Attenborough’s witness statement – The effects of global warming

Joe Ronan

Joe Ronan

David Attenborough Studying the effects of global warming in Borneo
BBC Image Archive

We’re going to explore how the effects of global warming have manifested themselves throughout David Attenborough’s life. Whether it be melting sea ice or dying oceans, he saw it all, and he documented it in his witness statement, ‘A Life on Our Planet.’ 

In this article, with the help of the transcript from ‘A Life on Our Planet,’ we’re going to tell Attenborough’s story. 

 

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Attenborough’s Witness Statement: The Effects of Global Warming – Put simply

Firstly, the effects of global warming are manifold and terrifying (you’ll no doubt be surprised to hear). 

  • In the past 30 years, we’ve seen these effects of global warming escalate: areas of Arctic sea ice have melted that is larger than Norway, Sweden and Denmark combined.
  • Summer sea ice in the Arctic has reduced by 40% in 40 years.
  • Sea levels continue to rise globally.
  • Extreme weather events are becoming ever more common.
  • 2020 saw a third mass bleaching event in five years at the Great Barrier Reef, the most severe ever witnessed.

 

David Attenborough has, in his lifetime, witnessing these effects emerging and accelerating. The gentle, self-sustaining ecological period of the Holocene is over, with the Anthropocene taking its place. Humanity’s relationship with the planet has never been more unequal, and more in need of change.

Attenborough’s Witness Statement: The Effects of Global Warming

Introduction

It’s an introduction, but David Attenborough needs very little introduction – the famed naturalist is a twenty-first-century icon. Nevertheless, it is probably easy to forget that when he first appeared on TV screens he was just another presenter, not yet elevated to the levels of adoration he has reached since.

In 1965 Attenborough became controller of the BBC’s new second television channel, BBC-2. He has been writing, producing, and narrating for television since anybody can remember. It is especially interesting to think how much has changed in the world during his lifetime. Most today find it hard to fathom a world without mobile phones. So imagine one with only a single TV channel.

Next, imagine one in which the climate crisis was entirely absent from public knowledge, one well before the internet. A world completely ignorant of the damage it was wreaking worldwide, that was built upon coal, concrete, steel, and international travel. 

Because all this was the world before the effects of global warming made themselves known. 

Throughout all this Attenborough has seen change. We will move through this article telling the story of what, exactly, has changed, and where we are with the effects of global warming now. With excerpts from ‘A Life on Our Planet.’

Attenborough in 1965, before the effects of global warming were clear
BBC Image Archive

The Effects of Global Warming: A Recap

By the year 2000, it was clear the gentle, self-sustaining climatic conditions of the Holocene period were over. Within his lifetime, David Attenborough witnessed the advent of global air travel and deforestation on an unprecedented scale. Throughout the twentieth century, both population growth and carbon emissions continued to skyrocket. 

Finally, the effects of global warming slowly themselves known.     

However, this was not the case in 1970, when Attenborough published an article, called ‘Up Mt Kinabalu’, in the book ‘The World’s Wild Places.’ It was about Borneo, the world’s third-largest island, which serves as a paradigmatic example of the change Attenborough has witnessed.

In fact, the island Attenborough described was lush, an Eden of biodiversity, as of yet untouched by the effects of global warming and human exploitation of resources:

“The mountain is stocked with a phenomenal amount of different plants. The summit is an area of such splendour that we stayed there as long as we could. Borneo lay spread beneath us… the flat hazy-green blanket of the jungle.”

Needless to say, to look out on that same island now would be a different experience. 

Borneo has experienced some of the most brutal deforestations on earth. 

Miles and miles of palm oil plantations scar its landscape. 

More round wood was harvested from Borneo between 1980 and 2000 than from Africa and the Amazon combined. 

Shockingly, Borneo has lost forest cover twice as fast as the rest of the world’s humid tropical forests.

In the words of Attenborough himself: “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.”

Borneo and its rainforests are just one example of the havoc wrought by humanity upon the natural landscape. A similar story can be told of fish populations, sea coral, the Arctic, and the Antarctic.

Deforestation in Borneo: one of the causes and effects of global warming
(AFP Photo/CHARLY TRIBALLEAU)

The Effects of Global Warming: Eco-Systems Attacked

Our eco-systems are inherently fragile. The rainforests cannot shrug off such a sustained attack, and neither can our oceans; Attenborough makes clear.    

“We can’t cut down rainforests forever, and anything that we can’t do forever is by definition unsustainable.

