the ocean generates.
Ayana: Yeah. The ocean has warmed around two degrees Fahrenheit in the last century, and even just with that amount of warming we're still seeing major effects.
Ayana: But it's not just the heat that's messing things up. The ocean, because it's also absorbing a lot of carbon dioxide, that is shifting essentially the chemistry of seawater. So I mentioned the ocean has absorbed about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide that's been released into the atmosphere, and that starts off this chemical reaction where carbon dioxide becomes carbonic acid, and then releases—among other things—hydrogen ions, which changes the pH of the entire ocean. So we've actually succeeded in making the entire ocean more acidic than it's been in human history.
Ayana: So that's no good if you are, for example, a thing living in the ocean who is trying to build a shell or skeleton, and you're floating around in this increasingly acidic liquid.
Alex: Which is literally, like, dissolving your shell as you're trying to build it.
Ayana: Yeah, we're, like, turning the ocean to Coca-Cola. It's no good.
Ayana: So yeah, the ocean has been bearing a lot of the brunt of preventing everything from totally melting and burning, but it's really messed up the ocean.
Alex: So you're reading this plan ...
Alex: And you know all of this, and none of this is reflected in—what is it? Subsection 4?
Ayana: 4-L. [laughs]
Alex: 4-L. [laughs]. You're like, "There's a lot more that we need to do here, people."
Ayana: Yeah. And it's not just on the side of how is the ocean getting impacted, it's on the side of how the ocean can be a really important part of the solutions that we can put forward. And so when we think about how we're gonna switch to renewable energy, well, offshore wind and wave and tidal, and even floating solar panels can be a big part of that, which is something I thought should have been explicitly mentioned. And coastal ecosystems. They're a natural, physical barrier that protects the coastline—and the buildings and roads and people—so when hurricanes and storm surges are coming, those ecosystems are really important—the mangroves and seagrasses and oyster reefs and wetlands. And they can absorb several times more carbon per acre than a forest on land. So I thought that deserved a mention.
Alex: At least a mention.
Ayana: It's clearly important to protect and restore these ecosystems that are protecting us.
Alex: It seems only fair.
Ayana: And there's this other ocean opportunity. We've talked about it on the show before: regenerative farming of seaweeds and shellfish in the ocean. And doing that can be a really low-carbon footprint way of providing food for people. So I was just like, "Y'all, we're missing some pretty big opportunities to solve this thing. If we are going to win, we're gonna need to include the ocean.
Alex: So what did you do?
Ayana: Well, at first I did nothing. I was just like, "Oh, well. That's a bummer!" [laughs]
Alex: Well, one thing though, I will say, having hosted this podcast with you now for over a year. "Oh, well. That's a bummer?" That's not really your M.O. "Oh, well!"
Ayana: Well, I kind of have a lot on my plate, so I'm not, like, looking for new projects.
Alex: And yet ...
Ayana: But, you know, I kind of like, grumbled about it a little bit to colleagues who do ocean stuff. And the first person I really griped with was this guy, Dr. Chad Nelsen, a dear colleague of mine.
Chad Nelsen: My name is Chad Nelsen. I'm the CEO of the Surfrider Foundation, which is a grassroots coastal and ocean conservation organization, trying to get surfers and all ocean lovers to get involved in ocean protection and conservation.
Ayana: Chad is a big ocean policy nerd, with a doctorate in natural resource economics. And he's a surfer. And we were having lunch and just being like, "So Green New Deal. Bummer the ocean got left out, huh?"
Chad Nelsen: I don't know why we keep leaving out the oceans. It happens all the time.
Ayana: Yeah. Why do you think that is?
Chad Nelsen: Obviously, it's because I guess we live on the land. But everyone loves the ocean, everybody wants to go to vacation at the ocean. And so I don't know why. Maybe it's because it's too mysterious, and we still don't understand it well enough?
Ayana: I always have a sort of lazy answer to that, which is just like, out of sight, out of mind. Like, most people don't see it every day.
Chad Nelsen: Yeah.
Ayana: And when you look at the surface, it usually looks fine.
Chad Nelsen: Looks awesome, yeah.
Ayana: There aren't wildfires in the same way. So I think it just—it doesn't really click.
