Jean-Michel Cousteau's Statement on Climate Change

April 26, 2017

Acceleration of Climate Change

Charting the Future of Our Oceans


Photo © Ira Meyer

We have seen our planet from space, had access to the deepest canyons of the ocean, deciphered the infinitesimal DNA structure of life, and discovered unimaginable species—but we’ve also seen our own destructive influence on the planet’s complex network of life.

I grew up along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the south of France and began scuba diving in 1945, when I was seven years old. For over half a century, my father, Jacques Cousteau, his team and I produced many underwater documentary films, presenting the beauty and wonder of the ocean to the public. During this same window of time, I have also witnessed the destruction of our water planet, caused by carless actions of one species, us. We now have the scientific knowledge telling us that we are facing the greatest challenge of human history: the acceleration of climate change.

Years ago when I first began learning about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect, and the potential of climate change I was amazed at how finely tuned and interconnected were so many of the earth’s systems. To think that a change in the amount of a gas, carbon dioxide, at concentrations of a few hundred parts per million could affect an entire planet was hard to believe.

I knew that our own, very complex bodies, are very sensitive to trace amounts of mercury, lead and pesticides but I had never put that in the context of the entire planet. We now know that all living systems are incredibly complex and sensitive whether they be at the level of an individual organism or at the level of the planet. Humans can create poetry and music, ponder their place in the universe and the meaning of truth, design computers and space stations, and be the most compassionate and generous species on earth; but we can also be selfish destroyers. We may be the only species capable of truly appreciating the beautiful complexities of our little blue jewel in space yet we may be the only species capable of destroying that beauty.

Sadly what I learned initially as scientific theory has now become scientific fact. Our burning of fossil fuels can increase CO2 in the atmosphere, continuing to cause our planet’s climate to change at an accelerated rate.

Since the beginning of the industrial age, the oceans have been absorbing more than one third (almost 130 billion tons) of human carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.  Increased CO2 has wreaked havoc on our oceans in a way that has not been seen for tens of millions of years.

Through the greenhouse effect the oceans are warming and this is having a profound effect on ocean processes and ocean life. Most dramatically is the bleaching of corals due to the stress of warmer water on their biology. When water temperatures raise above their comfort level and lasts for more than a couple of weeks the corals can die and when they die the entire reef ecosystem is stressed. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is the most recent and dramatic example of this tragic process. There is no controversy about how CO2 affects ocean warming and coral reef health.

Because everything on our planet is connected, a warmer ocean means stronger storms that cause greater devastation on coastal communities and regional economies. A warmer ocean means sea level rise from thermal expansion and from the melting of glaciers ranging from the Antarctic to Greenland.

Likewise there is no question that increasing CO2 causes ocean acidification – a lowering of ocean pH. Its basic chemistry – carbon dioxide in water turns into carbonic acid. Ocean acidification can greatly decrease the ability of many marine organisms to build their shells and skeletal structures. This includes corals and the reef ecosystems they create - the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world.
 Having dived on coral reefs since the early 1940s, the change on coral reefs I have witnessed is profound – tragically profound.

As we lose our precious corals, we set off a deadly chain reaction causing the loss of all the other organisms that inhabit and depend on the reef systems. This makes the reefs less diverse, less resilient and far less productive. This is not a projection, it is happening now and the consequences will affect the lives for the hundreds of millions of humans who rely on them for food, protection and livelihoods. And when the loss of coral reefs is coupled with sea level rise, this will lead to the mass displacement of coastal populations. These environmental refugees will in turn affect the regions where they resettle. The loss of reef productivity will contribute to world hunger as a result of depleted fisheries and other forms of food production, not to mention the decreased availability of fresh water in many parts of the world.

Over the past five years, I have attended Oceania 22-Pacific Summit on Sustainable Development. Island nations in the South Pacific and other low-lying nations face increasing threats from climate change. The impacts these nations are wrestling include sea level rise, ocean acidification, increasing storms and cyclones, and contamination of food and water securities. I have joined these nations to help promote The Voice of the Pacific and focus the world’s attention on the urgent need to lower greenhouse gas emissions and transition our global economy to clean and renewable energy, including the sun, winds, tides, currents, and more.

This is just one of many global conferences I have attended over the years. The consistent theme in all of these gatherings is that the warming of the oceans and ocean acidification are critical warning signs of just how perilously close we are to destabilizing the entire earth's vital systems. And yet this ecological drama is not receiving serious attention in our current administration. What we do as individual Americans and as a nation right now in terms of how we take action to reduce carbon emissions will affect the oceans and planet for thousands of years to come. If we do not change our CO2 emissions trajectory, by 2050 the level of ocean acidity could increase to the point where coral reefs not only stop growing and restoring themselves but actually start dissolving.

In the high latitudes of the Arctic where I first explored with my father and his team in the mid-1970’s, I have seen major changes to the summer ice cover and the impacts it has on native communities and arctic wildlife. The Arctic is the area of the world that is changing fastest. My team and I spent the summer of 2004 filming gray whales bottom feeding in the Chukchi Sea. Some scientists are worried that the warming Arctic seas may diminish the gray whale’s primary food source. We learned from scientists how important it is to compare where gray whales are and how they behave over time as this will provide insight into how the ecosystem is changing. In 2007 we were back in the Arctic, this time working and filming scientists in Alaska and Canada, documenting their important research on Beluga whales in hopes of better understanding the impacts of climate change on their migration and distribution for my PBS special “Sea Ghosts.” Many scientists agree, Arctic marine mammals are important sentinels of ecosystem changes to come but the question still remains if these populations of marine mammals can adapt fast enough to survive. From satellite images from NASA, we know the ice is at its all time low.

And now scientists estimated that the North Pole will be ice-free around 2052, nine years earlier than previous simulations suggested. What will this mean for belugas, gray whales, polar bears and other arctic animals whose lives depend on the ice and the algae that forms on the underneath side of the ice?

This is why it is so urgent for you, our national leaders both in industries and government including every one of us, to take bold steps to significantly reduce CO2 emissions and to set reduction targets based on the latest science on ocean warming and acidification. By protecting the oceans, we protect ourselves.

Every time I take a dive in the ocean I am reminded of the beauty of which we are a part - a water planet alive with millions of beautiful species, each making their unique contribution to the health of the planet. All species participate in a dynamic drama of life, death, rejuvenation and evolution. We can appreciate this beauty and we can destroy it. This is why my team and I are doing everything we can to get public attention and political action on the climate change issue and the impacts climate change has on the oceans. In fact, every other breath of air we take is coming from the ocean. We do not want our beautiful water planet to be destroyed.

The lives of all of us are undeniably linked, and our futures are critically connected. We are the only species that has the privilege to decide to not disappear. Let’s create the clean energy future we must have for our own survival and the survival of our home – planet earth.

The time for action is now.

“Protect the Ocean and You Protect Yourself”