Attenborough’s witness statement – Delivering the facts about global warming

Joe Ronan

Joe Ronan

David Attenborough looking at the camera

David Attenborough’s ‘A Life on Our Planet’ made for thrilling, informative TV. Through Attenborough’s own life it tells the tale of how the facts about global warming came to be. And it’s that story that we’re going to tell today- via David Attenborough’s Witness Statement.

 

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Attenborough’s witness statement: The Facts about Global Warming – Put simply

“I am David Attenborough, and I am 93. I’ve had the most extraordinary life. It’s only now that I appreciate how extraordinary.”

David Attenborough has seen a lot of change. Extraordinary amounts of change throughout an extraordinary life. He has witnessed the facts about global warming with his own eyes:

  • He has seen planetary temperatures increase by approximately 0.6C
  • He has seen global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide pass 300 parts per million, and then 400 million, for the very first time in human history.
  • He has seen the end of the Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene
  • He has witnessed the global population almost quadruple.

Attenborough’s witness statement: The Facts about Global Warming 

Delivering the Facts: An Introduction

A place in which we cannot live.” – That is the future we face; this is the end stage of the global warming and climate stage.

“The natural world is fading. The evidence is all around. It’s happened in my lifetime. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. This film is my witness statement and my vision for the future, the story of how we came to make this our greatest mistake, and how, if we act now, we can yet put it right.”

So closes the introduction of David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet. The documentary was filmed in collaboration with the WWF. It is the witness statement of the great British broadcaster and natural historian, a man so popular he could reportedly rival the Royal Family should Britain ever seek to install an elected head of state. There is perhaps nobody better suited to starkly delivering the facts about global warming to the British public.  

The “place in which we cannot live,” referred to by Attenborough, is Chernobyl. The Ukrainian city was famously evacuated following a nuclear accident in 1986. It was a disaster that he attributes to “bad planning and human error.” And it was a disaster that left Chernobyl a haunted, empty shell of the city that came before, wildly overgrown by lush greenery.

This is pertinent, because the “place in which we cannot live” – the place that becomes uninhabitable because of “bad planning and human error” – is also, says Attenborough, our planet itself. The facts about global warming are stark, but we have to face their reality.

In this first of a three part series, we will tell the story of Attenborough’s witness statement, pulling from it key themes and aspects, and drawing connections between the video transcript and broader analysis of the facts about global warming.      

DW. The future. The town of Pripyat near Chernobyl serves as a foreboding harbinger of things to come.

Facts about Global Warming in Context

“I am David Attenborough, and I am 93. I’ve had the most extraordinary life. It’s only now that I appreciate how extraordinary.

I’ve been lucky enough to spend my life exploring the wild places of our planet. I’ve travelled to every part of the globe. I’ve experienced the living world first-hand in all its variety and wonder. In truth, I couldn’t imagine living my life in any other way. I’ve always had a passion to explore, to have adventures, to learn about the wilds beyond. And I’m still learning. Boo! As much now as I did when I was a boy.”

Much has changed in the 93 years that passed between the birth of David Attenborough in 1926 and the ‘witness statement’ he made last year. In the 20th century, global warming increased by approximately 0.6C. In 1950, global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 300 parts for million for the very first time. It has not stopped rising since.  

It is also within Attenborough’s life that facts about global warming and knowledge of the climate change crisis first came to the fore. It was in the 1930s that the inventor and amateur scientist first Guy Stewart Callendar linked global warming to CO2 emissions.

“Callendar was the first to discover that the planet had warmed,” said Professor Phil Jones, of the University of East Anglia. “He collected world temperature measurements and suggested that this warming was related to carbon dioxide emissions.”

Callender’s claims were, at the time, met largely with scepticism. Even in the 1970s scientists were still debating whether it was global warming or global cooling that would be the result of climate change. Establishing the facts about global warming would take time.

It was not until the 1980s at the facts about global warming began to become properly established. In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen delivered testimony and presented models to congress saying he was “99 percent sure” that global warming was upon us. Attenborough was by then well established as a leading naturalist and producing some of his most successful films.