Chad Nelsen: Sure.
Alex: I love how passionate he gets when he's talking about the ocean. He's like, "It looks awesome!" [laughs]
Ayana: [laughs] Well I mean, he is a surfer, right?
Ayana: He should say, like, "It looks rad. And sometimes it looks gnarly." But what Chad and I were talking about, he was trying to think of what his organization could maybe do, and he was talking about potentially writing an op-ed about it.
Alex: And an op-ed, you know, an opinion piece you submit to a newspaper or news site, it doesn't sound, like, super sexy. You know, when Gotham City is under attack, Batman isn't like, "To the Bat Cave! Let's write an op-ed!"
Ayana: [laughs] Alas, no. But welcome to policy nerd land, where op-eds are one of the tools you have to try to get the attention of people in power. And publishing an op-ed in a major newspaper can be really helpful, because powerful folks might actually see it, and then you have your argument laid out in a way that is really clear.
Alex: So an op-ed can be an important part of the strategy here, and you signed up to write one.
Ayana: And little did I know I had just, like, dipped a toe into, like, a whole scenario! [laughs]
Alex: Into a whole scenario that would actually end up having a pretty big impact on the plans of the person who would eventually become the next President of the United States.
Ayana: Yeah, okay. So Alex, you're definitely getting ahead of the story. There's a few steps between, like, a cranky lunchtime conversation with Chad, and federal ocean policy, somehow embracing the ocean as a key element of climate solutions. But that complaining became phone calls and emails and a Google doc. And then Chad and I found out that Bren Smith, who is an ocean farmer who we've had on the show before, Bren was drafting his own op-ed about this. He's co-founder and co-executive director of a nonprofit called Greenwave—that I'm actually on the board of—which is focused on expanding regenerative ocean farming.
Ayana: So when I asked him if he wanted to team up and combine our two op-eds into one, he was like, "Absolutely. I'll follow your lead. Let's go."
Alex: [laughs] Right. So who'd you send your op-ed to?
Ayana: Oh my gosh, Alex, we sent it to everyone. [laughs] No one—no one wanted to publish it. I think we submitted it to, like, all the major newspapers, and it was just like, rejection, rejection, rejection.
Ayana: I mean, it kind of got to the point where Chad was like, "What are we doing wrong here? Why is nobody as excited about this as we are?"
Chad Nelsen: I guess I was like, either this really isn't a good idea—even though we know it is—or more likely, it's not the first time that I or Surfriders had ideas that are just a little too out there for mainstream. So you're like, "Okay, this is too abstract."
Ayana: Like, the ocean is somehow too niche?
Chad Nelsen: Right. The Green New Deal is already pretty radical, and now there's these people coming, talking about a Blue New Deal. Like, that's even more crazy.
Ayana: But in the end, we found a home for the op-ed in a publication called Grist, which is focused on environment and climate. And then their editor gave us a whole bunch of revisions, at which point it became incredibly clear why no other paper had accepted it, because it actually needed quite a lot of work. [laughs] They weren't rejecting, like, an A-plus paper, they were like, "This is a B-minus, and no one has time to fix this for you."
Alex: [laughs] So the editor of Grist took your rambling op-ed, and turned it into something that was, like ...
Ayana: Yeah, into an actual cogent and compelling argument. And then published it. And it was called "The Big Blue Gap in the Green New Deal."
Ayana: Which is also a title they came up with, which was much better than whatever nonsense we had proposed.
Alex: Nice! Good editor. Good editing.
Ayana: Yeah. So thank you, Grist.
Alex: So you publish it in Grist. That's when Biden calls.
Ayana: If Biden did call, I wouldn't know because my voice mailbox has been full for, like, three years.
Ayana: What actually happened next was that our op-ed caught the attention of Data for Progress, which is an organization that has been key for elevating this idea of a Green New Deal. They are a progressive think tank that was founded to help develop and push bold policy ideas on the left. And at the time, they were putting out memos on climate policy, and polling voters to see what kinds of policies people supported. And their vice-president, Julian Brave NoiseCat, who we've had on the show before, as well as senior fellow Johnny Bowman, they wanted to do a memo on the economics piece of this. Like, what would a Blue New Deal mean for jobs? What's the economic argument for why it's important to include the ocean?
