Attenborough’s witness statement – what we can do to stop global warming

Joe Ronan

Joe Ronan

Attenborough at the UN in Poland

What can we do to stop the effects of global warming? That is the question we will be seeking to answer today, with the aid of David Attenborough’s ‘A Life on Our Planet. And, you’ll be happy to hear that there are answers available and we can avoid the worst-case future scenarios.  

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Attenborough’s Witness Statement: What We Can Do to Stop the Effects of Global Warming  – Put simply

Stopping the effects of global warming is going to take all of us. And so the multilateral efforts of the international community will be absolutely central. The Paris Agreement and COP26 in Glasgow this year are the bedrocks of the global climate fight.

Notably ‘all of us’ means the developing world too. There can be no fight against climate change without the developed and developing worlds working together. As the UN sustainable development goals make clear- a commitment to development must inform any climate action, and this development must be sustainable if that action is to succeed.

There is a sustainable future on the horizon. In a few decades, Morocco looks set to be exporting solar powered energy to Europe. In Africa, The Great Green Wall is a feat of green engineering that is breaking boundaries in the fight against desertification. 

Global warming left unchecked will wreak havoc across the globe. But there are plans and efforts in place to stop that future from coming to pass.

flooding brought about by extreme weather

Attenborough’s Witness Statement: What We Can Do to Stop Global Warming

An Introduction

Figuring out how we can halt global warming is humanity’s biggest challenge. Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gasses today, global warming would continue for decades. The effects of global warming cannot simply be wished away. As the great suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst had it, we need ‘deeds not words,’ and fast. Very fast. 

The last century saw unparalleled changes in the global climate. It saw sea levels rising, temperatures encroaching ever upwards, and extreme weather events come to seem decidedly less extreme. All this David Attenborough witnessed. In the closing minutes of ‘A Life on Our Planet,’ he asks: what next?  

As we shall see, the picture of the next century has the potential to be dark. Global warming is a massive threat to the health of our planet, but also our species. From heatwaves to infectious diseases, climate change is a public health disaster. Weather related catastrophes increased in number 46% between 2007 and 2016. As the planet continues to heat, they will only become more frequent.

Hazards resulting from the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events are already causing an average of more than 20 million people to leave their homes and move to other areas in their countries each year.

The World Bank predicts there will be 150 million climate refugees from Asia, Africa and Latin America by 2050. The potential political implications of such mass movement of people are worrying; countries closing borders, increased xenophobia, mass statelessness, rising eco-fascism. We could go on. Let’s not. 

Clearly, action is what we need, the situation demands urgency. In this final article in this series, we will look to the future – or futures – and explore both the threat of imminent apocalypse, and also the means by which we might avert that fate.

Deforestation in the amazon

Global Warming Unchecked

“Science predicts that were I born today, I would be witness to the following.

2030s

The Amazon Rainforest, cut down until it can no longer produce enough moisture, degrades into a dry savannah, bringing catastrophic species loss… and altering the global water cycle.
At the same time, the Arctic becomes ice-free in the summer. Without the white ice cap, less of the sun’s energy is reflected back out to space. And the speed of global warming increases.

2040s

Throughout the north, frozen soils thaw, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide, accelerating the rate of climate change dramatically.

2050s

As the ocean continues to heat and becomes more acidic, coral reefs around the world die. Fish populations crash.

2080s

Global food production enters a crisis as soils become exhausted by overuse. Pollinating insects disappear. And the weather is more and more unpredictable.

2100s

Our planet becomes four degrees Celsius warmer. Large parts of the earth are uninhabitable. Millions of people rendered homeless. A sixth mass extinction event… is well underway. This is a series of one-way doors… bringing irreversible change. Within the span of the next lifetime, the security and stability of the Holocene, our Garden of Eden… will be lost.”

This is a series of one-way doors. This means that the world is dangerously close to irreversible change. A number of leading scientists Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany have suggested that we are approaching a series of tipping points (events with high impact and interconnectedness) such as disintegration of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, thawing of permafrost and rainforest droughts.

Avoiding these outcomes will take serious and immediate action. It is to that action that we now turn.

