Sir David Attenborough’s long career as a presenter of BBC natural-history programmes first began in 1953 with a three-part series called “Animal Patterns”.
In the seven decades since, he has fronted dozens of iconic series filmed and broadcast around the planet, helping to earn him the status as one of the world’s most respected and influential science communicators.
For example, the magnitude of Attenborough’s influence today is such that the UK government was moved to announce new plastic-recycling policies within days of the final episode of “Blue Planet II” airing late last year. This was in response to the public and media outrage at the scenes in the series showing turtles, whales, albatrosses and other marine species endangered by discarded plastic.
In 2005, a TV reviewer in the Times even described him as the “most trusted man in Britain”.
So, given his influence, what has Attenborough said about climate change? Despite presenting series about wildlife and the natural environment for many decades, Attenborough has only relatively recently discussed the issue.
Carbon Brief has trawled the archives and now located the key moment in 2004 which finally convinced him that his millions of viewers around the world deserved to be informed about the facts and consequences of a fast-warming climate.
Over the past decade or so, it has been rare that one of Attenborough’s series does not at least reference climate change. Similarly, in the many interviews he gives each year when publicising his latest programme, he is invariably asked for his views on the topic. His typical response is one of consternation and the need for urgent collective action by humans.
However, despite regularly expressing serious concern about the impacts and implications of climate change, Attenborough readily admits that it took him a long time to be fully convinced about the underlying science.
Writing in the Independent in 2005, he said:
“I was sceptical about climate change. I was cautious about crying wolf…But I’m no longer sceptical. Now I do not have any doubt at all. I think climate change is the major challenge facing the world. I have waited until the proof was conclusive that it was humanity changing the climate.
“The thing that really convinced me was the graphs connecting the increase of CO2 in the environment and the rise in temperature, with the growth of human population and industrialisation. The coincidence of the curves made it perfectly clear we have left the period of natural climatic oscillation behind and have begun on a steep curve, in terms of temperature rise, beyond anything in terms of increases that we have seen over many thousands of years.”
Attenborough has repeatedly cited a lecture he attended in 2004 as his epiphany on climate change.
Last month, the Sunday Times interviewer Bryan Appleyard wrote:
“Like the Queen, Attenborough must resist being too opinionated. For a while, this meant he was wary of taking sides in the climate-change argument until he was sure of the facts. About 15 years ago, a lecture by an American scientist, the late Ralph Cicerone, convinced him the evidence was beyond argument and his shows since then have often concluded with a nod to the certainty of global warming.”
In an interview with the Times in 2017 to publicise the Blue Planet II series, the interviewer Andrew Billen wrote:
“After years of pretty taciturn scepticism, Attenborough finally presented two BBC programmes on the subject, Are We Changing Planet Earth? and Can We Save Planet Earth?, in 2006. He dates his conversion – and he checks the date in his Filofax – to a lecture the American chemist Ralph Cicerone gave in Liège in Belgium on November 8, . It was important to speak out only when he knew he had the facts right. It can also be argued that when he did speak out, his warning had more impact as the considered judgment of a cautious man.”
[The year of the lecture was incorrect in the original Times article.]
Arguably, the fullest account of Cicerone’s influence came in December 2006 when Attenborough was giving evidence in the House of Commons to an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee hearing (pdf) on climate change and the “citizen’s agenda”. He was asked by the committee chair, Michael Jack MP, what led him to make the two programmes in 2006:
“One quite precise thing: in November 2004, I went to a lecture given by Prof Cicerone from the United States, who is an expert on atmospheric chemistry. He showed a series of graphs showing world temperature and, critically, population as well as ingredients within the atmosphere. The congruence of those things convinced me beyond any doubt whatever that not only was the climate changing, but that humanity was responsible for that. Until then, one knows that the climate has changed over geological history, and I was not totally sure that this was not just an aberration within the parameters of their ability, but Prof Cicerone’s graphs convinced me beyond any doubt at all.
