Climate Change Not Just Another ‘Culture War Issue’
Philippe Cousteau, scion of a legendary family of environmentalists, assesses a tough few weeks for environmental policy
WASHINGTON —The summer of 2022 has shaped up to be a season of discontent for those who consider themselves climate activists and fans of the environment.
It began three weeks ago, when a majority of justices in the U.S. Supreme Court voted to severely limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.
Immediately afterward, the reaction at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue was much as one would have expected.
The high court’s decision made it much tougher for President Joe Biden to achieve his goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade and he warned it risked “damaging our nation’s ability to keep our air clean.”
On Capitol Hill, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., cheered the ruling, saying it limited the power of “unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats.”
At the time, however, Senate Democrats could take solace in the climate and renewable energy provisions that were still talking points in negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
That is until they couldn’t and they weren’t.
On July 14, Manchin told Schumer and other Democratic leaders that he would not support the climate change and some other provisions in the proposed so-called “slimmed down” version of the Build Back Better bill, dealing another major blow to Biden’s climate priorities.
In the wake of that development, there was much speculation in Washington that Biden would respond by declaring a national emergency premised on climate change being a threat to national security.
Instead, on Tuesday, the president traveled to Somerset, Massachusetts, and unveiled a necessary but much more modest course of action, allocating a $2.3 billion to help communities increase resilience to heat waves, drought, wildfires, flood, hurricanes and other hazards that have grown more dire due to climate change.
He also directed a second tranche of funding to be dedicated to establishing cooling stations around the country to deal with the ongoing heat wave, and announced his administration is opening up tens of thousands of acres in the Gulf of Mexico for wind farm development.
On Friday, The Well News caught up with Philippe Cousteau Jr., the grandson of legendary ocean explorer and filmmaker Jacques Yves Cousteau, to hear his assessment of where the climate fight stands at this point in a very wearying summer.
Cousteau heads the nonprofit organization EarthEcho International, an environmental nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that works with partners around the world engaging young people to make an impact in sustainability and conservation.
But inspired by the legacy of his grandfather, he’s done and continues to do much more on the environmental front, becoming, along the way, an Emmy-nominated TV host and producer as well as an author, speaker, and social entrepreneur.
As a special correspondent for CNN, he has hosted several award-winning shows, including Going Green and Expedition Sumatra.
Cousteau has also hosted and produced television programs for Animal Planet and the eight- part series Oceans for the BBC and Discovery Channel, and he continues to work on new television projects for the Travel Channel, Fox and Hulu, among others, with his wife, fellow adventurer and co-host Ashlan Gorse-Cousteau.
He is also producer and host of a three-part series exploring innovation for sustainability in business sponsored by United Technologies, and he’s served as a consultant on a select group of international resort developments where he advises on best practices for social and environmental sustainability.
A much sought-after public speaker, Cousteau has appeared at United Nations’ events, Harvard University, the University of Florida, the Society of Environmental Journalists, The Economist magazine’s global summit and numerous other global conferences.
And of course, he’s been a presence on Capitol Hill, having testified before Congress on a number of occasions and most recently presented at TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue.
TWN: Earlier this week, President Biden traveled to Massachusetts to announce his signing of some new executive orders related to the administration’s efforts to address climate change … and I think, based on conversations I’ve had, that a lot of people were expecting something a little more ambitious out of the White House. Some, I know, were hoping for some kind of declaration of a national emergency. What did you think of what the president actually announced the other day?
PC: I think it was the continuation of a trend. And yes, I think we were all a little bit, you know, underwhelmed with the announcements. I will say that.
There was a lot of talk about his potentially declaring a national emergency around climate change, though I was skeptical that would happen — at least now.
He announced a bit more money, which is great, for sure, to try to lower cooling costs. And that’s certainly important, particularly for low income communities that are on the front lines of this crisis.
The president also announced that the United States is going to expand offshore wind, which to me seems critical, but I didn’t see a lot of detail around … how we’re going to do that.
