David Attenborough: On climate change, optimism and Blue Planet II

"All we have to do is keep declaring the facts as we see the facts, and producing the evidence whenever we can"

25.09.2017

Unearthed reporters

Damian Kahya interviews Sir David Attenborough at his home in London. Video: shot by Tom Pursey, edited by Fionn McSherry and Georgie Johnson, produced by Georgie Johnson. Words: Emma Howard.

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Sir David Attenborough may be 91, but he is a busy 91. As we set up in his Richmond home, he is upstairs studying footage of orcas and humpback whales on a herring hunt. He has just come back from Edinburgh. And last night he was up late writing the latest programme for his new series: Blue Planet Two.

Sixteen years on from the first Blue Planet series, Attenborough is both delighted and saddened by his return to the oceans.

It wasn’t until the 50s that I first got put on an aqualung, but when you do – here is the richest, the most diverse, the most beautiful, the most exciting, the least known of all earth’s ecosystems.”

The programme he has been writing is about how the oceans are changing. One change he has noticed is the plastic. Lots of it.

There’s a shot of the young being fed, and what comes out of the beak of the adult? Plastic. It’s heart-breaking.

“Plastics are of crucial importance. It’s heart-breaking of course. Which example do you choose as being the most heart-breaking? There are so many of them.”

“The one I would choose because I feel most strongly for them…is the albatross. Such marvellous birds! They form partnerships for 50 years, they circle Antarctica searching for food, they come back to their mates in the same place, but they also feed their young.”

“There’s a shot of the young being fed, and what comes out of the mouth of the beak of the adult? Not sand eels, not fish, not squid…it’s plastic. It’s heart-breaking. Heart-breaking.”

It’s a topic Attenborough was keen to return to at the documentary’s premiere in London on Wednesday.

The prequel is out now – with a soundtrack from Hans Zimmer and Radiohead.

The naturalist used the opportunity of the premiere to call for action.

Asked what concerned him the most with regard to the health of the oceans, Attenborough chose to highlight two challenges: climate change and plastic pollution.

He said: “We could actually do something about plastics right now….internationally, tomorrow. I just wish we would….

“We have a responsibility, every one of us. We may think we live a long way from the oceans …but what we actually do here – and in the middle of Asia – has direct effect on the oceans and what the oceans do affects back on us. It is one world and it is in our care. For the first time in 500 million years, one species has the future in the palm of its hands. I just hope we realise that that is the case.”

The series, which has been four years in the making, visits every continent and ocean. It promises new filming techniques, from probe cameras that can capture life in miniature to suction cameras that sit on the backs of sharks.

“I’m going to have to say we’ve got new techniques and new technologies and we’re going to places we’ve never been before. It’s true to an extent but it’s not what it’s about. What it’s about is that life underwater is amazing.”

On the Shiants Isles in Scotland, a puffin holds a piece of plastic netting in its beak. Photo: Will Rose / Greenpeace.

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So despite the technological advances, storytelling for the world’s most famous naturalist seems as straightforward as it ever was. (His opening gambit entails extolling the characteristics of the “extraordinary” common slug.) Technology may change, but what interests people does not.

“There are people right now, just right here, around the corner, who have never seen a picture of a lion catching a wildebeest! We’ve been showing that every year, three times a year, for the past fifty. There’s a new audience all the time.”

It’s a free world and we aren’t thought dictators

But while Attenborough is a storyteller, he is also a scientist. You can tell because of the caveats.

Yes he has seen climate change, but he is reluctant to pinpoint it. Where has he seen it most powerfully, we ask?

He folds his arms, looks down and takes several breaths.

“You’ve got to get a timescale to talk about change, you’ve got to know somewhere intimately over a period and see what the changes are. And I’m too much of a flibbertigibbet, I go from here to there and I don’t go to the same place every time.”

“It’s very dangerous to just point a finger at that place on the map and say “There you are, that’s what’s happening”. You have to be a generalist and you have to take a survey. That’s what science is about.”

 

What then, does the scientist, broadcaster and ex-BBC controller make of the political events of the last year? What do “alternative facts” and climate denial mean for truth-telling about climate change?

Attenborough clearly wants to shy away from anything political – as he told Louis Theroux, it is easy to be a national treasure if you keep any controversial views to yourself. But when we come onto the subject of Brexit, he can’t quite help himself.

“I’m not an economist, I certainly don’t understand the political and economic implications of Brexit…but philosophically I would rather the people embrace one another than spat in one another’s face.”

He stares and there is a long pause. It’s hard to know what to say after that. Later when we return to the topic, he is more specific.

“The decision to call a referendum was an abrogation of parliamentary democracy in my view because we didn’t know the facts. We weren’t presented with the facts. I still don’t know the facts really! All I know is that compared with when the referendum came, I realised it is much more complicated than i thought.

“In any case it was only within a few percentage one way or the other – and if the referendum had been two thirds against one third, that would have been bad enough. But it wasn’t even that!”

Finally, he catches himself. He looks around, shifts in his seat and folds his arms.

“Why am I going on about this? I’m not a political chap; I know about bugs!”

(He doesn’t know what Brexit means for bugs, if you were wondering).

But when Attenborough considers the rise of fake news as a journalist, he is much more sure footed.

“It’s a free world and we aren’t thought dictators. All we have to do is go along declaring the facts as we see the facts and producing the evidence whenever we can. The trouble is there are a lot of vested interests and a lot of people who it suits to deny it.”

“It’s what happened in the smoking debates in the fifties. I think there were evil men, I certainly think that – I think there were people who really knew and denied it – but there were quite a lot who didn’t. And i think there are probably plenty of people now who think ‘Well it’s not really true about carbon dioxide’. But all we can do, all anybody can do is go on stacking up the evidence from every quarter.”

Thirty years ago people concerned with atmospheric pollution were voices crying in the wilderness. We aren’t voices crying in the wilderness now.

And yet, he has hope – although it’s decidedly cautious hope.

“My hope is that the world is coming to its senses…I’m so old i remember a time when…we didn’t talk about climate change, we talked about animals and species extermination.

“For the first time I’m beginning to think there is actually a groundswell, there is a change in the public view. I feel many more people are more concerned and more aware of what the problems are. Young people – people who’ve got fifty years of their life ahead of them – they are thinking they ought to be doing something about this – that’s a huge change.”

“Thirty years ago people concerned with atmospheric pollution were voices crying in the wilderness. We aren’t voices crying in the wilderness now.”

By: Damian Kahya, Georgie Johnson and Emma Howard