Alex: Because you'd talked about some of these economics in the op-ed that you wrote, right?
Ayana: Yeah, we'd mentioned there's all these jobs in offshore wind and regenerative ocean farming and ecosystem restoration, but we didn't pin it down as part of making a pitch for this. And obviously, politicians really want to know, like, how is this gonna affect my constituents? How is this gonna affect the economy?
Alex: Right. But you had used the phrase, "the blue economy?"
Ayana: Yeah. So that's just this very general term for all the ways in which the ocean contributes to GDP, essentially.
Alex: Right, right, right.
Ayana: And we thought, great. We'll get some numbers behind that, and that will help us make the case for why this stuff matters. We have polling numbers, and we have dollar figures for the benefits of this, then maybe more people will care.
Alex: Makes sense.
Ayana: And one of the big numbers that we found is that the Blue Economy supports 3.3 million jobs in the United States.
Alex: Jobs like fishing and growing seaweed and oysters, and building and maintaining offshore wind turbines. Stuff like that?
Ayana: Yeah. And tourism is a really big one too, which obviously requires a healthy ocean so people want to go to it and get in it.
Ayana: And the polling that Data for Progress did showed that 66 percent of voters supported construction of offshore wind farms. So putting some numbers together about economic benefits and about the popularity of these different policy ideas seemed like a logical next step in expanding our argument in ways that would be compelling to more people.
Alex: All right.
Ayana: I mean, who doesn't love a policy memo?
Alex: [laughs] You've got a policy memo?
Alex: You've got an op-ed. You've got some polling.
Ayana: We're stacking papers, as they say.
Alex: I don't think that's what they refer to when they talk about stacking paper. [laughs]
Ayana: No? That's not what they mean?
Alex: I don't think they're talking about policy papers.
Ayana: I've been hearing all these hip hop songs wrong for decades. I thought they were all just talking about policy documents. [laughs]
Alex: Jay-Z is talking about white papers. No.
Ayana: "Make it rain white papers. This is my M.O."
Alex: That's what you do when you show up at the club?
Ayana: [laughs] I can't fit them all in, like, my back pocket, so I, like, show up with, like, a duffel bag.
Alex: Hold on. Let me just get out my briefcase.
Ayana: And then they're so much heavier, so I have to bring, like, a blower. So it's, like, me, a leaf blower and a duffel bag full of white papers. And then—and then it rains. Yeah.
Alex: Oh my God!
Ayana: Totally normal Saturday night.
Alex: So anyways, you've got an op-ed in Grist. You've got a nice title. You've got polling that shows that people actually support ...
Ayana: Americans are into it.
Alex: ... into offshore wind. I'm still not seeing—like, that doesn't—it seems like we're pretty far away from Joe Biden at this point.
Ayana: Oh yeah.
Ayana: Joe Biden has no clue what's going on.
Alex: Right. Okay. He's not even the Democratic nominee yet.
Ayana: Yeah, so this would have been back in September of 2019. We're still, like, very much in the thick of the Democratic primaries, and there had been groups pushing for a specific climate debate, hosted by the DNC. And they would not do it, and CNN stepped in and said, "Okay, well we'll host a climate town hall with each candidate going one at a time instead of debating each other," which was like a seven-hour extravaganza, which was the most ridiculous TV format you could imagine for this. But it did provide regular citizens a chance to ask climate policy questions to each of the Democratic candidates. So anyone could record a little video of yourself asking the question, and then CNN picked some of the questions and actually aired them during this town hall. And the questions sort of got randomly assigned to different candidates to answer.
Alex: Got it. Okay.