So I think that I certainly was underwhelmed, I’ll put it that way. And I think that tracks with the frustration that the younger generation is feeling right now in regard to the steps being taken to address climate change.
They see skeptics of climate science and opponents of taking action pulling out all the stops and doing whatever it takes to be obstructive, and they see the administration as not being as aggressive as it should be on this issue. It should be out in front of it.
TWN: Okay, so now you mentioned obstruction. The president’s remarks the other day came after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., came out and basically wiped all of the climate stuff and renewable energy stuff right out of what was already a dramatically slimmed down Build Back Better bill.
So what do you say to people who argue that it’s all well and good to take a strong position and to get out and march in the streets — as we’re seeing with the abortion situation — but at the end of the day, you have to deal with the reality of politics, don’t you?
PC: Well, this is the crux of the situation, right? From a political perspective, we continue to fight the same battles that in many cases, we have been fighting for decades. And there are new battles that are cropping up that we are losing, like in the case of the Supreme Court ruling a few weeks ago that stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of key regulatory powers. And I think one of the things we have to recognize as a community [of environmentally concerned citizens] is that there is enough blame to go around.
So yes, Manchin blocked the climate provisions of that package, but he was responding to what he thinks are the political realities of who his constituents are on the ground in West Virginia and what they care about. That’s who he answers to, he doesn’t answer to the rest of the country. That’s the way the system is built. So are we — and I’m using the royal we here, meaning the environmental community, all very disappointed in the situation with Manchin? Yes, but you know, he’s responding to his constituency.
So when we look at it from that pragmatic perspective, we have to look at ourselves and ask, how is it that in 50 years of the modern environmental movement, that we have barely moved the needle on public perception on these issues and public urgency on these issues? That’s a failure of ours, meaning the environmental community, not his.
And it’s the recognition of that that is the basis of our work at EarthEcho International … the reason that we focus on education, and on youth leadership and development.
My grandfather talked about this, particularly in the last decade or so of his life, and one thing he often said was, ‘We cannot talk about conservation before we talk about education.’
He realized that we need to build and grow a constituency of people that care about these issues.
I think conservation is a three-legged stool. You have science, and that’s very important, of course, you have to understand the science of these systems and how they work.
Then you have the traditional or what I might call tactical approaches to conservation, which are about passing individual laws or trying to protect the land or sea, or a species or whatever it may be.
And then there is the third leg of the stool, which I believe is largely overlooked and has been grossly underinvested in, and that’s addressing the question of how do we build a society that cares? How do we invest in growing a constituency? How do we invest in education and leadership development with respect to these issues … so that you wind up with a society that votes and buys and acts accordingly?
As an environmental movement, our investments in education and leadership development have been paltry, to say the least. And there are a lot of reasons for that. But the stool doesn’t stand up if you’re not investing in all three legs.
So, the outcome is … what we’re witnessing right now. We have failed to grow a large enough constituency of people in the country that care about these issues, and as a result, we’re continuing to struggle politically.
Our group, EarthEcho International, has been an exception to that — we’ve been at this for almost 20 years, working with a small group of peers … but the environmental education space is still a very lonely space and still a very underfunded space.
That said, one of the defining issues that helped elect Biden and motivated young people to participate in the last election was climate change, so we are seeing a shift on the part of young people who do care about this and are responding politically. So the educational effort is working.
But I do think that part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in right now is because the environmental movement has been thinking tactically, not strategically.
It has underinvested in youth leadership and development and education, and focused instead on short term wins as opposed to long term strategy and building a literate and engaged society that cares about these issues.
So we have to accept some of the blame — a good deal of the blame, in my opinion, for the current state of the climate fight.
At the same time, I would caution the president; a key part of his constituency is disillusioned. Young people showed up en masse in the last election and climate and social justice issues were two of the biggest motivating factors for them.
So I think the president really needs to step up and be bolder in what he’s doing or he’s going to lose that enthusiasm for the next round.
