by Robert Hunziker
Sir David Attenborough (b. 1926) has been the face and the voice of natural history for 60 years. Some of his public television specials include: Life in Cold Blood (2008), Life on Earth (1979), The Private Life of Plants (1995), The life of Mammals (2002), and Planet Earth (2006).
As well, he is more than just the face and the voice of nature because he travels to the locations and endures the rigors of climbing up to the top of the canopy of the Rain Forest and diving to the depths of the sea beds to bring life on Earth, in full living color, into the living rooms of the world via public television. And, he has done this for 60 remarkable years.
Now, Sir David Attenborough and the BBC have produced what may be considered the culmination of his work: Are We Changing Planet Earth?
It’s a fair statement that nobody on Earth has the perspective, the insight, or the comprehension of the planet, as does Attenborough. And, it is doubtful that any human has traveled the four corners of the planet, like him. Indeed, Sir David Attenborough is one of the most widely admired people in the world.
His travels in “Are We Changing Planet Earth?” are somewhat modeled on a series he filmed in 1979 called “Life on Earth,” where he personally visits the most remote, most intriguing, most dangerous, and most significant corners of the planet.
Now, in this new project, he revisits some of those same 1979 locations to record how planet Earth is faring. Lamentably, the four corners of the Earth have deteriorated considerably over the past few decades, likely prompting his evocative title: Are We Changing Planet Earth?
Are we Changing Planet Earth?
“Yes,” according to Sir David Attenborough: “Now, it seems our planet is being transformed, not by natural events, but by the actions of one species, mankind.”
Sir Attenborough’s 60-year worldview draws conclusions based upon observation: “In every part of the world, new climatic extremes are now being recorded… our weather is in turmoil.”
Global Warming Perspective
He queries how it is possible that seemingly small temperature changes of one or two degree C, which seems so small, so inconsequential, cause so much havoc. The answer, in part, is found in ‘averaging’ because the reported average of global warming, approximately 1.5 C over the past 100 years (previously it took 5,000 years), is only an average for the world. And, averages do not represent variations in specific regions, for example, in the Arctic.
In the Arctic the temperature has increased three degrees, or much faster than the average for the planet. “The Arctic is now melting so fast that the whole web of wildlife is threatened… The ice is already melting three weeks earlier each year.”
Attenborough’s story reveals the remarkable temperature sensitivities of the planet with seemingly small changes prompting big, radical climatic changes. As it happens, small numbers have huge climatic outcomes, and Sir Attenborough’s film details how these seemingly small temperature changes produce outsized results, as follows:
“…160,000 years ago NYC, if it existed, would have been on the edge of an ice pack two kilometers [1.24 miles] high and yet global temperatures were only 4 degrees cooler than they are today…
…30,000 years later, NYC would have been in 5 meters [16 feet] of water, yet global temperatures were less than 2 degrees warmer than they are now…
…Natural forces drove this seesawing of the earth’s climate long before mankind appeared.”
Today, NYC is only 2 degrees away from 16 feet of water.
Only a two-degree and a four-degree change in temperature from today result in an entirely different planet.
- Two degrees warmer and the NYC is in 16 feet of water
- Four degrees cooler and NYC is part of a glacier 1.24 miles thick.
Indeed, the sensitivities to temperature change of Planet Earth are bewildering. It is big, very big, with great distances from continent to continent, Yet, the planet seemingly turns into a malleable toy sphere when only a small 2 degree or 4 degree change transforms its entirety from ice to water or vice versa. Such small temperature changes with such gargantuan outcomes bespeak of a susceptibility that belies its true size. Enigmatically, the planet is extraordinarily vulnerable, yet remarkably substantial.
Astronauts, stricken by Earth’s beauty from afar, still recognize its fragility:
“That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man,” James B. Irwin, Apollo Astronaut.
“Oddly enough the overriding sensation I got looking at the earth was, my god that little thing is so fragile out there,” Mike Collins, Apollo 11 Astronaut.
“For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light— our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance,” Ulf Merbold, ESA Astronaut.