Ayana: And so I really hate recording videos, especially selfie videos, so I did not take this opportunity to submit a question. But Bren Smith, our favorite ocean farmer, submitted a question about a Blue New Deal, and whether a candidate would support that. So his question got chosen, and then it happened to be directed at Senator Elizabeth Warren. She was the one that was asked to answer it.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, CNN Moderator: Bren, what's your question?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elizabeth Warren: Hi, Bren.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bren Smith: My oyster farm was destroyed by two hurricanes. Now warming waters and acidification are killing seed coast to coast and reducing yields. Those of us that work on the water, we need climate solutions and we need them now. The trouble is, is the Green New Deal only mentions our oceans one time. This is despite the fact that our seas soak up more than 25 percent of the world's carbon. So what's your plan for a Blue New Deal for those of us working on the ocean?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elizabeth Warren: I like that!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bren Smith: I want to make sure that all of us can make a living on a living planet.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elizabeth Warren: So I—thank you. I think that is a great question. I think he's got it exactly right. We need a Blue New Deal as well. Good for you!]
Alex: Blue New Deal!
Ayana: So that was very well received.
Ayana: I was watching this climate town hall, and when I saw Bren pop up on the screen, I lost my mind with excitement. [laughs] And when I heard Elizabeth Warren's answer, like, "Yes, we need a Blue New Deal," I was completely blown away. But I didn't really think anything would come of it, necessarily. But apparently, she went back to her campaign staff and was like, "Okay, you know how we make those plans?"
Ayana: "We're gonna make a Blue New Deal plan." And the person who was assigned to create this plan was Warren's climate advisor, a woman named Maggie Thomas. And at that point, I didn't know Maggie, but she had been a staffer on the presidential campaign of Washington Governor Jay Inslee before he withdrew from the race. And Inslee's campaign was all about climate, so Maggie was deeply involved in crafting his climate plan, which was considered the gold standard.
Alex: Yeah, he was the climate guy in the early Democratic primary race.
Ayana: Yeah. In every debate, no matter what you asked, he would just always bring it back to climate—which I really appreciated. And when Inslee dropped out, Maggie joined Warren's campaign. And so Maggie was the person who got this assignment: the boss wants an ocean plan.
Ayana: And Maggie had to figure out what the heck is the Blue New Deal?
Maggie Thomas: And that's when I called Ayana, and I was sort of like, "Help. Please help. Let's get to work." And I roped Ayana into probably a lot more than she bargained for.
Ayana: So next thing you know, I'm on the phone with Maggie Thomas. I remember I was standing in my mom's kitchen, looking out the window. All of a sudden, I was like, "Am I gonna help Elizabeth Warren write one of her famous plans? Is this—is this the next step in this whole scenario about trying to get the ocean just, like, a little bit more love in climate policy?"
Alex: And, in fact, it was the next step.
Ayana: Yeah. Next thing you know, there's another Google doc. I'm in there with Maggie Thomas, and we're just trying to pull together a lot of the details to flesh out what was in the op-ed, what was in the policy memo. She's reaching out to a bunch of experts for more input and ideas, and we're weaving together this concept for how the federal government would actually make all of this happen.
Alex: And how long did that take to put it all together?
Ayana: It took a while. Like, a few months?
Ayana: So it became a pretty big side project.
Alex: Wow! And when did it come out?
Ayana: So this plan was released in early December of 2019. So it was actually really exciting to see how widely embraced Elizabeth Warren's policy plan was. I mean, you'll remember this was a pretty contentious primary, but there were no competing plans for the ocean.
Ayana: There was one, and it was Warren's. And people were like, "Yeah, that seems right."
Alex: Got it.
Ayana: And because I knew that no one would read this—I don't know was it like, eight-page Elizabeth Warren policy plan, I wrote another op-ed.
Alex: More op-eds!
Ayana: I mean, they kind of work!
Ayana: And this one was just me—I didn't have Bren and Chad with me for this round. But I basically summarized the Blue New Deal plan, and this time it had gotten enough traction, and having Elizabeth Warren champion this idea and release a whole plan around it meant that the Washington Post was like, "Okay, we'll print your op-ed this time."
Alex: Got it.
Ayana: So we had the second op-ed, which was titled, "Our oceans brim with climate solutions. We need a Blue New Deal."
Alex: Also a good title.
Ayana: And then the picture they chose was a leaping orca. And I was like, this is not about leaping orcas, this is about the blue economy and blue jobs and fisheries and ports and protecting our coastlines and mangroves, you know?
Alex: [whale sound] But what about us orcas? [whale sound]
Ayana: Oh Alex, that's so creepy. [laughs]
Alex: Okay. Anyway, things are happening.
