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Naturally speaking

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Sir David Attenborough, Britain’s greatest living naturalist, talks about returning to the Great Barrier Reef, the risks posed by climate change, and the food in Venice 

To generations, Sir David Attenborough is the face and voice of the natural world. His pioneering natural history films for the BBC, which he started making in 1952, have made him one of the most recognisable and renowned naturalists on the planet. 

Sir David is globally synonymous with the natural world and conservation, so much so that Barack Obama invited him to the White House last year for a frank discussion on climate change and global warming. Sir David says the experience was “hugely satisfying”. 

“To get a call asking would you not only like to come to the White House but to meet the President? And be interviewed by the President! My word!” he laughs. “I found him to be a sincere leader, genuinely concerned with the effects of climate change, as he explained, he grew up fascinated by the natural world.”

Approaching his 90th birthday, Sir David has no desires to slow down and take things easy. He has most recently been seen presenting his new series, Great Barrier Reef, for the BBC. The series allowed Sir David to return to what he says is his “favourite place on the planet”, almost 60 years after his first visit. 

“It was the first place I was lucky enough to scuba dive, having just briefly learned how to use an aqua lung in Plymouth and I was, entering those waters, confronted by magic and enchantment.

“The colours, the species, the communities of vibrant life – it was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was 1957 and I was astounded by remarkable beauty and life. [This time] we secured the opportunity to explore the reef some 1,000 feet down, the deepest a submersible has ever descended, so that was terribly exciting.”

“Climate change is having a drastic effect on the planet” 

Sir David is outspoken about climate change and its disastrous effects on the natural world. Changes in sea temperature and acidity have had an undeniable impact Great Barrier Reef, he says. 

“If it continues on like that for the next decade or so, the coral won’t be able to tolerate it. They’re incapable of living in these higher temperatures and the acidity will be such that they won’t be able to form coral limestone anymore. 

“It’s also the effects of population on the region. There are many more people living in Queensland than there were 60 years ago so the that has led to a huge increase in effluence and waste entering the waters which is causing a vast number of problems.”

Sir David says the fragile eco-system of the Great Barrier Reef is in mortal danger – a rise in sea temperature of just two degrees means “most life there will fail to survive”. 

“Climate change is having a drastic effect on the planet as a whole but the effects on the reef are catastrophic,” he says.

Sir David has never been one to skirt politely around the subject of climate change. We as a nation, he says, are entirely to blame. 

“You fly over Indonesian rainforests, burning and clearing for the production of palm oil,” he states, “and hear so many ‘tuts’ and ‘isn’t that just awful.’ But we’re to be held accountable. Palm oil is in so many of the products we eat here in Britain, we can’t do without it. It’s easy enough to say ‘yah boo’ to the Indonesians but we’re buying into it, it’s down to us.”

Part of the problem, he believes, is that governments are too short term in their thinking when it comes to tacking the challenges raised by climate change. And in any case, the necessary policies are not a vote winner. 

“We’re not doing enough and it’s a very difficult thing to do. If you’ve got a five year mandate when you’re elected, you naturally want to do things that get you back into power. You want to say to the electorate, ‘this is want you wanted, so here it is; we did it.’ It’s quite hard to say, ‘there you are, we’ve taxed you for something that your grandchildren will be grateful for.’ That’s tricky.” 

“It’s a global issue that needs to be challenged head-on” 

Sir David was at the recent COP21 climate change talks in Paris, which he says were “a step in the right direction” although the resulting pledges “didn’t go half as far as I would have liked”. 

While he says it is “difficult” to be optimistic, there is some hope for the future: “Children right now, they are being exposed to the dangers of climate change and they are not overawed. They will have grown up with this and understand it’s a global issue that needs to be challenged head-on.” 

If there’s another reason to hope that it might not be too late to turn back the tide, it’s the coming renewable energy revolution. Recent advances in solar and other technologies are on the cusp of making renewable energy as cheap and efficient – if not cheaper – than coal. 

“If we adopt the appropriate research policies, we will be able to produce energy that is much cheaper than fossil fuels, than coal. There is your success there, alternative resources and cheaper substitutes. 

“Developing countries can’t concern themselves with atmospheric change when there are so many other issues at stake. It’s seen as high-minded but if these fuels are cheaper, they will want them.” 

Recent years have seen Sir David become almost the UK’s figurehead in the fight against climate change – something he’s not entirely comfortable with. 

“It’s an embarrassment in a sense,” he laughs. “I’m on the television talking about it [and] I have a view, but it’s a second-hand view. I haven’t done the chemistry. I am a sufficiently educated scientist, I’m able to look at those papers and say they are scientifically respectful. I’m equipped to deal with the generalities.” 

But he’s unequivocal on the causes of climate change. “The facts are indisputable,” he says. “Of course, we are completely to blame. The population has increased astonishingly in the last 50 years. It would be foolish to think there was no impact on the climate. Anybody can see that.” 

“I wouldn’t mind going back to Venice. The food’s not bad!”

In late 2014, David’s brother, film director Richard Attenborough, passed away having suffered from senile dementia for several years. Of his death, Sir David says: “People die. Your parents die. It’s obviously a profound emotional experience but you can’t say it’s unexpected. And Richard effectively died six years ago when he fell down the stairs and damaged his brain – he was never the same again. Technically he died. I got another few years with him, but he disappeared from my life in every sense, a long time ago.” 

Sir David turns 90 this year and is in remarkable shape, which he says is “just luck, entirely luck”. 

“That various bits of my body work – it’s not because I take exercise or eat any peculiar diet, or anything. I’ve lived a perfectly normal way, and yet here I am and still moving about. I’ve got two new knees and hearing aids, so yes, I’m mechanised to some degree,” he laughs. “But that’s all. And I’m fantastically lucky.” 

Having been around the planet more times than most people could ever imagine – and having given millions of people over many decades the privilege of accompanying him via his films – Sir David says he has few, if any, ambitions left. 

“Home is where I spend my time, if I get the opportunity. I’m very happy to travel and do things, but to travel without a purpose is not something I would do. I don’t like travel for its own sake. I like what you find as a consequence of travel. As you get older, you know, one knows what Venice is like. Though I wouldn’t mind going back there, the food’s not bad!” 

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Retiresavvy is brought to you by Skipton Building Society. The interview in this article was supplied by InterviewHub. This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own. Image credit - BBC

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