According to any and all observations, as explained in Attenborough’s film, humans are the driving force of climate change today, and as a result, geologic time is compressing in accordance to human time, as the burning of fossil fuels, causing excessive CO2, blanketing the earth, artificially turns the hands of Father Time ahead, artificially too rapidly for nature to catch up and properly adjust.
As such, this maladjustment of geologic time is already registering throughout the planet whether it is the Arctic’s loss of 50% of its ice mass within a geological whisk of only three decades or the Pine Beetle’s relentless northward migration, munching away on forests previously foreign to its tastes, climate change touches every corner of the planet, including the Amazon, where, according to Professor Peter Cox, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, part of the Natural Environment Research Council/UK (interviewed by Attenborough): “We believe that… by the middle of the century, if CO2 keeps going up, the forests could actually start to die from climate change which would be absolutely catastrophic.”
After all, the Rain Forests are the “lungs of the planet.”
In the film, Attenborough meets top scientists to discuss the outlook for the current century. The predictions are 1.4-to-5.8 C increase in temps. As such, Attenborough laments: “The impact of global warming will be somewhere between severe and catastrophic.”
What can be done?
According to Attenborough, whilst standing in front of a large wind turbine, “we still have time.” There are ways to minimize the climate’s changes if “we all chose to adopt them.”
But, and this is a very, very big but, “the next few years will be crucial.”
Conclusion by Sir David Attenborough:
“In the past we didn’t understand the effects of our actions. Unknowingly, we sowed the wind. Now, literally, we are reaping the whirlwind. But, we no longer have that excuse. Now, we do recognize the consequences of our behavior. Now, surely we must act to reform it, individually and collectively, nationally and internationally, before we doom future generations to catastrophe.”
Objectively, the relationship between human-caused CO2 by burning fossil fuels and rising temperature levels has been scientifically settled for 27 years. Ice core from Antarctica in 1987 revealed the close link between CO2 levels and rising temperatures, going back more than 100,000 years.
The science is settled; a 100,000-year link is enough.
Sir David Attenborough’s spectacular film is a sobering revelation of how definitively humans have altered the planet by burning oil, gas, and coal for energy, costly to the planet, yet extremely cheap to industry, way, way too cheap when the final costs for livelihood on the planet are calculated!
Ever since the discovery of readily available energy, humankind has been on an industrial binge, creating riches for a few but heartaches for the many, on the back of Mother Earth’s storehouse of fossil fuels, resulting from eons of turbulence, mostly the result of five major extinction events. Ironically, extinctions past make industrialization possible today.
Sadly, the crucial issue of global warming is beyond most people, more than they can handle, feeling helpless with elevated degrees of hopelessness. This may be why climate change/global warming has never reached a crescendo in pubic opinion. People are overwhelmed by the thought of it; therefore, it is easier, more comforting, to ignore, and worst of all, when people do study the subject, really, truly study the subject, it becomes nightmarish.
Nevertheless, there is still time to do something constructive, withal nightmares.
Through it all, Attenborough’s many journeys allow us to enjoy breathtaking splendor, both large and small: “Dwarfed by the vast expanse of the open ocean, the biggest animal that has ever lived on our planet, a blue whale, 30m long and weighing over 200 tonnes. It’s far bigger than even the biggest dinosaur. Its tongue weighs as much as an elephant, its heart is the size of a car and some of its blood vessels are so wide you could swim down them. Its tail alone is the width of a small aircraft’s wings. Its streamlining, close to perfection, enables it to cruise at 20 knots. It’s one of the fastest animals in the sea. The ocean’s largest inhabitant feeds almost exclusively on one of the smallest krill, a crustacean just a few centimetres long. Gathered in a shoal, krill stain the sea red. A single blue whale in a day can consume 40 million of them. Despite the enormous size of blue whales we know very little about them. Their migration routes are still a mystery and we have no idea where they go to breed. They are a dramatic reminder of how much we still have to learn about the ocean and the creatures that live there,” Sir David Attenborough.
Postscript: “I don’t think we are going to become extinct. We’re very clever and extremely resourceful – and we will find ways of preserving ourselves, of that I’m sure. But whether our lives will be as rich as they are now is another question,” Sir David Attenborough, English broadcaster and naturalist.