Imagine being told your whole life that the Earth, its water and its species, are important and irreplaceable. Imagine that your father and your grandfather were respected the world over for their contributions to marine science. Then imagine meeting someone like Sarah Palin.
“Climate change is to this century what eugenics was to the last century,” the former vice-presidential candidate and nearly one-term governor of Alaska said last October. “It’s hysteria and a lot of it’s junk science.”
This brand of blatant and bombastic scientific denial was alien to a young Philippe Cousteau, Jr. As the son of Philippe Cousteau and the grandson of Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Philippe grew up believing “that the quality of our water and our air is paramount,” that these were “just fundamental truths.” As he told Planet Experts in Miami this past month, it “was a bit of a shock coming out of university and getting into the professional world just how vehemently opposed some people are to what I thought were, as I said, universal truths that weren’t really controversial.”
Cousteau’s revelation led him to co-found EarthEcho International with his sister Alexandra, a nonprofit organization dedicated to their late father’s vision of “a world where every single child can breathe fresh air, drink clean water, and walk on green grass under a blue sky.”
Planet Experts met up with Mr. Cousteau while attending the Climate Reality Project’s September training event for Climate Leaders. Cousteau was a key speaker and emcee at the event and discussed the essential connection between climate and our oceans.
EarthEcho: A Family Legacy
EarthEcho focuses on training the next generation of humanity to not only revere the planet but understand how all its elements are interconnected. Cousteau considers that mission part of his family legacy.
Towards the end of his life, Cousteau’s grandfather invested the bulk of his efforts in youth education. “He realized, as he often did before the rest of us, that if you really want to affect change in the environmental movement we have to have a youth strategy,” said Cousteau. “Unfortunately, if you look at the modern environmental movement and you look at many of the big NGOs out there, there is no youth strategy.”
And no youth strategy, said Cousteau, translates to no strategy at all. “So when I looked at the landscape coming out of university and wanted to contribute meaningfully – and not reinvent the wheel – I realized a lot of groups weren’t doing this kind of environmental education work. We started EarthEcho to be that youth strategy, and empower youths to take action now for a sustainable future.”
The organization has helped hundreds of thousands of young people since its founding (though Cousteau considers surviving the 2008 Financial Crisis without firing anyone their biggest success – “I pretty much fired myself, which just means I didn’t get paid”), and was recently chosen to take over the World Water Monitoring Challenge (WWMC) program.
Started 13 years ago as the largest water quality testing program in the world, WWMC is an “international education and outreach program that builds public awareness and involvement in protecting water resources around the world.”
“[WWMC] is really just a terrific opportunity to engage people in a conversation around water and water in their communities, where it comes from, and get them engaged in actually taking action to understand their environment,” said Cousteau.
And taking action, he clarified, is what this is all about, because “awareness does not lead to action. Action leads to awareness. That’s a fundamental truth – from a behavioral psychology perspective – that is all too often lost on our peers in the conservation space.”
Confronting Climate Denial: ‘Know When to Hold ‘em, Know When to Fold ‘em’
At Climate Reality’s training seminar, Green Tea Party founder Debbie Dooley spoke about the need to frame environmental issues in ways that resonate with conservatives.
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking just because someone is a Republican or conservative that there’s no need to talk to them about clean energy and climate change,” Dooley told Planet Experts. If the environmental argument is couched in what’s good for the economy (energy innovation), or national security (protecting our endangered coastlines), then conservatives will join the fight, said Dooley. For example, one study has already estimated that sea level rise could cost the US up to $1.1 trillion in damages. Conservatives definitely do not want the government footing that bill, which could inspire them to get behind preventative, cost-effective measures now.
In the same way, Cousteau encourages climate activists to “find ways to build bridges, find common values” that both the left and the right can agree on.
“Credible science is on our side,” he said, “but that’s still not enough for some people. I agree with Debbie Dooley and people like that that say, instead of arguing with each other, let’s find a basis for commonality, let’s be adults and let’s engage in a conversation of respect. In some cases, that may be talking about security, in some cases that may be health, but let’s at least be able to find somewhere that we can build trust and go from there.”
Activists and conservationists run into problems when they begin to demonize the other side, Cousteau warned, and that knife cuts both ways. “Just because you don’t agree with me, you’re not the devil incarnate,” he said. “You’re a human being and we both care about the same kind of things.”
But compromise has its limits, he admitted.
“Some people still think the world is flat,” he said. “You’re not going to convince them – so screw ‘em and keep on going. At a certain point, you gotta ‘know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em,’ as the old song goes.”
The Battle to Make the World a Better Place
For Cousteau, the battle to preserve the Earth showcases humanity at its best and its worst. “There will always be problems,” he said, “because human beings have a tremendous capacity for great things and tremendous capacity for stupid shit, too. So we will always deal with our propensity for making bad decisions. There will always be a battle to make the world a better place.”
There are plenty of battles still to fight, but climate change is steadily reaching the public consciousness. Things are getting better, said Cousteau, or at least more active than they were five or ten years ago.
“There was nothing like this,” said Cousteau, indicating the members of Climate Reality and the leaders-in-training around the room. “Look what we’ve built, what this world has built. There’s a consensus now, largely around the world – not so much here in the United States – although most people now in the United States agree that climate change is an issue. We’ve got a couple politicians holding us back, but in general…” Cousteau interrupted himself to give an example. “I’ve just been approached by the University of Oklahoma to be involved in an environmental science program they’re launching there. Now those exist in Seattle and other places, and that’s great to have there. But the Great Plains? So it’s permeating everywhere, and it’s really exciting.”
Nicole Landers, Planet Experts’ Marketing Director, contributed to this report. Follow her @girliegreen.
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