Guy Callendar global warming

Facts about Climate Change: The Holocene

“1937

WORLD POPULATION: 2.3 BILLION

CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 280 PARTS PER MILLION

REMAINING WILDERNESS: 66%

It was a very different world back then. We had very little understanding of how the living world actually worked. It was called natural history because that’s essentially what it was all about… history. It was a great place to come to as a boy, because this is, um, ironstone workings, but it was disused. All this was absolutely clear, it was… only just stopped being a working quarry.

When I was a boy, I spent all my spare time searching through rocks in places like this… for buried treasure.”

“For 10,000 years, the average temperature has not wavered up or down by more than one degree Celsius. And the rich and thriving living world around us has been key to this stability. Phytoplankton at the ocean’s surface and immense forests straddling the north have helped to balance the atmosphere by locking away carbon.

Huge herds on the plains have kept the grasslands rich and productive by fertilizing the soils. Mangroves and coral reefs along thousands of miles of the coast have harbored nurseries of fish species that, when mature, then range into open waters.

A thick belt of jungles around the equator has piled plant on plant to capture as much of the sun’s energy as possible, adding moisture and oxygen to the global air currents. And the extent of the polar ice has been critical, reflecting sunlight back off its white surface, cooling the whole earth.

The biodiversity of the Holocene helped to bring stability, and the entire living world settled into a gentle, reliable rhythm… the seasons.”

“The Holocene was our Garden of Eden. Its rhythm of seasons was so reliable that it gave our own species a unique opportunity.”

Facts about Climate Change: A World Transformed

“We were transforming what a species could achieve.

A few millennia after this began, I grew up at exactly the right moment.

The start of my career in my 20s coincided with the advent of global air travel. So, I had the privilege of being amongst the first to fully experience the bounty of life that had come about as a result of the Holocene’s gentle climate.”

1954 / WORLD POPULATION: 2.7 BILLION / CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 310 PARTS PER MILLION / REMAINING WILDERNESS: 64%

Wherever I went, there was wilderness. Sparkling coastal seas. Vast forests. Immense grasslands. You could fly for hours over the untouched wilderness. And there I was, actually being asked to explore these places and record the wonders of the natural world for people back home.

And to begin with, it was quite easy. People had never seen pangolins before on television. They’d never seen sloths before. They had never seen the centre of New Guinea before.

It was the best time of my life.

The best time of our lives. The Second World War was over, technology was making our lives easier. The pace of change was getting faster and faster.

It felt that nothing would limit our progress. The future was going to be exciting. It was going to bring everything we had ever dreamed of.

This was before any of us were aware that there were problems.”

1960 / WORLD POPULATION: 3.0 BILLION / CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 315 PARTS PER MILLION / REMAINING WILDERNESS: 62%

My first visit to East Africa was in 1960. Back then, it seemed inconceivable that we, a single species, might one day have the power to threaten the very existence of the wilderness.”

Nasa. Carbon Dioxide levels have changed as never before in Attenborough’s lifetime.

A Rapidly Changing Picture

As we can see, for the first three decades of David Attenborough’s life were times of plenty, in which global warming and its effects were yet to really manifest themselves. Despite discovering the facts about global warming, scientists like Guy Stewart Callendar struggled to find a favourable audience. This was all about to change. As these stats make abundantly clear:   

“1978 / WORLD POPULATION: 4.3 BILLION / CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 335 PARTS PER MILLION / REMAINING WILDERNESS: 55%

1997 / WORLD POPULATION: 5.9 BILLION / CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 360 PARTS PER MILLION / REMAINING WILDERNESS: 46%”

Suddenly, the picture to transfigure: “in the 1950s, Borneo was three-quarters covered with rainforest… By the end of the century, Borneo’s rainforest had been reduced by half. Rainforests are particularly precious habitats.”

“By the time Life on Earth aired in 1979, I had entered my 50s. There were twice the number of people on the planet as there were when I was born.”

Humanity has by this period of Attenborough’s life entered a new phase. This phase, such is the destruction it has wreaked upon the natural habitat, has seen calls for a new means of designating our current geological time. The concept introduced to name the new epoch is the ‘Anthropocene.’