Ayana: So at this point we're, like, two op-eds in, a policy memo, a presidential campaign policy plan. I'm stacking papers on papers on papers.
Alex: The club is going wild.
Ayana: [laughs] And then Elizabeth Warren drops out of the race.
Alex: Oh, somebody poured water on the fire.
Ayana: Yeah. Once Elizabeth Warren left the race, I was pretty sure like, okay, well, that's the end of the road. That was a fun adventure to try to get people to care about the ocean.
Ayana: But no, there's more.
Alex: [laughs] Nicely done! There's more after the break, you mean?
Ayana: After the break. Stay tuned.
Ayana: So Warren dropped out.
Alex: It was shortly after that that it became sort of clear that it was gonna be Biden, right?
Ayana: Yeah. And it wasn't at that point clear whether Biden actually was gonna take climate seriously enough.
Ayana: I mean, he did not have an impressive climate plan at that point.
Alex: Right. You were like, is he gonna rise to the occasion or not? Essentially.
Ayana: It was sort of a Magic Eight Ball "Outlook Not Good" scenario.
Alex: Right. [laughs]
Ayana: Based on the plans he had released so far. They just weren't big enough, weren't ambitious enough.
Ayana: But then Maggie Thomas, after having served on the Governor Inslee and Senator Warren campaigns, she started working as political director for the think tank Evergreen Action. And Evergreen is a group of alumni of the Jay Inslee campaign, who were trying to take the really ambitious climate proposals that they had put together for that, and get them adopted by influential politicians, like members of Congress—and especially Joe Biden.
Ayana: And Evergreen Action is another one of these organizations like Data for Progress, that has really been driving the conversation around climate policy among progressives. So for instance, they were a big part of pushing this idea of a clean electricity standard that we've talked about in previous episodes. And I should say I'm also on their advisory board.
Alex: Holy moly! [laughs] You're on a lot of advisory boards.
Ayana: I get sucked into a lot of these things. Apparently, I really love meetings. But anyway, one day in the summer of 2020, I get a call from Maggie when she's over at Evergreen, and she wants to have me chat with a guy named Ali Zaidi, who was New York State's Deputy Secretary for Energy and Environment, and in his free time, he was volunteering as a climate advisor for Joe Biden's presidential campaign. And he essentially said, "You know, Biden is updating his climate plan. What do you, Ayana, think we should include about the ocean?" Which is honestly one of those moments where I find myself thinking, "Me? You want my opinion? Are you sure?"
Ayana: And there I am, just sitting on my stoop in Brooklyn. It's a lovely summer day. I'm wearing cutoff jean shorts, which I never do. That was, like, memorable to me because I'm, like, having a serious policy phone call, but it's not on Zoom. And Ali's like, "Well, what do you think are the most important priorities from the Warren plan that we should take a hard look at?" And I was like, "We gotta protect coastal ecosystems. It's extremely important. And offshore wind energy is critical to making sure that, you know, the 40 percent of Americans who live in coastal counties have a source of clean, renewable energy. So we got to figure that out in this country. We just need to get it together." And the third thing I mentioned was the Civilian Climate Corps, which was an idea put forward by Jay Inslee. And this is a program that would, among other things, put thousands of people to work protecting and restoring ecosystems—including coastal ecosystems—so obviously, I was really jazzed about this idea, especially in the middle of a recession, the need to create jobs for folks.
Alex: Right. We need to put people back to work, they might as well be helping the environment and climate change along the way.
Ayana: I mean, if you can have your cake and eat it too, if you can have your mangroves and your jobs too, then why not?
Alex: And this was just, like, on a phone call, sitting on your stoop in Brooklyn?
Ayana: Yeah. It was just the three of us on the phone. My goal was just to make sure the ocean was included, because it always gets left out of climate plans, which is a recipe for failure. So I was just like, "Please don't forget about the ocean." [laughs]
Alex: [laughs] So then what happened?
Ayana: Well, I had very low expectations, because I knew the Biden campaign was talking to a lot of people, right? They were gathering all the ideas they could from a bunch of experts, and I had no delusions that the three things I was advocating for would be particularly notable to them.
Ayana: But we were in touch a little bit in the following weeks, and it was just incredible to be in that mix.