TWN: I understand what you’re saying, but, frankly, people across the United States and in Europe are broiling as we speak. Record high temperatures are being reported in almost all our major cities … so, isn’t it understandable that calls for the short term solution drown out those for the long term, and perhaps more meaningful action on this front?
PC: I think that’s an excuse, and it’s an argument that I have heard since we first started doing this work 20 years ago. Changing behavior and shifting social norms is difficult, long term work. And we are way behind.
I’m not saying we don’t want to try and achieve tactical wins. What I am saying is that if we don’t invest in building the constituency, and building the political will in a society, then many of those short term wins are just that, they are short term wins.
I’ll give you a great example. In the waning days of the Obama administration, President Obama established a national marine monument off the southeast coast of New England stretching down toward the waters off New York State.
The new monument was located in an area of the Atlantic where undersea mountains and canyons were home to critical biodiverse habitats. These seamounts that rise up from the ocean floor are oases of biodiversity because they are rich in food sources and attract schools of fish, feeding, essentially, the entire food web.
And it took years to achieve this designation, which was intended to protect these habitats. We were heavily involved in this effort, as were many large scale organizations, and no doubt tens of millions of dollars were spent to do the science and advocate for and establish these marine protected areas that are absolutely critical for maintaining fisheries, health and biodiversity in New England.
Then, within the first few weeks of the Trump administration, what did he do? With a stroke of a pen, because the people of the United States elected a president who was a climate science denier, and who was openly hostile to the environment, he undid the Obama-era designation and got rid of that monument.
Again, I would argue, this was the result of climate and environment not being important to enough constituents and voters at that particular moment in time. What happened was we — the environmental community as a whole — focused on the tactical and spent millions and millions of dollars to support establishing the national monument, but we did not foster the political will to protect it.
Now here’s the good news at the end of the story: Because government moves slowly — on purpose — Biden was able to step in during his first weeks in the White House and reinstate the national monument status for this area. But if he had not been elected, forget it. And there are a long list of things, Bristol Bay, in Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, that were on the chopping block during the Trump administration and under the Republicans.
In 2022, the science is unequivocal. There’s absolutely no question. We see it every day. People are suffering. People are dying. Our economy is suffering. And yet you still have a political body in this country that largely is obstructionist to progress on these issues.
So, that’s a perfect example of what happens when you invest primarily in tactics and short term gains. The tactics may well result in the passage of a law that is in line with the science, but we don’t have a society that cares, and as a result, we don’t have durability for those gains. The short term win, time and time again, proves ephemeral.
We’re still playing defense on the Clean Air Act. We’re playing defense on the Clean Water Act. We’re playing defense on the Endangered Species Act, for God’s sakes. And these were all passed by a Republican administration, Richard Nixon, 50 years ago.
What I say to my colleagues, and I say this frequently, is yes, the tactical work is important, but without a long term strategy, we can win battles, but we are not going to win the war. And the long term is about how you shift the public’s perception. The only way that you do that is by focusing on education.
TWN: You’ve got me thinking of multiple follow-up questions at once. So let me try to winnow them down and ask them in an organized way. The first is, okay, let’s say I accept the premise that young, climate conscious voters are becoming disillusioned with Biden, what’s the alternative for them? Where do they have to turn?
Secondly, the president has repeatedly said he will continue to act on the climate issue as the administration gets a firmer understanding of his executive powers in this area. On the one hand, it sounds like he’s trying to take a step by step approach to the issue. And look, this past week he took steps to address a significant short-term problem — the need for cooling stations — and the long-term energy needs of the nation by beginning the process of opening a large area of the Gulf of Mexico to wind farm development.
So my question here is, is his approach a reflection of how far he can realistically go at any given time, given the political will at his disposal, and how do you go about building up the political will to do more?
PC: Well, I will say two things. One, on your question, ‘Where do the disillusioned go?’ What I’m worried about is that they just stay home and don’t go anywhere on Election Day. That’s the problem.