David Attenborough on a beach

The United Nations and Global Warming

State and third party actors will have to be central in the fight against climate change. Policy is what drives rapid, meaningful change, and the UN has an important role to play here – in coordinating, unifying and enforcing climate policy.

“We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet,” said María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés of Ecuador in 2019. Then working as UN General Assembly President “Climate justice is intergenerational justice,” she said, calling on States to act collectively and responsibly.

Likewise, David Attenborough told the UN Climate Change Conference in 2018:

“Right now, we’re facing a manmade disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon. But the longer we leave it, the more difficult it’ll be to do something about it. 

And you could happily retire. But you now want to explain to us what peril we are in. Um… and, in a way, I wish I wasn’t involved in this struggle. Because I wish the struggle wasn’t there or necessary. But I’ve had unbelievable luck and good fortune. Um, and I certainly would feel very guilty… if I saw what the problems are and decided to ignore them.”

But, as previously stated, talk is cheap. The two-week conference was hosted in Poland in 2018, COP24 (COP means ‘conference of the parties’). The conference was designed as an update to the 2016 Paris Agreement. However, as we approach another ‘COP,’ this time hosted in Glasgow at the end of this year, there remains much to do.

David Attenborough as a young naturalist

Global Warming: Action Now

When launching COP26 alongside Boris Johnson last year, Attenborough said the moment of crisis has come.” For his part, Johnson himself pledged that 2020 would be the “defining year of climate action” We all know 2020 was dominated by one issue and one issue only (Covid!) – 2021 has to be different if we are to avoid the bleak picture of global warming induced planetary degradation depicted by Attenborough in ‘A Life on Our Earth.’

“We are facing nothing less than the collapse of the living world. The very thing that gave birth to our civilization. The thing we rely upon for every element of the lives we lead. No one wants this to happen. None of us can afford for it to happen. 

So, what do we do?

It’s quite straightforward. It’s been staring us in the face all along. To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity. The very thing that we’ve removed. It’s the only way out of this crisis we have created. We must rewild the world.

Rewilding the world is simpler than you might think. Better yet, the changes we have to make will only benefit ourselves and the generations that follow. A century from now, our planet could be a wild place again. Let me tell you how.

Every other species on Earth reaches a maximum population after a time. The number that can be sustained on the natural resources available. With nothing to restrict us, our population has been growing dramatically throughout my lifetime.”

By 2100 it is estimated there will be 11 billion people on Earth. “Development is the best contraceptive” was a comment made by Dr. Kanan Singh at the World Population Conference in Bucharest in 1974. Statistically, the best way to regulate birth rates is to lift people out of poverty.

David Attenborough

Development and Global Warming

“By working hard to raise people out of poverty, giving all access to healthcare, and enabling girls in particular to stay in school as long as possible, we can make it [population growth] peak sooner and at a lower level.

Why wouldn’t we want to do these things? 

Giving people a greater opportunity in life is what we would want to do anyway. The trick is to raise the standard of living around the world without increasing our impact on that world. That may sound impossible, but there are ways in which we can do this.”

As such, environmentalism and feminism sit hand in hand. “Climate change is a man-made problem with a feminist solution,” said Mary Robinson. As well as pursuing policies such as better education for girls and contraception and sanitary products for women, feminist values inform much of the politics of environmentalism. ‘Ecofeminism emphases feminist notions of equality, informed by a more holistic understanding of human work and value, and recognises the need to develop sustainable, non-exploitative and non-hierarchical structures and practices.

‘A Life on Our Planet’ makes clear that the pursuit of dignified, meaningful and sustainable life for all humanity is inseparable from the fight against global warming. The UN sustainable development goals make this clear; a commitment to development must inform any climate action, and this development must be sustainable if that action is to succeed.

It is in the interests of developing countries to fight climate change. The cruel paradox of global warming is that it is the developing world – which is least culpable for global emissions – that will suffer most.  Hundreds of millions of urban dwellers in low- and middle-income nations are at risk of global weather-driven disasters, an estimated 4 out of 5 of which occur as a consequence of climate change.