“It is not my job, of course, to make judgments on these things, my job is to make programmes about wildlife. When the BBC was discussing this I, of course, said, ‘Yes, I believe absolutely so that this is the case and if you want me to go and investigate and talk to people, I will gladly do so.’ The only inhibition I had was that people might think I was setting myself up as an expert on climate technology and climate science, which I am not. Therefore, the programmes were very much an investigation from people such as Dave Reay [Dr Dave Reayof the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences, who was also giving evidence that day], for example, who appeared in one of them and other people to talk about climate and the reality that really is taking place and, secondly, what we can do about it.”
The two programmes in question were the centrepiece of a fortnight of BBC programming dedicated to climate change, which ran from 24 May to 4 June 2006. These two weeks were billed as the “Climate Chaos Series”.
An archive of the schedule still exists online. It includes a listing for the first programme, “Are We Changing Planet Earth?”, which aired during primetime on 24 May at 9pm at BBC One:
“David Attenborough draws on his life-long insights into our planet and presents his personal take on climate change.”
A BBC News article published on the day of the first programme said:
“It is the first time Sir David has voiced his concerns in public about the impacts of global warming…Sir David, whose natural history programmes have been watched by millions of people around the world, is the latest high-profile figure to say the world is facing a climate crisis.”
The only video clip from the programme that still exists online is this key section (repackaged for the US market) in which Prof Peter Cox – then at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and today at the University of Exeter – uses the floor of the turbine hall at Tate Modern in London to illustrate how climate models show that “recent warming is due to human beings”…
(A Carbon Brief article published last year also explained this.)
The second programme, “Can We Save Planet Earth?”, aired eight days later. A full-length copy is still online…
Both programmes were made with the help of the Open University, which produced a free leaflet to accompany the Climate Chaos series. The university also presented “Climate Chaos Night” on BBC4 after the first Attenborough show aired, which included a programme called “Climate Conspiracies”. It was presented by Prof Iain Stewart “who sets out to discover where to find truthful, accurate and impartial information about global warming”.
“I was brought up as a public-service broadcaster and I joined the BBC when there was no other television. And the BBC ethos at that time was quite clear: we were not propagandists, we didn’t grind axes. We were trying to be as objective as we possibly could and be as responsible as we possibly could for the veracity of what we were putting out. And that’s still in the marrow of my bones: I believe that is what the BBC ought to be doing and what public-service broadcasting ought to be doing.
“And, so, when you’re faced with an issue like – as it was 20 years ago – the rise of temperature or, indeed, the loss of rainforest, or whatever, what you wish to do is to get somebody into your programme who’s properly engaged in that sort of thing, knowledgeable about it and taking a view. And, if you thought it was problematic or not absolutely justified, then you would actually introduce another voice to try and criticise it, or tease out the truth and represent whatever variety of opinions there were.
“And, so, I didn’t publically go out about climate change – I went public about that we were losing certain species of animals, yes, of course, because you could demonstrate that was the case, and we did – but the issue about climate change was [that] perfectly responsible people were doubting that it was true. So, if you dealt with it, you had to put both voices. Now, if I was in charge of a network or in charge of a programme, it would be irresponsible of me to prejudge that issue while it was controversial.
“In my private capacity, of course, you did something else because you were involved in all kinds of other charitable organisations, or whatever, or indeed academic organisations which took different views. That was proper, too. But the issue of the reality that the temperatures of the world have risen over the past 100 years has been demonstrated beyond question. And, so, it was right and proper that one should assume that and say so. But, of course, there’s a grey area in the middle about what time do you change from being controversial to accepted fact? And that’s up to your own conscience.”
Attenborough, in effect, chose to stay silent – in public, at least – about climate change until those two programmes he presented in mid-2006.
They were quickly followed in early 2007 with a one-off programme called, “Climate Change: Britain Under Threat”, which aired at 8pm on Sunday, 21 January, on BBC One.
