“Right now, we are facing our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change.”
This is David Attenborough, speaking at 9pm on BBC1. This is a significant moment for the BBC, and a powerful message for viewers.
Over the course of an hour, Climate Change: The Facts lays out in methodical, simple terms the threats posed by climate change – and what can be done to combat it.
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Standing in the English countryside, Attenborough introduces a global story of rising temperatures and a frightening vision of the future.
“It may not seem obvious, but we are facing a man-made disaster on a global scale,” he says.
But there is still hope, Attenborough adds: “I believe that if we better understand the threat we face, the more likely it is that we can avoid such a catastrophic future.”
So what are the threats – and what reasons, if any, do we have to be hopeful?
The threats of global warming
1. Animal extinctions
“I’ve seen for myself that in addition to the many other threats that they face, animals of all kinds are now struggling to adapt to rapidly changing conditions,” Attenborough states, adding that eight per cent of species are now at threat of extinction solely due to climate change.
Even creatures specifically adapted to survive in extreme heat conditions are struggling. Footage from Australia in November last year shows thousands of bats who died due to heat stress, after temperatures in Cairns, Queensland reached a record 42.6C.
Over 11,000 died in that colony alone.
2. Extreme weather
Met Office scientist Professor Peter Stott reports that 20 of the warmest years on record have appeared in the past 22 years.
Rising global temperatures are resulting in more extreme weather events, from wildfires and droughts to flooding and storms.
The documentary explains that while climate change cannot be said to have ‘caused’ any individual event, the rise in global temperatures means that both the likelihood and frequency of those events increases.
The terrifying drive through a wildfire in Montana, filmed by father Charles Bilton and son Justin as they attempted to escape to safety in 2008, shows the reality of that increased risk.
Meanwhile, Sunita Narain, the director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, warns that it is not only developing countries who are at risk of these major weather disasters: “Join the dots. It’s happening in your world, it’s happening in my world, and let’s be very clear about this: it is going to get much worse.”
3. Rising sea levels
Over 600 million people live in coastal areas that are less than 10m above sea level, the documentary states. Already rising sea levels are displacing populations in Asia and the south Pacific, but the documentary also reveals how Louisiana in the United States is losing the equivalent of a football field in land every 45 minutes.
Through photosynthesis, forests and trees have stored nearly a third of our carbon dioxide emissions – but as Attenborough says, this vital natural ally in the fight against climate change is being destroyed.
As forests are cleared or burned, CO2 is added into the atmosphere and the plants that could convert that CO2 are lost.
Scientist Matthew Hansen (above), who has been tracking deforestation and its impact using satellite imagery, says that unless we reverse this trend, “Our ability to mitigate climate change and turn the story around becomes really vanishingly small.”
5. Global warming “beyond our control”
Currently the rise in global temperatures is a result of man-made emissions. However, the documentary warns that a further rise in temperatures could set off processes beyond our control.
Scientists call these “tipping points”.
The most striking example of these potential tipping points is found in North Alaska. The film shows how huge amounts of methane are stored beneath the permafrost. Methane is 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2 – but as more of the ice melts, more of this trapped gas escapes.
“The future looks alarming indeed,” Attenborough says, “but it’s not without hope.
“There is still time if we act now, with determination and urgency. What do governments, industries, nations and we as individuals need to do to change our course?” he asks.
Reasons to be hopeful
1. Calling out climate change deniers
As Attenborough explains, climate change science has warned of future catastrophe for over 30 years – but that warning has not always been heard.
“The oil and gas industry, the fossil fuel industry, they undertook quite a concerted campaign to confuse the science and confuse the message,” says Richard Lazarus, Professor of Law at Harvard.
“The cycle of denial has worked, and even today the President of the United States says it’s not true,” adds science historian Professor Naomi Oreskes.
However, Climate Change: The Facts radically reframes the nature of that ‘debate’. It specifically includes footage of Lord Lawson, an outspoken climate change sceptic. In 2017, the BBC was criticised and later sanctioned for not challenging Lord Lawson’s views during a BBC Radio 4 Today interview.
— Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox) August 10, 2017
Now, in 2019, a primetime BBC1 documentary is reporting on the “unequivocal” evidence of man-made climate change and the threats of global warming.
2. New sources of energy – and new global promises
Solar energy is now the cheapest form of newly installed electricity in more than 60 countries according to the documentary. With 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions coming from electricity and heat generation, finding renewable energy sources is a priority.
In the UK, around 30 per cent of our electricity comes from renewable sources, and according to Attenborough we are building some of the biggest offshore wind turbines in the world.
“The bigger the turbine, the more wind can be captured,” he explains. “Just one revolution of these blades can power a house for a day.”
The Paris Agreement meanwhile set a global political ambition to limit any further temperature rises to 2C – although president Donald Trump subsequently withdrew the USA from this landmark goal.
3. Anyone can inspire “transformative change”
“I truly believe that together we can bring about the transformative change that is needed,” Attenborough states.
From making homes more energy efficient to cutting back on meat and dairy consumption, the documentary outlines a number of ways that individuals can make changes in their lives to combat climate change.
However, the key message is not about what changes individuals can make on their own, but how by grouping together individuals can force widespread political change.
No one displays that more effectively than Swedish schoolgirl and climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who appears towards the end of the documentary.
The 16-year-old explains why she first decided to stage a school strike outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018, and how her actions inspired a global climate change movement.
“There’s a message for all of us in the voices of these young people,” Attenborough says. “It is after all their generation who will inherit this dangerous legacy. We now stand at a unique point in our planet’s history, one where we must all share responsibility, both for our present wellbeing and for the future of life on earth.”
Climate Change: The Facts with David Attenborough airs at 9pm on BBC1 on Thursday 18th April, and will be available to watch online via BBC iPlayer