If we do things that are unsustainable, the damage accumulates ultimately to a point where the whole system collapses.

No ecosystem, no matter how big, is secure.

Even one as vast as the ocean. This habitat was the subject of the series The Blue Planet, which we were filming in the late ’90s.

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

It was… an astonishing vision of a completely unknown world, a world that had existed since the beginning of time. All sorts of things that you had no idea had ever existed, all in a multitude of colours, all unbelievably beautiful.

And all of them completely undisturbed by your presence. For much of its expanse, the ocean is largely empty. But in certain places, there are hot spots where currents bring nutrients to the surface and trigger an explosion of life. In such places, huge shoals of fish gather. 

The problem is that our fishing fleets are just as good at finding those hot spots as are the fish. When they do, they’re able to gather the concentrated shoals with ease. It was only in the ’50s that large fleets first ventured out into international waters…

. . . to reap the open ocean harvest across the globe. Yet, they’ve removed 90% of the large fish in the sea. At first, they caught plenty of fish in their nets. But within only a few years, the nets across the globe were coming in empty.”

Overfishing is an assault comparable to deforestation. It risks creating ocean deserts: barren, empty places sucked of life.

One of the effects of global warming is over-fishing
(credit: Chris Jones)

The Effects of Global Warming: A Blue Planet Turns White

Fishing methods such as bottom trawling can have hugely destructive impacts on biodiversity and deep-sea coral. But it is not just fishing activity that is destroying our oceans, rising temperatures are the silent killer, causing coral bleaching, one of the bleakest effects of global warming:

“The ocean starts to die.”

“Coral reefs were turning white. The white colour is caused by corals expelling algae that live symbiotically within their body.

When you first see it, you think perhaps that it’s beautiful, and suddenly you realize it’s tragic. Because what you’re looking at is skeletons. Skeletons of dead creatures.

The white corals are ultimately smothered by seaweed. And the reef turns from wonderland… to wasteland. At first, the cause of the bleaching was a mystery. But scientists started to discover that in many cases where bleaching occurred, the ocean was warming. 

“Where bleaching occurred, the ocean was warming.”

For some time, climate scientists had warned that the planet would get warmer as we burned fossil fuels and released carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. A marked change in atmospheric carbon has always been incompatible with a stable earth. It was a feature of all five mass extinctions.

In previous events, it had taken volcanic activity up to one million years to dredge up enough carbon from within the earth to trigger a catastrophe. By burning millions of years’ worth of living organisms all at once as coal and oil, we had managed to do so in less than 200.

The global air temperature had been relatively stable till the ’90s. But it now appeared this was only because the ocean was absorbing much of the excess heat, masking our impact.

It was the first indication to me that the earth was beginning to lose its balance.”

coral bleaching is a bleak example of the effects of global warming
(credit: Chris Jones)

The Effects of Global Warming: Melting Ice

Warmer oceans kill coral and melt ice. 

In the past 30 years, we’ve seen these effects of global warming escalate: areas of Arctic sea ice have melted that is larger than Norway, Sweden and Denmark combined. Nowhere are the effects of global warming felt more keenly than in the Arctic. The Arctic is warming faster than any other region- at a rate of almost twice the global average.

“The most remote habitat of all exists at the extreme north and south of the planet. I’ve visited the polar regions over many decades. They’ve always been a place beyond imagination… with scenery unlike anything else on earth… and unique species adapted to live in the extreme. But that distant world is changing. In my time, I’ve experienced the warming of Arctic summers. We have arrived at locations expecting to find expanses of sea ice and found none. We’ve managed to travel by boat to islands that were impossible to get to historically because they were permanently locked in the ice.

By the time Frozen Planet aired in 2011, the reasons for these changes were well established. The ocean has long since become unable to absorb all the excess heat caused by our activities.

As a result, the average global temperature today is one degree Celsius warmer than it was when I was born.

A speed of change that exceeds any in the last 10,000 years. Summer sea ice in the Arctic has reduced by 40% in 40 years.

Our planet is losing its ice.

This most pristine and distant of ecosystems is headed for disaster.

Our imprint is now truly global. Our impact is now truly profound. Our blind assault on the planet has finally come to alter the very fundamentals of the living world.”

The ice-free Arctic

It is thought that the Arctic could experience its first ice-free summer as early as 2035. Ice plays a crucial role in regulating our atmospheric conditions. 

It reflects the sun’s heat, minimizes coastal erosion, and maintains the polar ecosystems.