In the final scene, Attenborough concluded by saying:
“Climate change is surely the single biggest issue the human race now faces…We now have the facts…For all of us, it’s truly now the time to act.”
It is still available to view on YouTube. (The original press release also has more details about its production.)
In his 2011 series “Frozen Planet”, Attenborough once again raised the issue of climate change…
However, Carbon Brief could not locate an archived online copy or video of Prof Ralph Cicerone’s pivotal lecture in 2004, which Attenborough still cites as his climate change epiphany.
Prof Ralph Cicerone
Cicerone’s lecture was given on 8 November 2004 at the University of Liège’s Amphithéâtres de l’Europe in Belgium. He was visiting the university to receive the annual Albert Einstein “World Award of Science” from the World Cultural Council. At the same ceremony, Attenborough received the José Vasconcelos “World Award of Education”.
Cicerone, who died in November 2016, was a world-leading atmospheric scientist who, at the time of the 2004 lecture, was the chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, who had recently been nominated to be president of the US National Academy of Science (NAS), a role he went on to fill from 2005-2016.
In 2016 when he died, NAS published a statement which summarised his legacy on climate change:
“Cicerone is an atmospheric scientist whose research in atmospheric chemistry, climate, and energy has placed him at the forefront in shaping science and environmental policy, both nationally and internationally. In 2001, he led a key National Academy of Sciences study about climate change requested by President George W Bush. Ten years later, the Academies produced America’s Climate Choices, a comprehensive set of reports that called for action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions while identifying strategies to help the nation and world adapt to a changing climate. Under Cicerone’s guidance, the NAS and the Royal Society — the science academy of the UK — teamed up in 2014 to produce Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, a readable publication written for policymakers, educators, and members of the public.”
In his formal response when receiving the 2004 award, Cicerone cautioned: “Today, the global atmosphere is changing under human influence.” However, this is not the lecture Attenborough refers to.
Have you read?
The University of California, Irvine holds Cicerone’s archive and it has confirmed to Carbon Brief that, while a copy or recording does not exist in his files, he did give a seperate lecture on climate change at that event. A university spokesperson adds:
“He rarely wrote out scientific talks and instead used a few notes and the slides and spoke extemporaneously.”
Additionally, Cicerone’s wife, Carol, tells Carbon Brief:
“Because of the seating arrangements for awardees, Ralph and I were seated next to Sir David Attenborough, so when Ralph was on stage to speak, I could easily observe the impact Ralph’s talk was making. Sir David was clearly moved by Ralph’s talk and came up to him to comment, ‘Brilliant!’”
Carbon Brief also asked the World Cultural Council to search its own archives for a copy of the lecture. It could not find the original, but it did find a Microsoft Word file that Cicerone emailed to it a few months later when it asked him for a copy for its own records.
The file shows that Cicerone had since slightly adapted the lecture into notes he would read out when giving evidence to a US Senate hearing on 21 July 2005, which was investigating “climate change science and economics”.
It includes this NASA GISS chart showing the rise in the global temperature anomaly between 1880 and 2003. This is the chart that Attenborough would have seen.
And amid all of Cicerone’s considered, nuanced explaining, Attenborough would also have heard him say:
“Burning fossil fuel for energy, industrial processes and transportation releases CO2 to the atmosphere. CO2 in the atmosphere is now at its highest level in 400,000 years and continues to rise. Nearly all climate scientists today believe that much of Earth’s current warming has been caused by increases in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels.”
Within months of hearing Cicerone’s lecture, Attenborough entered into discussions with the BBC to start making a series of programmes dedicated to climate change.
Postscript: The huge public appetite for Attenborough’s opinions was observed first-hand during the researching of this article when Carbon Brief’s editor tweeted a screenshot from Attenborough’s 2007 programme, “Climate Change: Britain Under Threat”…
The tweet was retweeted by the likes of Gary Lineker, Stephen Fry, Derren Brown and Sir Nick Faldo. It has since between retweeted more than 23,000 times. According to Twitter’s analytics, it has been seen more than five million times.