Global Warming and Renewables

But how to fuel this development drive without relying on fossil fuels? – Renewables seem the obvious answer, to Attenborough at least. Renewables are set to account for 95% of the net increase in global power capacity from now until 2025. The last decade has seen real progress in the renewable sector, between 2010 and 2017 global finance to developing countries in support of clean and renewable energy increased from $10bn to $21.3 bn.

“The living world is essentially solar-powered. The earth’s plants capture three trillion kilowatt-hours of solar energy each day.

That’s almost 20 times the energy we need… just from sunlight. Imagine if we phase out fossil fuels and run our world on the eternal energies of nature too. Sunlight, wind, water and geothermal.

A green future is possible

At the turn of the century, Morocco relied on imported oil and gas for almost all of its energy. Today, it generates 40% of its needs at home from a network of renewable power plants, including the world’s largest solar farm. Sitting on the edge of the Sahara, and cabled directly into southern Europe, Morocco could be an exporter of solar energy by 2050. Within 20 years, renewables are predicted to be the world’s main source of power. But we can make them the only source.

It’s crazy that our banks and our pensions are investing in fossil fuel… when these are the very things that are jeopardizing the future that we are saving for.

A renewable future will be full of benefits. Energy everywhere will be more affordable. Our cities will be cleaner and quieter. And renewable energy will never run out.”

It is this more harmonious relationship with the planet’s resources that underpin environmentalism. Energy production throughout the industrial revolution was exploitative, based on consuming sedimented energy in the form of fossil fuels, energy that once used could not be reproduced. Harnessing renewable power is different.  

Morocco Solar Power

Global Warming and Forests

“Forests are a fundamental component of our planet’s recovery. They are the best technology nature has for locking away carbon. And they are centres of biodiversity. Again, the two features work together. The wilder and more diverse forests are, the more effective they are at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.

We must immediately halt deforestation everywhere… and grow crops like oil palm and soya only on land that was deforested long ago. After all, there’s plenty of it.

But we can do better than that.

A century ago, more than three quarters of Costa Rica was covered with forest. By the 1980s, uncontrolled logging had reduced this to just one quarter. The government decided to act, offering grants to landowners to replant native trees. In just 25 years, the forest has returned to cover half of Costa Rica once again. Just imagine if we achieve this on a global scale.

The return of the trees would absorb as much as two thirds of the carbon emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by our activities to date.”

Hope remains: the Rainforest Trust are a prime example of a fantastic organisation who are protecting our planet’s trees (11 million of them, in fact).

Furthermore, what is distinctive about the Trust, is that the methods they use – land purchase, designation and land titling – all protect rainforest on a permanent basis. 92% of the project areas our partners protect have had less than 5% deforestation since their creation. Many of the projects go all the way back to 1988.

In Conclusion: A Sustainable Future

We began this article with a vision of the future that was stark and bleak. An uninhabitable planet, ravaged by heat and populated by refugees. Between then and now we have discussed how we might avoid that fate, and secure a greener, happier future. 

“When you think about it, we’re completing a journey. Ten thousand years ago, as hunter-gatherers, we lived a sustainable life because that was the only option. All these years later, it’s once again the only option. We need to rediscover… how to be sustainable…

If we can change the way we live on Earth, an alternative future comes into view. In this future, we discover ways to benefit from our land that help, rather than hinder, wilderness. Ways to fish our seas that enable them to come quickly back to life. And ways to harvest our forests sustainably. We will finally learn how to work with nature rather than against it.

In the end, after a lifetime’s exploration of the living world, I’m certain of one thing. This is not about saving our planet… it’s about saving ourselves.

The future will be, and can be greener

There are many differences between humans and the rest of the species on earth, but one that has been expressed is that we alone are able to imagine the future. For a long time, I and perhaps you have dreaded that future. 

But it’s now becoming apparent that it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a chance for us to make amends, to complete our journey of development, manage our impact, and once again become a species in balance with nature. All we need is the will to do so. We now have the opportunity to create the perfect home for ourselves, and restore the rich, healthy, and wonderful world that we inherited. Just imagine that.”

To ensure a green future, check out our Rainforest Protection Programmes.  

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