Ayana: And then the Biden campaign did something I did not see coming, which was release a fully legit, way more ambitious climate plan during the general election.
Ayana: Which is not something candidates do. You're, like, asking for trouble releasing a whole bunch of new policies at the end, when you're supposed to just be battling the other guy. They were really focused on how do we continue to iterate on our policies so that they meet the mark?
Alex: And then was there anything in there about the ocean?
Ayana: Yes, actually! So in the campaign's clean energy plan, in the part where they're describing the various things the Civilian Climate Corps would do, another concept that actually made it into that plan, it states that we need to: protect and restore coastal ecosystems such as wetlands, seagrasses, oyster reefs, and mangrove and kelp forests, to protect vulnerable coastlines, sequester carbon, and support biodiversity and fisheries.
Alex: Shout out to mangroves!
Ayana: Shout out to mangroves!
Alex: It's really amazing!
Ayana: Dreams do come true!
Alex: It made it in!
Ayana: Yeah. All three of the things I had advocated for: commitments to creating a Civilian Climate Corps, protecting coastal ecosystems and accelerating offshore wind energy all made it in there. And so, even though so many people have been chipping away at this stuff forever, it always seems like it's impossible to really make a difference. Like, you need more power and influence, or you need gazillions of dollars behind you, or you need to be on the campaign staff to make a difference. And what I was seeing was that all these people, all these smart folks who were trying to help, everyone was just figuring out how to get it right. The whole thing was really just remarkable to me.
Alex: And then, of course, Biden became president, and a week after taking office, he took this campaign plan and turned it into an executive order.
Alex: The very executive order we quoted from at the beginning of this episode, making the name-check of mangroves and kelp forests official federal policy, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson!
Ayana: Whoop, whoop! [laughs] Yeah, it was one of the first executive orders he signed after he's sworn in. So it was yet another sign that oh, he's serious about this.
Alex: That's amazing!
Ayana: And shortly after that, Biden released a policy plan that added details to how the administration would support another quick ramp-up of an offshore wind energy industry in United States waters. And that Biden policy plan actually included some of the recommendations that our team at Urban Ocean Lab had made. So we released a policy memo about a year ago, and Maggie had been a co-author of that with us, all about offshore wind. And of course, I have no idea if other folks in the White House read our memo, but I sure don't regret writing it.
Alex: Yeah, who knows? And even if they didn't read the memo, they've definitely gotten the memo.
Ayana: [laughs] Alex, that was a good one. Memo jokes, it's a whole genre!
Alex: [laughs] So what is your takeaway from all this? Like, what's the lesson here for you about how this all came together?
Ayana: This is a lesson that I keep learning over and over, is just how important it is to write things down.
Ayana: Like, most of the ways in which my work has been useful or made a bit of difference has been because I had words on a piece of paper I could show someone. Like, the power of the pen is a real thing, right? We could all just, like, chat forever, but someone has to write it down and show those words to someone who might then do something with them.
Alex: Right. Yeah. Yeah.
Ayana: And I think it's just so important to follow things to their logical conclusion. Like, this idea needs to keep moving forward. What are the ways in which I can keep this idea moving forward?
Ayana: And eventually a window of opportunity can open to make these ideas reality. So many people had been working on these climate policy ideas for years, waiting for the political moment when politicians would maybe finally pay attention, and helping to create that political moment to push these ideas forward. And suddenly it was here.
Alex: And in this case, some of the people who were pushing the idea forward are now in charge of making it a reality.
Ayana: Yeah. And many of the people who I had the chance to collaborate with over this last year or so, they're now influencing policy of the Biden administration, and actually some of them, like Ali and Maggie who are now both working in the White House, are even writing that policy, working for the administration. So I know that when I pipe up and say, "Hey, don't forget about the ocean when you're making climate policy," they actually know exactly what I mean, and maybe these issues won't keep getting ignored.
Alex: So we're good, right? The mangroves are saved?
Ayana: No, Alex, unfortunately, not quite yet. Because, while Biden can execute some parts of his plan by himself through the executive branch authority that he has as president, to get most of these things accomplished, we need Congress to do their part. So at this point, I might direct you to yet another op-ed that I have written on the topic. This one published in Bloomberg, which is called "Congress Must Make Biden's Vision for the Oceans Come True."