This process of naming is to separate off the present from the preceding Holocene, to demark off today as a new and radically different world, governed by new relationships. Etymologically, Anthropocene is derived from the Greek words anthropo, for “man,” and cene for “new.” It was coined and popularised by Eugene Stormer and the late Paul Crutzen in 2000, and marks an important theoretical distinction in the history of climate change and global warming,

The phrase denotes a period in time in which humanity became profoundly ‘anthropocentric’: consumed by the notion that human beings are the most significant and central figures in the global story, the detriment of bio-diversity and in denial of the delicate interconnectedness to which climate change continuously points.

Our World in Data. The facts about climate change, a harrowing picture.

Global Warming: Us at the Centre

This spiralling anthropocentrism did not escape David Attenborough:

“You and I belong to the most widespread and dominant species of animal on earth.

We’re certainly the most numerous large animal. There are something like 4,000 million of us today, and we’ve reached this position with meteoric speed. It’s all happened within the last 2,000 years or so. We seem to have broken loose from the restrictions that have governed the activities and numbers of other animals.

We had broken loose. We were apart from the rest of life on earth, living a different kind of life. Our predators had been eliminated. Most of our diseases were under control. We had worked out how to produce food to order.

There was nothing left to restrict us. Nothing to stop us. Unless we stopped ourselves…

we would keep consuming the earth until we had used it up.

Saving individual species or even groups of species would not be enough. Whole habitats would soon start to disappear.”

In 1926, total global carbon emissions were 3.64 bn tonnes. At the turn of the century, they had been just 1.69 bn tonnes. By the end of it, they would reach 25.11 bn tonnes. This is the ‘crime’ Attenborough has witnessed – an unparalleled and, for the most part, unknowing immolation of our planet. We had broken loose.  

These facts are stunning, and stark. As is the language of Attenborough, who tells such a compelling story in his own inimitable way. It is, essentially, the story of his life: ‘A Life on Our Planet.’ 

Attenborough recognises that humans have “overrun the world.” He recognises too, his own strange role in that process: a man flying across the planet, documenting wildlife, spreading awareness of the need to protect it, and unwittingly contributing to its destruction.

If we don’t act now, the youth of today and the youth of tomorrow are going to look back on this generation with absolute horror. “What were you thinking?!” I want to tell our youth we have taken the lessons, that we will not allow any other species to walk this tragic road of extinction. 

Wired - Heat as the morning sun warms the treeline canopy

Facts about Global Warming: A Conclusion

In this first of three parts on Attenborough and ‘A Life on Our Planet,’ we’ve discussed the primary chunk of his life, and the startling change he witnessed in the twentieth century. There were 93 incredible years between David’s birth and the making of the documentary. From here, we’re going to move forwards, addressing first of all the state of play today, and then the future.    

Those that have seen the documentary will know that the future looks ugly. So too, does the present. Cinematically, the documentary works wonders demonstrating this – it is striking, emotional, at times hard to watch. The visuals – gutted fish, destroyed forests – make the case clear: if the planet is dying, it will not be pretty. And the planet is dying.

Attenborough of course also holds a special place in the piece. That famous old voice feels so familiar, so wise, maybe even grandfatherly. In ‘A Life on our Planet’ he has placed himself between us and the planet. He is the man who can tell the story of both humanity and nature through his own experiences, connecting all three together, and urging us to see the connection as well.  

And that, I suppose, is the conclusion: obligation, action, change. Attenborough is not on our TV screens to make us scared for the sake of it. He is not, in Trump’s formulation, a prophet of doom. But he does want us to know the facts about global warming. And he wants us to know them so that we might act differently.    

David Attenborough looking at the camera

There are many ways to deal with what needs to happen next. We at One Tribe will do our part by protecting and conserving all of the large rainforests that exist around the world. We have started with the biggest, the amazon rainforest, starting in the Peruvian part of the forest. 

We believe that by working with non-profits we can support them to purchase and hold in trust large parts of the forest, making it available to local indigenous whilst managing the conservation and legally protecting the forest from commercial and national interests. 

Find out how that works with our recent story – ‘How can land ownership protect the Amazon rainforest.’ 

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