Applying Jacques Cousteau's wisdom
June 11th, marks Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s 100th birthday. “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” television specials were the “must-see TV” of the 60’s and 70’s. The “Captain” and his team aboard the Calypso enthralled us. For many generations, he was the exemplification of a conservationist, who was also a genius at communication. While he may be remembered as the premier underwater explorer, he actually evolved to focus on broader concerns for the planet, its inhabitants, and their quality of life.
I keep thinking back to a private conversation we had, even before he hired me as CEO of The Cousteau Society.
It was January 1997, when I had the privilege to spend several days with him. He was the honoree at a fundraising dinner for Ocean Futures, a nonprofit that I chaired. Cousteau shared some insights from his vast experience that suggest a different approach to changing public policies. While it could apply to most any issue, I am struck by the application to the current challenge of greenhouse gases and energy sources.
At age 86 Jacques was deeply concerned about the planet that we were leaving to future generations, with issues ranging from a deteriorating ocean, to fresh water supplies, to climate change. Several conversations focused on the challenge of changing public awareness and policy. Late one night I asked, “How do we change the world?” With a dismissive wave of his hand, in his distinctive French accent, he began:
Forget the politicians––they all think short term…. But there is something I have found that works. Identify an issue with a campaign that has emotional appeal. Advocate a specific policy. Get letters, petitions, and faxes. With thousands of signatures, the politicians will join the parade––No––they will try to lead the parade.
I did this three times with success. To push for the Antarctic treaty; to end French nuclear testing in the Pacific; and to promote a new legal concept at the U.N., ‘The Rights of Future Generations.’ We must appeal to the public directly with a powerful message and tie it to a specific action or change in policy. I think this is the only way.
How direct and sensible. Cousteau’s guidance was to build strong public support for a particular policy, in order to create the political backing for it. Contrast that with the current efforts to prevent devastating climate change by mid-century. We find ourselves advocating passage of complex legislation, without even being able to explain what’s in it. Or we advocate a goal such as a 20% reduction in greenhouse gases, but without developing public support for a clear way to achieve it.
It is widely accepted that the key driver of climate change is increased greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically the greatly elevated CO2 level is wreaking havoc with the oceans that Cousteau worked so hard to protect. The effects range from coral bleaching, to ocean acidification, to sea level rise. I believe the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions is to institute a pricing mechanism. We need a coordinated sustained campaign to develop popular support for one, so that the lobbyists are not the only presence on Capitol Hill.
Cousteau’s final advice was to engage the public by means of petitions––now greatly facilitated by the Internet. His experience was that politicians will likely join the parade, once they see grass roots enthusiasm for a new policy. Individuals and organizations can state their clear support for a carbon pricing policy, starting now. The commemoration of his 100th birthday is a good time to apply his insight and wisdom to the climate challenge––the one that will determine the viability of our ocean planet.
John Englander, former CEO of The Cousteau Society, now consults and advises about climate change and ocean impacts; his website is www.johnenglander.net