Alex: Ah, so it's on Congress now.
Ayana: Yep. And this one was co-authored with Dr. Miriam Goldstein, who leads the ocean program at the think tank Center for American Progress, and Jean Flemma, who's my co-founder of the ocean policy think tank that we co-lead called Urban Ocean Lab. And the point of that op-ed is that we really now need Congress to step up and pass laws and appropriate funds so that the work can happen. because while executive orders are very useful, they can be pretty easily undone by the next administration.
Alex: All right. Executive orders, they're good, but by themselves they're not enough. So how do we get Congress on board with all this then?
Ayana: Exactly. That's the question. But luckily, before Jean and I were collaborating, she worked as staff in Congress on environmental policy issues for over 20 years, including as senior policy advisor for the House Committee on Natural Resources and as staff director for the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans. So she knows first-hand how politicians end up convinced to do certain things. And she had some really thoughtful advice to share.
Jean Flemma: So the first thing everyone should do is know who is their Congressperson, and who are their senators, right? That's the most important thing. That's the first thing. Because you want to know who's your elected official, because that's where your voice is gonna have the greatest impact. And then you should follow them on social media.
Ayana: I did not see that tip coming!
Jean Flemma: Yup. Yup. And a year ago I probably wouldn't even have mentioned that, right? [laughs]
Ayana: @JeanFlemma, everybody. Follow away. She's now on social.
Jean Flemma: So you should follow them on social media so that you know what they are talking about, and then you should use your social media to basically make them aware of the things that you care about. You should be tagging your representative and your senators all the time so that they hear your voice that way. In addition, if you know they've supported legislation that you care about, it's always good to show appreciation.
Ayana: Because then they are likely to do more such things in the future, right?
Jean Flemma: Correct.
Ayana: That encouragement. Like, "This is great. We love it! More, please!"
Jean Flemma: Correct.
Ayana: "We're here to support you on the next one."
Jean Flemma: Right. Because what members want to know is: what do their constituents care about. And elected members know what their constituents care about when you're talking about it on social media or when you're thanking them for it, or when you're calling their office and telling them what you want them to vote on, on a certain issue, or you're writing a letter or an email.
Ayana: How do all those things rank? So there's all these different ways to reach out to your members of Congress. Which ones are the most powerful?
Jean Flemma: I think calling is always important. Emails are valuable. I would say a personal email is gonna always have more weight than a form email. And it's always gonna have more weight than signing a petition. Let's admit this is time consuming, there's no question about it. But taking that time to make your voice heard on these things does matter to your elected officials. And I know because I've been on the other end of it. And when your boss is getting 10, 15, 20 letters on something, they want to know what's going on. What is going on with this issue?
Alex: You know, listening to Jean, what really stood out to me is like, 10, or 15, or 20 letters? Like, that's not that many.
Ayana: Yeah, it's not that many.
Alex: That's what it takes, people. And so that actually brings us to this week's call to action.
Alex: There's one call to action this week: let's put Jean's advice to work.
Alex: And call or text or email or tag on Instagram or your social platform of choice your member of Congress. And I know, I know, this is call your Congressperson again. But, you know, there is a lot happening in Congress right now, and this is really one of the best things we can do at this particular moment.
Alex: And, in fact, there is one piece of legislation in particular that is actually quite similar to the concept of a Blue New Deal that you should be calling and writing about.
Ayana: Indeed. It has, unfortunately, a slightly less-catchy name. It's called the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act. It was introduced by Congressman Raúl Grijalva. And this is something members of Congress have been working on for years, and I've had nothing to do with it. It's this super robust, hundreds of pages long document, and there are ocean champions in Congress who have been trying to push this forward, and it's finally starting to get some traction. There is a hearing on it next week, so now is the perfect time to let your representatives know that you would like them to vote for it.
Alex: And speaking of that hearing, Ayana, you have some news about that hearing, do you not? You're going to be testifying in front of Congress!
Ayana: Yeah. [laughs] This will be my first time doing congressional testimony, and I'm actually pretty nervous! And I also need to go finish writing it. [laughs]
Alex: [laughs] No pressure. We'll all be watching.
