How David Attenborough has championed climate change
For over 15 years, Sir David has been at the forefront of efforts to move the dial on climate change and during the last decade his warnings have became even bleaker.
The fluffy albatross chick reduced many of us to tears. Hurled off its nest by 110kph winds, it was flat on its back in the mud, while its father looked down helplessly. At last, like a tiny mountaineer in the eye of a ferocious storm, the bedraggled youngster heaved itself back up into the warm embrace of its parent.
Distressed viewers breathed a sigh of relief. However, Sir David Attenborough’s commentary left them in no doubt – other chicks would not be so lucky.
Harrowing sequences such as this clifftop drama, filmed in South Georgia for 2019’s Seven Worlds, One Planet, have become harder to avoid during Sir David Attenborough’s more recent series.
There’s no getting away from it: filming the natural world means not shying away from potentially upsetting scenes of wildlife confronting mortal challenges. Storms, floods, droughts, wildfires. Melting ice. Food shortages. Lack of mates and nest sites. Plagues of parasites.
Climate change poses an existential threat to life on Earth, and the wildlife film industry – with Sir David as its unofficial figurehead – has for a while now had to grapple with this inescapable reality in its storytelling. It is no longer tenable to relegate the environmental impacts to a few closing comments at the end of a programme.
Natural-history film-makers have increasingly found themselves reporting from a war zone. More of them have come to see part of their role is akin to that of war correspondents. By showing us what things are like on the front line, they hope to influence hearts and minds back home and, perhaps, stop these tragedies happening.
Even children’s TV features content about climate change these days, with animated Netflix series Octonauts: Above and Beyond one of the first shows to put the subject front and centre, managing to inform a young audience without scaring it witless.
And for over 15 years, Sir David has been at the forefront of efforts to move the dial on climate change, thanks to his unrivalled position as a massively popular broadcaster respected throughout the English-speaking world. When he says something, we tend to listen. As Chris Packham remarked, we care because we trust him.
During the last decade, the nonagenarian presenter’s warnings about the climate crisis have became even bleaker.
Take this example: “Our blind assault on the planet is changing the very fundamentals of the living world. We have overrun the Earth.” There’s a lot more like this in his important book A Life on Our Planet, published in 2020, which has the uncompromising air of a manifesto.
In the final moments of 2022’s Frozen Planet II, a beautiful yet heart-rending series in which the effects of a rapidly heating planet were brutally apparent, Sir David exhorted the watching millions: “If we can do something about it, then do it. We can do it. We must do it.”
But the owner of a voice once voted Britain’s most popular has not always been a campaigner – far from it. Sir David’s early outings in front of the camera, such as the Zoo Quest expeditions to the tropics in the mid-1950s and 1960s, can today seem breezy and insouciant about the threats to nature; often uncomfortably so.
In later interviews, however, he is quick to hold up his hands. He would be the first to admit that many of the assumptions made when Zoo Quest first aired on the BBC were simply plain wrong.
Sir David alludes to this shift of attitudes and presenting styles in A Life on Our Planet, where he reflects on a 70-year career: “As a young man, I felt I was out there in the wild, experiencing the untouched natural world. But it was an illusion.
“The tragedy of our time has been happening all around us, barely noticeable from day to day – the loss of our planet’s wild places, its biodiversity.” Failing to act earlier, Sir David concludes, has been “our greatest mistake.”
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Climate-change science actually has a surprisingly long history. The brilliant American scientist Eunice Newton Foote, for instance, proved in 1856 that atmospheric carbon dioxide had the potential to warm the planet’s climate. But it was not until the 1970s that the power of the ‘greenhouse effect’ to change climate at frightening speed – within human lifespans – finally came to dominate scientists’ thinking. During the 1980s, this developed into a scientific consensus, helped by the University of East Anglia’s establishment of the first global surface air temperature record.
When Sir David Attenborough was born, in 1926, average levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide were roughly 306 parts per million (ppm). By 2022, they had shot up to 417ppm. The growth has been exponential – many times faster than previous natural increases.
But public opinion and government policy were painfully slow to catch up. Sir David put his finger on this in an interview with Vanity Fair magazine, where he pointed out that understanding the science wasn’t the problem. Communicating it was.
High-profile broadcasters and influencers have thus been vital to confronting the climate emergency. And although Sir David faced criticism from some quarters for not doing enough to highlight it, he was in fact one of the few public figures to focus on the crisis before it became well known to the general public.
Mindful of the need for impartiality on the BBC, however, Sir David first had to be utterly convinced of the science. The moment that persuaded him of the necessity to speak up came in November 2004. He was in the audience for a lecture by Ralph Cicerone, an American atmospheric chemist, which contained graphs that showed beyond any doubt the connection between rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, rising global temperatures and rising human populations.
Just two years later, Sir David presented a pair of prime-time documentaries that in scale and ambition were unlike anything seen previously on British TV on the subject. Are We Changing Planet Earth? and Can We Save Planet Earth? formed part of a themed week of BBC programmes about the climate emergency, and coincided with the release of the influential feature-length film An Inconvenient Truth, about Al Gore’s climate-change activism.
From this point on, climate change has featured with growing frequency and urgency in Sir David’s many TV and radio commentaries and public appearances. The climate crisis had gone mainstream.
In 2021, Sir David gave his most detailed and explicit warnings to date in Climate Change – The Facts. “If we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade,” he said, “we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.” The programme remains essential viewing (and is still available on BBC iPlayer). That November, Sir David again used numbers to devastating effect during an electrifying seven-minute address to world leaders at Glasgow’s COP26 climate conference (also online).
It was perhaps inevitable that the charismatic presenter would end up sharing a platform with Greta Thunberg – who at the time of their meeting was young enough, just about, to be his great-granddaughter. If he was something of an elder statesman, the conscience of a nation and saviour of the BBC, then in her youthful heroism she was more of a Jeanne d’Arc figure. During their televised conversation, Sir David praised the School Strike for Climate movement (also known as Fridays for the Future), seeing the engagement of young people as a welcome sign of progress.
Ultimately, in all his stories and speeches about climate change, Sir David seeks to pull off a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he always tries to be realistic about the likelihood of catastrophe, so as not to give false hope, but on the other, he avoids provoking utter despair, so that we do not just give up and do nothing about it. Both those outcomes, he knows, could lead to disaster.
Ben Hoare is a wildlife writer and editor, and proud to be an all-round ‘nature nerd’. He was features editor at BBC Wildlife magazine from 2008 to 2018, and after that its editorial consultant. Ben writes about seasonal natural-history highlights in every issue of the magazine, and also contributes longer conservation stories. His latest children’s book is 'Wild City', published in October 2020.
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