It goes without saying. David Attenborough is beloved by the world. He is only more and more beloved as each year of his life passes. I’m betting on a state funeral.
Despite his hints of ecofascist ideology, he is still adored. I’m not as interested in zoology as I am in climate change, and I dislike a lack of explicit causality to climate breakdown when he is explaining the demise of entire ecosystems and species, let alone individuals. Beyond that, he rarely discusses societal breakdown or the impact on human populations when these are the most emotive and distressing subjects, and I wouldn’t expect him to: he’s a zoologist, and the BBC is producing the vast majority of his programmes. His distinguishing feature is his narration, and although he is neither an Etonian or Old Harrovian, to many he represents the English posh boy stereotype.
With all this said, I was weaned on his documentaries like millions and millions of others. The 93-year-old has dedicated the majority of his life to providing a public service and must be well commended. All of his accomplishments have earned him great power, and before Climate Change: The Facts, in my opinion, he hadn’t done enough with it. Like many others, afraid of the political consequences (because climate change is inherently political), he separated issues and removed catastrophic realities from the fascinating and beautiful natural world that we are destroying. It’s all understandable. You can forgive me, then, for being extremely sceptical before watching this documentary.
I set him the goal of stating the words ‘capitalism’ or ‘colonialism’, two predominant causes of climate breakdown, just once in the entire documentary - but expected nothing. Within five minutes, he states the key finding of the 2018 IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees Celsius that we have 10-12 years to transform our society. An unexpected but necessary start.
It becomes clear quickly that the documentary is one of his first that is not primarily zoological. The bright, vibrant and sexy images are still very much there: appealing to the audience’s expectations from the Blue Planet and Planet Earth aesthetic.
But to give him credit, he states that “we’re causing the extinction of species already, and that’s irreversible”. It’s genuinely scarier hearing that in his voice, and differentiates this from any of his previous documentaries. Then onto the economic and social impact of forest fires, “sweeping across even some of the coldest countries on earth”, with a specific focus on the 2018 Californian forest fires which were likely very topical during production. This is very interesting. Is the Western, specifically American focus deliberate? Is it meant to make the audience more engaged?, I ask myself. The answer is affirmative when American white men provide an anecdote of their experience there: albeit an emotional one, though haven’t we seen enough of this trope in disaster films? The father and son alone escaping successfully?
What is great, but to expected from the BBC, is the placement of climatologists (including Michael Mann!) at the centre of this documentary. Clever. Reeling them in with Attenborough and soaking them in scientific fact. He says: “let’s be very clear about this, it is going to get much worse”. They say that 1 degrees is “is too much for earth’s ice to withstand”. What is severely lacking is social scientists. We have one historian, a few policymakers, but where are the professors in psychology or sociology? Have we not learned by now that the facts have to be brought back to the human impacts we can comprehend and that matter to us? I can imagine many viewers mentally switched off or made a cup of tea. I understand that Attenborough is in no fit state to fly about on documentary missions, but he could have at least interviewed experts. He doesn’t have to be perfect because he can engage without blinking an eye. Later, however, he acknowledges that climate scientists warned us 30 years ago - taking the blame from them. This is progress in media reporting.
Then holy fucking shit. An indigenous American talking about how climate breakdown has affected the span of his life and his community. US policymakers discussing internal migration changes. A miracle! Until I realise that these haven’t been fully developed. Apparently they can include quantifications of atmospheric science and climatology, but fail to consider including statistics that relate to humans. Migration predictions, for instance, and dealing with them in humanitarian narratives.
I’m looking for flaws, I know, but it’s my job basically.
Here’s the really fun bit: the acknowledgement that industry pushed for inaction even when the science and politics was complicated. The fossil fuel industry is “the most profitable industry in the history of mankind”, and the “cycle of denial worked”. Damn right it did. The one historian attributes blame directly to people like the Institute of Economic Affairs, the cycle, the industries: and thank god.
You ready for more good climate communication? Destruction “in other countries” is due to our demand for palm oil. Deforestation looks like “contagion...a disease across our planet”. We need a “strong unified political response that is more than a promise on paper”. A titled Harvard professor says the global poor “are not the ones who caused this”. I am craving more and more and expecting nothing.
I get what I want. By the end of the century we’ll be between 3 and 6 degrees pre-industrialisation, they say, followed by quantified impacts on sea level and therefore coastal cities. If we lose these “we’ve got an economic system that’s out of control”. What is going on?! I check this isn’t Channel 4 or Netflix. Nope. Now a reference to tipping points and more irreversible changes: “it is OUR ongoing emissions that are driving temperatures up, but if we cross tipping points there will be other things out of our control”.
The discussion of solutions, the most important part, includes the following:
Every nation has to act differently. Solar is now the cheapest energy source, for instance, and it compares countries’ use of it.
Wind is implied to be more efficient than nuclear by committee on CC: “one revolution of the blades can power a house for a day”. 20% of our energy in UK comes from wind!
“Decarbonise industry”. SORRY WHAT THE FUCK?! I think: where’s ‘degrowth’? I count my lucky stars I’m even reaching for that possibility. It doesn’t come, by the way.
Rewilding, still recently a niche and unfathomable option publicised by Monbiot, a radical leftist.
Carbon capture. These are sad times for us all.
The first electric powered plane. I didn’t even know about this. This documentary is doing its job.
We need to buy less. “We’ve been such a wasteful world”, we can reduce and “not affect our quality of life”. Thank you, God.
BUT -> “the most important thing is to reduce meat and dairy consumption”. “The problem is with intensive farming”. I wonder how intensive farmers around the world are reacting.
And at the end, after a wonderful and awe-inspiring montage of my fellow school strikers and Thunberg, Attenborough concludes: “we must all share responsibility ... for our present wellbeing and for the future of life on earth”. Not one mention of capitalism, environmental justice, or colonialism - a shame, but to be expected.
What I couldn’t expect was how detailed and radical this would be otherwise. I hope the omission of the above was to reach a broader audience, but it cannot be excused in any follow up. What we need, and what this documentary woefully lacked, was the idea of moral and spiritual revolution which Klein referred to this year. We must change entirely: not just in our politics, economics, energy and consumption systems. We have to evolve.