Ayana: Uh, thanks Alex.
Alex: There is one more call to action that we have this week. This is a kind of call to action we haven't really done before because it's not actually for you, our listeners. You just have that one. But we're assigning this other call to action to one person, one person in particular. A very busy person.
Alex: President Joe Biden.
Ayana: [laughs] Yes. So Mr. President, if you happen to be listening, first, thank you for the significant commitments you have already made on ocean policy. And it would be great to see your administration take all of that to the next level. So in addition to any laws that Congress might pass, there are major actions needed from the executive branch of government. So I would encourage you to direct the federal agencies that you control to coordinate and come up with specific and concrete plans for how they're gonna implement everything that's in your executive orders—with a timetable.
Alex: People need deadlines, Mr. President!
Ayana: Yeah. Which agencies are gonna take the lead on all these elements of ocean climate policy? How will they achieve all of this? What specific regulations might be needed? In other words, President Biden, please create an executive branch Blue New Deal!
Alex: I love it. Dream big. Do you think President Biden actually listens to our podcast?
Ayana: I mean, who knows, Alex. But while I'm wishing aloud into microphones, Mr. President Biden, in addition to a Blue New Deal for the executive branch, it would be wonderful if you want to champion the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act in Congress.
Alex: [laughs] Right. Exactly. We'll be writing letters, but you can actually just call people on the phone and say, "Hey, can you guys just do this?"
Ayana: Yeah. So a call to action for everyone—and a special call to action for our president.
Alex: [laughs] So what else do you have up your sleeve?
Ayana: Okay. So this is major. Obviously, I'm obsessed with ocean policy, and also really committed to justice issues. And so earlier this month, we launched something called the Ocean Justice Forum. The goal there is to bring together a whole bunch of different ocean conservation groups to develop a consensus federal policy agenda that we can all get behind, that would ensure that justice is at the heart of US ocean-climate policy.
Alex: Collaborating like usual.
Ayana: Yeah. This one is a collaborative effort of Urban Ocean Lab, the Center for American Progress—another think tank—the nonprofit Azul, which engages Latinx communities in ocean conservation, and the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, which is led by Colette Pichon-Battle, who we've had on the show before in the episode on Black Lives Matter and the Climate.
Alex: And you can find the details about this new initiative Ocean Justice Forum at the website Oceanjusticeforum.info. And of course, we'll have links to that, as well as to all the papers you talked about in today's episode in our newsletter that you can subscribe to at Howtosaveaplanet.show. We'll also link to more information about the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act, and we'll have a link so that you can tune in on June 22 to watch our very own Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson testify in front of Congress!
Ayana: I'm so nervous! [laughs]
Alex: And we'll all send you good vibes. Don't be nervous.
Ayana: Thank you. Yeah, so that's the story of this whole Blue New Deal concept so far, and I have a feeling there's gonna be some more chapters to come.
Alex: Check out our Calls to Action archive for all of the actions we've recommended on the show thus far. That's at Howtosaveaplanet.show/actions You can follow us on Twitter and Instagram. We're @How2saveaplanet—with the number 2 . And you can also get in touch with us through our brand new listener mail form: Howtosaveaplanet.show/contact.
Alex: And one last sort of podcast-related Call to Action: if you're not already listening to us right now through Spotify, please pause to take a second and make the switch. Starting in August, How to Save a Planet will be available only on Spotify. Don't worry, it's completely free.
Ayana: So download or open Spotify, search for How to Save a Planet and hit "Follow." All our episodes are already there for free.
Ayana: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
Alex: And me, Alex Blumberg. This episode was produced by our intern, Ayo Oti, who we are going to miss so much!
Ayana: We sure are!
Alex: This is her last episode for now.
Ayana: Thank you, Ayo!
Alex: We also had help today from the rest of the team: Anna Ladd, Kendra Pierre-Louis and Rachel Waldholz.
Ayana: Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.
Alex: Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music from Emma Munger, Bobby Lord and Peter Leonard. Our fact-checker this week is Angely Mercado.
Ayana: And a special thank you to all of you for listening to this very nerdy, ocean-y episode. See you next week!