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Sunday, 16 June 2024
Greta and David: climate changers across generations
Ian Black
Over the last week, much of the world’s media has focused on COP26 in Glasgow, the conference convened in order to tackle the escalating global climate crisis which threatens the world’s future. And two individuals have done more than anyone else to focus attention on the increasingly urgent issues involved.

In a way they could not be more different – certainly in terms of age. One of them is 95 years old, born in 1926. The other is just 18 and was born in 2003 – 77 years later. The older one is David Attenborough, the veteran British broadcaster and naturalist. The younger one is Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist. Together they are two of the best known environmental campaigners on the planet.

It was Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, who kicked off the COP26 climate summit, but he invoked the amazingly confident Thunberg with a warning that the world cannot continue to talk tough while doing nothing. “Blah blah blah,” Johnson quoted her as saying, adding: “It’s one minute to midnight on that Doomsday clock and we need to act now.”

Arguably, Thunberg may be more influential as she represents a generation (Z) which has become rapidly more aware of climate change and the danger of global warming. But Attenborough symbolizes the fact that older people have become increasingly conscious of the risks and has contributed significantly to that new understanding. He was described as having “stolen the show” as the summit got under way.
Thunberg, who began her stellar career outside the parliament in Stockholm in 2018 aged 15 in response to the hottest summer since records began, said her own movement "would never have become so big if there wasn't friction". She said it was "possible in theory" to reach an agreement in Glasgow to keep global warming below 1.5C, which scientists predict will avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Attenborough and Thunberg already know each other. The broadcaster produced a three-part BBC series in which he followed her around the world for a year. Viewers saw trips to glaciers melting faster than feared, investigations of pilot carbon capture projects and attempts to engage with Polish miners who see environmentalism as a threat to their livelihoods. It is packed with inspirational speeches and appeals to take action.

But the filmmaker has the perspective – and sense of proportion – that Thunberg lacks. Attenborough’s compelling documentary A Life on Our Planet (available on Netflix), shows how the world has changed in his lengthy lifetime. He has previously addressed the G7 summit and the UN Security Council.

In Glasgow, Attenborough made a moving speech: “Everything we’ve achieved in the last 10,000 years was enabled by the stability during this time,” he said. “The global temperature has not wavered over this period by more than plus or minus one degree Celsius, until now. Our burning of fossil fuels, our destruction of nature, our approach to industry, construction and learning, are releasing carbon into the atmosphere at an unprecedented pace and scale.”

Commentators praised him to the skies: “Attenborough laid his heart on the line. When he says the world is in a doomsday scenario, then you believe him,” wrote John Crace in the Guardian. “He is a man who has devoted his life to saving the natural world. Not an apparatchik who has been to countless previous climate change conferences where he has learned to hedge his bets and make the vaguest of promises he is fairly certain he has no chance of keeping.”

It is too early to judge the outcome of this landmark event. John Kerry, the US climate envoy under President Joe Biden, made clear he was feeling more hopeful in the wake of three agreements: to reduce methane gas emissions; to end deforestation by 2030 and reduce the use of coal in 40 countries, albeit with significant omissions.

Even if COP26 fails to reach agreements, Thunberg said early on: "There is not a point where everything is lost. We can always prevent things from getting worse. It's never too late to do as much as we can." But later she was more pessimistic, telling a cheering crowd that “blah blah blah wasn’t enough to save our planet.” Grunberg also accused COP26 attendees of “greenwashing.”
Attenborough said in a BBC interview shortly before COP26: "There are still people in North America, there are still people in Australia who say 'no, no, no, no, of course it's very unfortunate that there was that forest fire that absolutely demolished, incinerated that village, but it's a one-off'. Particularly if it's going to cost money in the short term, the temptation is to deny the problem and pretend it's not there. But every month that passes, it becomes more and more incontrovertible, the changes to the planet that we are responsible for that are having these devastating effects.”

The world is of course already experiencing the dangers of climate change. But if Greta lives to be as old as David, she will witness the effects of the decisions world leaders are about to make: a relatively stable climate or a full-blown global catastrophe.