Few people have the respect that enables them to speak to the world and be heard.
Without pulling any punches, Sir David Attenborough has told the UN climate change summit in Poland:
“If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon… The world’s people have spoken. Time is running out. They want you, the decision-makers, to act now. Leaders of the world, you must lead.”
Leadership is in his blood. As controller of BBC Two and as director of programming for both the BBC and BBC Two, he pioneered educational series such as The Ascent of Man and Civilisation, oversaw the BBC’s transition to colour television, and even risked signing up an off the wall comedy series called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Yet Attenborough’s first passion was Planet Earth and in 1972 he resigned from his post to go into the wild.
After several award-winning nature programmes, Attenborough’s stance on the threat to the natural world led him into ecological activism both on screen and off. He wrote and produced the environmentally themed State of the Planet (2000) and Saving Planet Earth (2007). He is a patron of Population Matters, which examines the impact of human population growth on the natural world, and of the World Land Trust, which buys rainforests with the aim of preserving their wildlife.
Despite these credentials, Attenborough was harshly criticised by George Monbiot, who himself has a degree in zoology and once worked for the BBC Natural History Unit as a radio producer, making natural history and environmental programmes. Monbiot pointed to Attenborough’s “consistent failure to mount a coherent, truthful and effective defence of the living world he loves” (The Guardian, 7 November 2018).
Many found this a vilification of a man who has dedicated his life to revealing the wonders of the natural world, implicitly challenging political expediency and economic greed, while advocating for better conservation policies and environmental protections. Attenborough was accused of “telling a false story, creating a fairy-tale world that persuades us all is well, in the midst of an existential crisis” – the crisis being climate change and its effects.
To be fair, it was never David Attenborough’s intention to take up the science of climate change or to expose its causes and effects. Yet, in Poland, he was forthright and we must hope that global recognition of his lifelong passion will have its due impact. That may be wishful thinking.
Many nations remain firmly committed to climate action, particularly France and China. But speaking to the New York correspondent of BBC News on 29 November 2018, UN secretary general, António Guterres, warned that the rise of populism was undermining the political will of some countries to work with others. “We have more and more nationalist approaches being popular and winning elections,” he said. “This has led in my opinion to a lack of political will.”
Guterres has a point. Populist politicians work on the principle of divide and conquer. Attenborough, on the other hand, calls for unity to tackle climate change, which he believes is “our greatest threat in thousands of years.” Let’s hope he shouts it from the rooftops for as long as he is still around.