Second, a recent Pew poll found that somewhere around 65% of young Republicans don’t think that the government is doing enough to solve the climate crisis. So what we’re seeing today is more of a generational divide from a political perspective.
What you see now is that the next generation coming up and younger audiences generally, regardless of their political affiliation, are more attuned to the climate issue. And you know, younger people are overwhelmingly progressive anyway — though I don’t think that we should lump the environment into being just a progressive concern.
Climate and the environment should be mundane, at this point … it should just be like, ‘Yeah, we need clean air.’ ‘Yeah, we need clean water.’ ‘We’ve got to fight the adverse effects of climate change.’ ‘We need to come around to all this.’
And the one thing that needs to stop is, we need to stop labeling this and talking about it as if only radical progressives care about climate. That’s ridiculous.
But what we’re finding is that climate is much more of a bipartisan issue among the younger generation, and that’s going to play itself out in elections as we move forward. I think what we are going to see as the old guard ages out is a number of congressional Republicans — except for a couple of loonies — who are going to, quietly perhaps, but willingly, take action on these issues. The problem is, that takes time. And it’s big picture stuff. But it’s big picture stuff that we should have been investing in a long time ago. We haven’t been. We need to start doing that.
But at the same time, I think the administration just needs to be bolder. And it needs to be more inspiring about what we need to do and what we’re seeing out there. It needs to do more to get ahead of these issues.
And I think we need to look for opportunities to achieve some easy wins. I mean, there should be a lot more public-private partnerships. We should be incentivizing businesses and companies more effectively to be investing in these technologies.
I mean, there are easy wins out there, and while we don’t have time to get into all of them, with respect to the oceans, we know that there are coastal marine ecosystems, like mangroves, that absorb five times more carbon than a forest. And yet we continue to talk about planting trees.
And, you know, we need to place the ocean first and foremost at the center of this conversation. We need to elevate the ocean in the climate discussion. The administration is making good strides in this direction, but it’s clearly not enough.
The only way we solve the climate crisis is if we place the ocean at the forefront of the conversation and solve the ocean crisis and restore and protect the ocean. That’s it. There’s no other way to do it.
So we need to focus on ocean-based solutions — and it’s not just offshore wind. We need more marine protected areas, we need to invest in the rehabilitation of the marine coastal habitat, we need to incentivize businesses that are doing that kind of habitat growth and restoration.
Everybody is focused on ‘How do we invest in new technology and batteries?’ And money is pouring into all this really flashy, fancy stuff, but there’s some low hanging fruit that we need to be investing in as well. And from the perspective of the ocean, investing in its restoration can go a long way.
Now, innovation funds and other investments are a critical part of moving this forward. But this administration needs to certainly step up its enthusiasm and its passion for these issues and go to bat for them.
I think there is a perception of passivity out there, and whether or not it’s true, I do think Biden himself considers climate to be a top issue. And he’s got great people around him, at the White House Council for Environmental Quality, at NOAA, who are really passionate about and care about this issue. But I don’t know if we’re doing enough to win the hearts and minds of people … or to mobilize and invigorate the young voters out there that are looking for leadership on this.
TWN: Well, since you bring up voters, maybe we should conclude our conversation with a mention of the looming midterms. Will you, or EarthEcho International, be trying to win over or mobilize those young voters ahead of the election?
PC: Well, we’re not politically active in that way. We’re a bipartisan organization and we’re a 501C3, so we have to be very careful around politics. It’s just not our lane.
But we do work with a lot of organizations that are engaged in it. We are talking with a couple of funders, for instance, who have approached us to participate in events or conferences leading up to the midterms in the hope that our educational message will mobilize young people a little bit more effectively around some of the politics.
But again, we truly believe this is a bipartisan issue. It needs to be a bipartisan issue. and it is a bipartisan issue with the younger generations. And we just need to get ahead of this nonsense about climate being just another culture war element that people use to divide us.
I think the younger generation out there is sick of that. We’re sick of division. We’re sick of the games. Because it’s our future that’s at stake. And I do believe we’ll see young people rise to the occasion here.