An eloquent witness to Earth’s changing climate

By Michele S. Byers

In his 94 years, British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough has explored every part of the Earth, from polar ice caps to equatorial rain forests to African savannas.

His acclaimed television series, including “Life on Earth” and “The Blue Planet,” brought exotic animal species into millions of homes, sparking a sense of wonder and discovery.

But in his lifetime, Attenborough has seen immense changes to the Earth’s landscape and climate patterns. The world’s population has tripled, nearly half of its wilderness has been lost, and the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has risen by 50%. Thousands of wildlife species are now declining or extinct, as air and ocean temperatures rise.

If current trends continue, he says, large parts of the Earth will become uninhabitable in the next 80 years, wildlife will undergo a mass extinction, and our civilization’s survival will be threatened.

Attenborough’s newly released film, “A Life on Our Planet” (available on Netflix), is his attempt to change the trajectory of human impact on Earth before it is too late.

“This film is my witness statement and my vision,” says Attenborough, speaking directly to the camera, his bright blue eyes clouding with grief at scenes of denuded rain forests, melting ice sheets and bleached ocean coral.

For 100,000 years, he said, the Earth was a “Garden of Eden” with an average temperature that did not vary by more than a degree. But the last 200 years of human domination have disrupted its gentle, reliable rhythms.

Instead of living in harmony with nature, he said, humans are burning fossil fuels that release carbon into the atmosphere, destroying forests that support wildlife and absorb carbon, and in the process are raising the Earth’s temperature.

However, Attenborough finds hope in many places.

One such place is Costa Rica, which in the 1980s was down to only 25% forest cover as a result of uncontrolled logging. But following a concentrated effort to restore forests and habitats, Costa Rica is now 50% forested and is renowned as an ecotourism destination.

Another place is the Pacific island nation of Palau, which instituted vast no-fishing zones to prevent fish species from being wiped out by commercial harvests.

With sufficient no-fish zones, Attenborough believes, species can rebound in great enough numbers to be a plentiful food source in those places where fishing is allowed.

Yet another place is the small, densely populated country of Holland. The Dutch, he said, have become masters at high-tech farming and are producing more food on less land – thus proving the worldwide “land grab” to clear forests for agriculture can be reversed.

One unusual place where Attenborough sees hope is Chernobyl, Ukraine, the site of a nuclear power plant explosion in April 1986.

With high levels of radiation, the city of 50,000 was immediately evacuated and abandoned. With no human activity over the past 35 years, the land has been reclaimed by forest and wildlife is now abundant.

“If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us,” said Attenborough. “We have to move from being apart from nature to being a part of nature once again.”

Attenborough has an optimistic vision of how humankind can rescue the planet – and civilization – during the next 100 years:

• Switch to renewable energy. As Attenborough points out, “the living world is essentially solar powered.”

Humans must phase out fossil fuels in favor of renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal. When this happens, energy will be more affordable, cities will be cleaner and quieter, and the power will never run out.

• Plant new forests. “They are the best technology nature has for locking away carbon,” he says. “The wilder and more diverse forests are, the better they are at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.”

• Protect the oceans. The oceans and their phytoplankton are another powerful ally in the battle to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. And the healthier and more diverse the ocean life, the more sustainable it will be as a food source.

• Reduce population growth. Every species has a maximum population that can be sustained and Attenborough believes humans are hitting their limit.

The good news is the number of children being born worldwide each year is leveling off and some countries like Japan have stabilized their population.

• Change our diets. If enough people switch their diet to mostly plant-based foods, which use far less land than meat production, more land can be replanted with trees to absorb carbon and provide habitat for wildlife.

This is not just about saving our planet, it’s about saving ourselves, emphasizes Attenborough, who said, “With or without us, the natural world will rebuild.”

“A Life on Our Planet” is a magnificent addition to Attenborough’s opus, clearly explaining the threats to Earth’s inhabitants and offering a clear pathway to a sustainable future.

Attenborough notes that humans are the smartest creatures that ever lived on Earth and the only species that is able to envision the future. Let’s take this wise elder’s advice and act now for the benefit of the planet and all its species.

To see trailers for “A Life on Our Planet,” go to https://www.ourplanet.com/en/video/david-attenborough-a-life-on-our-planet-trailer/

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hill. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org