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Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson of ‘How to Save a Planet’ Shares Her Top 5 Climate Justice Podcast Episodes

April 19, 2021

How do you make a climate justice-oriented show that people actually want to listen to? Corny jokes seem to be a big part. 

At least, that’s the takeaway from Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who, alongside her cohost Alex Blumberg, worked for nine months to bring a climate solutions-focused podcast, How to Save a Planet, to the world. Now, another nine months later, the show boasts a dedicated fan base and 30 episodes, arming listeners with knowledge and actions to take to address climate change. 

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth also recently put together Your Guide for Climate Solutions, a podcast playlist to further inform both podcast and planet lovers about ways they can get involved in the intersectional fight for environmental justice. We took the time to ask her about the playlist—as well as how she keeps up-to-date on all things podcast and climate and what she’s learned since launching How to Save a Planet. 

The five episodes in the Your Guide for Climate Solutions playlist span three podcasts. Why did you choose those episodes to feature?

This was really hard because I wanted to just feature other people’s shows, but I have loved so many of the conversations that we’ve had with amazing guests on How to Save a Planet. So I couldn’t help myself and picked three of ours. “Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?” is the question everyone is asking, right? “Do my individual actions matter or is it all about big systemic change?” And so we wanted to offer our answer to that big question. And then, this past September, we did an episode called “Black Lives Matter and the Climate” where we interviewed activists and organizers who were doing absolutely remarkable and critical work. And as a Black woman in America, being able to have that conversation, connecting the dots to climate, just felt really good. It’s a soulful discussion with Maurice Mitchell, who leads the Working Families Party, and Colette Pichon Battle, with Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy. And then the grand finale episode in this playlist is about seaweed farming, because I’m a marine biologist, and I really love the ocean. 

For the other two, first is an episode from A Matter of Degrees hosted by Dr. Leah Stokes and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson. I guess I would call it a more wonky version of How to Save a Planet. They go a bit harder on policy and are similarly trying to welcome people in. And then the other episode I recommended was from Ezra Klein’s podcast when he interviewed Dr. Kate Marvel, who is a climate scientist at NASA. It’s a super-long conversation, but she is fascinating and one of the most poetic scientists I’ve ever met. The way that she talks about the planet Earth and the climate system is so utterly delightful. 

How do you stay upto-date on media related to environmental and climate topics?

There is so much going on in terms of environmental and climate topics—that’s a great thing— and it’s all happening so fast that I really can’t keep up. But there’s two climate newsletters that I really do read every installation of, and that is HEATED by Emily Atkins and The Frontline, which is published by Atmos from journalist Yesenia Funes. And those two are really beautiful, nuanced takes that really include the complexities of what we’re dealing with, the sort of people and justice and science and policy puzzle that we’re trying to solve, so that’s how I even vaguely stay up-to-date. But I will admit that I have, like, 20 browser tabs open with various articles about climate and ocean policy that I want to be reading. So maybe this weekend, TBD. 

How do you find new podcasts you’re excited about? Anything you’ve really loved recently?

I guess I just ask my favorite group text thread. (Hopefully everyone has one that got them through the last year.) And I ask for episodes rather than podcasts. I love Alie Ward’s Ologies. That is a great show. NPR’s Throughline I enjoy. Of course, there are a bunch of Gimlet podcasts that are wonderful. Resistance is particularly notable for me right now. 

We last checked in right as How to Save a Planet was debuting, and the show has now been live for about 9 months. Can you tell us about a few lessons you’ve learned?

As someone who doesn’t come from media or storytelling, I have definitely learned something that the rest of the team is well aware of, which is that topics and stories are different things. And so figuring out how to turn a climate solution topic—whether that is regenerative farming in the ocean or Black Lives Matter and the climate, or trying to get to 100% renewable electricity by 2035—into a story is something that I’m very much still learning. But the easiest way is to have incredible guests. 

Another lesson learned: It is hard to make a podcast. I kind of thought, oh, we’ll just have a chat and then upload it to the internet. But if you want to explain complex science/policy/culture topics, you actually really do need to edit and layer in multiple interviews and give context to help people digest it all. It’s a big, extremely impressive skill set. Just watching what our reporters and producers pull together has been astounding to me. It is not as easy as it looks, and when it comes together in an episode, it’s magical.

What’s one takeaway you’re hoping new listeners (especially those who might not listen to your show) might get from this podcast playlist?

I think the thing that we’re really hoping people get out of listening is an understanding of just the multitude of ways that they can be a part of climate solutions. We want to show the diversity of work that needs doing and of ways that you can contribute to it. What we hope is that people will see themselves in this work somewhere, whether it’s protesting pipelines and land defense, or practicing regenerative agriculture, or reforming the grid, or getting excited about offshore wind energy. We really do need such a diversity of areas, of expertise, of people. We’ve got a lot of stuff to do and fix. We’re going to need everyone. 

Find your place. Stream Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s Your Guide to Climate Solutions podcast playlist.