Veteran broadcaster warns 'really major problems' are imminent if world does not address climate change threat
Sir David Attenborough has issued a stark warning that the world must take serious action to address climate change if it is to avoid mass migration, food shortages, and social unrest in decades to come.
Appearing before MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee this morning, the veteran naturalist said we "cannot be radical enough" in taking action to curb emissions.
But political leaders must be aware of how far the public is willing to go in changing lifestyles in pursuit of lower emissions, he warned.
"We cannot be radical enough in dealing with this issue," he said. "The question is, what is practically possible? How can we take the electorate with us in dealing with these things, because it costs money in realistic terms. Dealing with these problems means we are going to have to change our lifestyles. Dealing with these problems is going to cost money. And so the question of 'how fast can we go' is how fast can we carry the electorate with us?"
Attenborough's appearance forms part of the BEIS Committee's ongoing inquiry into the government's policies on climate change and the low carbon transition.
The wide-ranging session focused on Attenborough's assessment of current public engagement on climate change, the ecological impact of warming, and the level of ambition from governments and businesses around the world.
He singled out youth climate activists for praise, adding that their concern for planet is a source of "great hope" for him. "I suspect that we are right now in the beginning of a big [social] change." he said. "Young people are the stimulus of that."
But some of his comments sparked anger among youth climate campaigners.
When asked whether he thought the UK's new target for net zero by mid-century represents the government doing its "fair share" to tackle global warming, Attenborough replied: "Yes, yes I do". "My only hope is that we don't backslide," he added. "It is a tough target. It's not an easy statement to have made, and it's going to cost money. That's the nub of it. It's not just piety - anyone can express pious views. It's actually a practical commitment, and I hope to goodness that we can achieve it and stick by it."
Writing on Twitter, youth campaigners immediately hit back, arguing the UK has a historical responsibility to pursue a more ambitious net zero target. "Net zero by 2050 is definitely not the UK 'doing it's fair share,'" said 16-year Irish climate activist Saoi O'Conner. "The UK has more to make up for than most. Disappointing to hear this from Sir David Attenborough."
"This is incredibly disappointing to hear from David Attenborough," added the Youth Strike for Climate campaign, which is run by the UK Student Climate Network. "Net-zero [by] 2050 is not doing our fair share. It ignores our massive historical responsibility for carbon emissions and leaves millions in the global south facing displacement and death."
Groups including Extinction Rebellion have argued for the much more ambitious net zero date of 2025. However, other green campaigners have counselled that meeting such as target would be unfeasible without major economic and social disruption.
Attenborough also used his appearance to warn the risks of inaction far outweigh those of investing too much, too quickly in emissions reduction efforts. If nothing is done society will face "major problems" in 20 or 30 years' time, he warned, which "are going to cause great social unrest and great changes in the way that we live".
He highlighted how mass migration of citizens from regions where climate change is expected to render landscapes uninhabitable will present a major challenge for governments around the world. "If global climate change goes on as it is we are going to be facing huge problems with immigration," he said. "Large parts of Africa will become even less habitable than they are now. There's going to major upsets in the balance between our national boundaries. And what President Trump is doing about Mexico, and what the rest of Europe is doing about people coming from Africa now - those kinds of problems are going to grow inexorably, and we are going to have to decide what we are going to do about it."
He also warned the world's rising population is burning through its food resources at unsustainable rates, pointing to the rapid decline in global fish stocks as an example. "It can't go on, and we are going to have to look for new sources of food," he predicted. "We really are, unless we do something about population."
"Someone said if you believe you can have infinite growth in a finite situation you are either an economist or a madman," he added.
Attenborough was speaking just a day after Fish Dependence Day, the point in the year when the European Union has used all its seafood resources and must rely entirely on imports for the rest of the year. This year's date fell an entire month earlier than in 2018.
But Attenborough stressed governments and businesses can take immediate action to avoid the worst impacts of climate change coming to pass. In particular, he stressed the need for investment in new energy generation and storage techniques. "I think we should be encouraging industry to invest in new techniques to deal with the generation of power," he said. "One of the paradoxes is that power is streaming down to the earth from the sun with no restriction on it at all. We can draw it directly with no problem, except to properly take advantage of that we have to make sure that we have got ways in which we can store power on a major scale, and ways in which we can transport power without a major loss of the product. If we can solve those problems we can solve the polluting problems of both airlines and motor cars."
He also appeared to back calls for carbon pricing as a means of restricting carbon-intensive behaviours such as flying. "I think that one way of reducing these things is to count the cost of what it is that air travel costs in real terms, in terms of the environment," he said. "And if you cost that you would see that the [current] tickets are extraordinarily cheap. I don't know how you would restrict [flights] other than economically."
His comments coincided with the launch today of a new campaign calling for a general carbon charge backed by Ovo Energy CEO Stephen Fitzpatrick, who has committed £1m to the cause. Separately, France's Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne today announced plans to introduce an eco-tax of up to €18 per ticket on all flights leaving France from 2020, to finance "daily transport" across the country.
Attenborough admitted to conflicted feelings over his own lifestyle. "I certainly worry that the job I do involves me travelling," he said. "I have travelled by air only too frequently in the last six months alone, in order to make programmes. Some of those programmes on the very subject we are talking about, which I dare say is a paradox."
Yet despite his concerns that society is neither moving fast enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions, nor is aware enough of the risks not doing so will pose, he concluded his evidence by stressing his commitment to tackling climate change. "I have no idea as to what the future holds", he said. "I see no future in being pessimistic, because that leads you to saying 'to hell with it, why should I care'. And I believe that way disaster lies. The only way I can operate is to get up in the morning and say 'something has got to be done and I will do my best to bring that about'."
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