Jacques Cousteau’s promise to our planet can’t go unfulfilled any longer


A man took to the lectern at the United Nations Earth Summit. Addressing a convention packed with leaders from Cuba to China, he warned: “You have an extraordinary opportunity to change the course of the world . . . but only if you decide to challenge the huge problems with radical solutions. We are living in an interminable succession of absurdities imposed by the myopic logic of short-term thinking.” He was greeted with a standing ovation, promises were made, and work sessions led to handshakes and even more promises.

The man was Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The year was 1992.

In many ways, one could look at the great Cousteau as a cautionary tale. Like Odysseus with his oar on his final journey, he brought the sea to those who did not know it. He introduced us to a heretofore hidden undersea world, leading us to fall in love with it — but later in life, when he exhorted us to protect it, we refused to listen.

Nearly 30 years later, in the wake of yet another disappointing global summit on climate change in COP26, it’s striking how little progress we’ve made. In many cases, the threats to the environment Cousteau identified have gotten worse.

Yet, from a deeper perspective, the journey of Cousteau is a powerful metaphor for the extraordinary evolutions we are all capable of in the span of just a few short years. Cousteau was a man who started his career as a cavalier explorer in the mold of storied men before him, where no risk was too great, no cost too high in the pursuit of discovery and pleasure. He took funding from the oil industry, engaged in brutal acts towards sea life, and thought very little of the long-term health of life under the seas.

But towards the end of his decades-long career, this globally renowned adventurer and filmmaker had a life-changing realization: the underwater environments he had spent much of his life exploring and filming were decaying before his eyes. He saw firsthand how entire species of marine wildlife were vanishing. Coral reefs were dying. Sea levels were rising. Glaciers were melting. And he changed profoundly.

In the years that followed, Cousteau spent much of his time mobilizing political leaders to address climate change. Those efforts culminated in the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro — an event in which he played a starring role. He was not successful in changing the course of climate change at this first Earth Summit — but he was successful in radically shifting his perspective on how he as an individual and we as a civilization had to relate to the natural world. If this swashbuckling oil prospector could do this, so can we all.

In fairness, Cousteau’s contribution to the environmental movement predates his conservationist turn. Beginning with his 1956 film “The Silent World,” his movies and television shows revealed the beauty and strangeness of life underwater — and inspired a generation of viewers to care more deeply about these remarkable ecosystems.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Cousteau began taking threats to the environment more seriously. He advocated for the preservation of nature with a level of clarity and persuasiveness that still resonates today. “I feel guilty,” he said in one interview in 1981, “that we are throwing blank checks on future generations. We don’t pay. They are going to pay.”

Of particular importance to Cousteau was the fate of Antarctica, which he recognized as crucial to the climate. He was instrumental in rallying leaders from around the world to sign the Protocol of Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty — a commitment to protect the Antarctic from interventions such as mining that expires in 2048.

Despite these efforts, the parts of our planet he cared about most have only deteriorated. The Antarctic, for example, lost 3 trillion tons of ice between 1992 and 2017. Warming temperatures and ocean acidification threaten the vitality of 60 percent of the world’s coral reefs. That figure is on track to reach 90 percent by the end of the decade. And around one-third of marine mammals currently face extinction.

Reversing these trends will require far more ambitious action than even Cousteau called for, given the acceleration of climate change. According to a broad coalition of scientists and advocates, the world must commit itself to preserving 30 percent of all land and ocean by 2030 — a campaign known as “30 by 30.” Doing so would help not only boost biodiversity but combat global climate change.

That goal, while ambitious, is still within our grasp. One recent analysis found that meeting the 30 by 30 target would cost just 0.16 percent of global GDP each year.

Already, our leaders in the United States are taking promising steps forward. The Build Back Better Act, which just passed the House of Representatives, contains significant investments for ocean conservation and climate change mitigation efforts.

In the wake of the 1992 Earth Summit, Cousteau observed, “For the first time, the immense majority of leaders have promised beautiful things . . . now we have to force them to transform these words into acts.” Cousteau’s own life demonstrates the possibilities before us. We can evolve from careless to caring, from cavalier to conservationist. And if he were still alive, he’d be leading the way for others who had previously been despoilers of the Earth to become its new champions. Indeed, none of us have any other choice.

Liz Garbus is an Emmy-winning and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker. She is the director and producer of “Becoming Cousteau,” a National Geographic documentary film, available now on Disney+. 

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