Sir David Attenborough warns of climate ‘crisis moment’

  • 16 January 2020
Media captionChina needs to tackle climate change – Attenborough

“The moment of crisis has come” in efforts to tackle climate change, Sir David Attenborough has warned.

According to the renowned naturalist and broadcaster, “we have been putting things off for year after year”.

“As I speak, south east Australia is on fire. Why? Because the temperatures of the Earth are increasing,” he said.

Sir David’s comments came in a BBC News interview to launch a year of special coverage on the subject of climate change.

Scientists say climate change is one of several factors behind the Australian fires; others include how forests are managed and natural patterns in the weather.

Sir David told me it was “palpable nonsense” for some politicians and commentators to suggest that the Australian fires were nothing to do with the world becoming warmer.

“We know perfectly well,” he said, that human activity is behind the heating of the planet.

What does Sir David mean by ‘the moment of crisis’?

He’s highlighting the fact that while climate scientists are becoming clearer about the need for a rapid response, the pace of international negotiations is grindingly slow.

The most recent talks – in Madrid last month – were branded a disappointment by the UN Secretary-General, the British government and others.

Decisions on key issues were put off and several countries including Australia and Brazil were accused of trying to dodge their commitments.

World is getting warmer

“We have to realise that this is not playing games,” Sir David said.

“This is not just having a nice little debate, arguments and then coming away with a compromise.

“This is an urgent problem that has to be solved and, what’s more, we know how to do it – that’s the paradoxical thing, that we’re refusing to take steps that we know have to be taken.”

What are those steps?

Back in 2018, the UN climate science panel spelled out how the world could have a reasonable chance of avoiding the most dangerous temperature rises in future.

It said that emissions of the gases heating the planet – from power stations and factories, vehicles and agriculture – should be almost halved by 2030.

Bushfire in AustraliaImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionAustralia has been badly hit by bushfires

Instead the opposite is happening.

The release of those gases is still increasing rather than falling and the key gas, carbon dioxide, is now in the atmosphere at a level far above anything experienced in human history.

As Sir David put it: “Every year that passes makes those steps more and more difficult to achieve.”

Why does this matter right now?

This year is seen as a vital opportunity to turn the tide on climate change.

The UK is hosting what’s billed as a crucial UN summit, known as COP26, in Glasgow in November.

Ahead of that gathering, governments worldwide are coming under pressure to toughen their targets for cutting emissions.

That’s because their current pledges do not go nearly far enough.

How much worse chart

Assuming they are delivered as promised (and there’s no guarantee of that), there could still be a rise in the global average temperature of more than 3C by the end of the century, compared to pre-industrial levels.

The latest assessment by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) lays bare the dangers of that.

It suggests that a rise of anything above 1.5C would mean that coastal flooding, heatwaves and damage to coral reefs would become more severe.

And the latest figures show that the world has already warmed by just over 1C.

What happens next?

As things stand, further heating looks inevitable.

“We’re already living in a changed world,” according to Professor Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading, a scientist whose depictions of global warming have often gone viral on social media.

He uses bold coloured stripes to show how much each year’s temperature is above or below average – different shades of red for warmer and blue for colder.

Media captionOur Planet Matters: Climate change explained

The designs now adorn T-shirts, scarves and even a tram in Germany.

At the moment, Prof Hawkins uses dark red to denote the highest level of warming, but regions such as the Arctic Ocean have seen that maximum level year after year.

Such is the scale of change that he’s having to search for new colours.

“I’m thinking about adding dark purple or even black”, he told me, to convey future increases in temperature.

“People might think climate change is a distant prospect but we’re seeing so many examples around the world, like in Australia, of new records and new extremes.”

In 1980, the minimum sea ice extent was 7.7 million square kilometres. This year it was at 4.7 million square kilometres.2012 was the lowest year on record, when it was down to 3.6 million square kilometres - less than half what it was in 1980.

What else is on the environmental agenda this year?

The natural world, and whether we can stop harming it.

While most political attention will be on climate change, 2020 is also seen as potentially important for halting the damage human activity is having on ecosystems.

Sir David has a blunt explanation for why this matters: “We actually depend upon the natural world for every breath of air we take and every mouthful of food that we eat.”

World leaders are being invited to the Chinese city of Kunming for a major conference on how to safeguard Nature.

Northern white rhinoImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe northern white rhino (seen here) is down to just two animals, making it “functionally” extinct

A landmark report last year warned that as many as one million species of animals, insects and plants are threatened with extinction in the coming decades.

A more recent study found that the growth of cities, the clearing of forests for farming and the soaring demand for fish had significantly altered nearly three-quarters of the land and more than two-thirds of the oceans.

One of the scientists involved, Prof Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum in London, says that by undermining important habitats, “we’re hacking away at our safety net, we’re trashing environments we depend on”.

He points to the impact of everything from the use of palm oil in processed food and shampoo to the pressures created by fast fashion.

And while the need for conservation is understood in many developed countries, Prof Purvis says “we’ve exported the damage to countries too poor to handle the environmental cost of what they’re selling to us”.

The gathering in Kunming takes place in October, a month before the UN climate summit in Glasgow, confirming this year as crucial for our relations with the planet.

Follow Davidon Twitter.

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