Polar Ice is Melting: one of the effects of global warming
(Photo: Pink floyd88/Wikimedia Commons)

The Effects of Global Warming: A Witness Statement

So, here we are. 2020 was one of the hottest years ever recorded. The effects of global warming are not going away: ice caps continue to melt, with around 152 bn tonnes lost from the Greenland ice sheet alone. Coral reef suffered too, 2020 saw a third mass bleaching event in five years for the Great Barrier Reef, the most severe ever witnessed.

“We’re replacing the wild with the tame.

Half of the fertile land on earth is now farmland. 70% of the mass of birds on this planet are domestic birds. The vast majority, chickens. We account for over one-third of the weight of mammals on earth. A further 60% are the animals we raise to eat. The rest, from mice to whales, make up just 4%.

This is now our planet, run by humankind for humankind. There is little left for the rest of the living world.

Since I started filming in the 1950s, on average, wild animal populations have more than halved. I look at these images now and I realize that, although as a young man I felt I was out there in the wild experiencing the untouched natural world… it was an illusion. Those forests and plains and seas were already emptying.

Um, so, the world is not as wild as it was. Well, we’ve destroyed it. Not just ruined it. I mean, we have completely… well, destroyed that world. That non-human world is gone. Uh… The… Human beings have overrun the world.

That is my witness statement. A story of global decline during a single lifetime.

But it doesn’t end there.

If we continue on our current course, the damage that has been the defining feature of my life will be eclipsed by the damage coming in the next.

2020 / WORLD POPULATION: 7.8 BILLION / CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 415 PARTS PER MILLION / REMAINING WILDERNESS: 35%”
Trash island in Honduras: a brutal effect of global warming
BBC/STEVE BENJAMIN

Three Big Themes, One Ocean

Fishing, coral, sea ice. Having begun with Borneo, it is these three big themes that have formed the basis of our exploration of Attenborough’s ‘A Life of Our Planet’ in this, the second part. What do they have in common? – they all play important roles in constituting and regulating our planet’s oceans. The effects of global warming on our oceans are particularly important. 

If any entity has the claim to be the planet’s lungs, it is our oceans. They produce over half of the world’s oxygen and absorb 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere.

Furthermore, if protecting biodiversity is our goal, then 80% of life on earth is found in the ocean – encompassing everything from the smallest plankton to the largest whale.

The oceans are central to any vision of a sustainable future. 

As the United Nations put it: 

“Our rainwater, drinking water, weather, climate, coastlines, much of our food, and even the oxygen in the air we breathe, are all ultimately provided and regulated by the sea.”

At OneTribe, we often focus on the rainforest. Over the last ten years or so the rainforests have been somewhat side-lined as an issue, with plastics taking centre stage in climate discourse, in what has been labelled the ‘Blue Planet Effect.’

The so-called ‘Blue Planet Effect’ offers us hope. It connects an explosion of activity and emphasis centred around marine plastics with the work of popular documentarians such as Attenborough and Jo Ruxton, whose film ‘A Plastic Ocean’ was labelled by Attenborough “one of the most important films of all time.”  

If the ‘Blue Planet Effect’ – and the subsequent surge in awareness of single use plastics – teaches us anything, it is that things can change. There is value in raising awareness of the effects of global warming, and very few people have the same following or authority in the realm of awareness raising as David Attenborough.  

The Dolphins of Blue Planet, they help mitigate the effects of global warming
BBC/STEVE BENJAMIN

A Conclusion: Global Warming Tomorrow

As should be abundantly clear by now, the present does not look all that pretty. However, Blue Planet had an impact, and so too did ‘A Life on Our Planet.’ We all know that true change requires policy, it requires action – but the more people there are agitating for change, the sooner it will come. And that agitation requires inspiration, something a certain Mr. Attenborough is particularly good at.   

The situation is bleak. But we face a crossroads, and that fact at least offers us choices, new directions. We are also massively more informed than we were, and that is cause for hope. What might Attenborough and his ilk have been able to do had they been equipped with the knowledge we have now, back in the 1960s or 70s?

In our final part, we will look to the future, and we will look not only with fear but also with optimism. Because perhaps the greatest lesson of ‘A Life on Our Planet’ is that we cannot fight something that we do not understand. Attenborough wants us to know how bad things are because only that knowledge can inform and motivate us in our efforts to change things.  

For us, that fight starts with our rainforests and how we fund the protection of them. 

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