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30 January 2019

Attenborough: “Marvellous ideals make the pulse quicken in this age of squabbling”

While politicians debate Brexit, the presenter warns of melting ice.

By India Bourke

While divides over Brexit raged in the Commons last night, Sir David Attenborough called for a more collaborative approach to the world’s problems.

The 92-year-old seemed weary of current politics as he addressed the annual reception for the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

Unlike members of the Animal Kingdom, politicians should be able to cooperate in a logical way, the presenter told reporters. “[Creatures] don’t have logical discussions – which is what one hopes that politicians do.”

Particularly frustrating were the shortcomings of Donald Trump: “I am sorry that the President of the most powerful country in the world hasn’t got a greater grasp, or a better perspective on the world,” he said in response to Trump’s recent tweet calling for global warming to “come back” and offset the cold weather.

Instead of “squabbling,” therefore, Attenborough stressed the need for nations to come together to tackle the climate crisis. “The political dimensions of climate change have to be reckoned with,” he said, “and unfortunately the world has to get together if they’re going to do things.”

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If governments fail to do so, the consequences could be dire, Attenborough warned.

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But he was also defiant in the face of prevailing gloom. His hair the colour of Antarctic ice, he beamed as he recounted the efforts of British explorers like Robert Scott, Edward Bransfield and Ernest Shackleton. And when interrupted by interference on the microphone, he looked down cheerily to the ground as if it was shaking, and exclaimed “Seismic!”

The presenter’s speech focused on the “remarkable story” of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, in which countries agreed to work together on the continent in the interests of peace and science. The Treaty celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and Attenborough argued that it is a useful model for the wider world.

“Nations [and] scientists got together and said we need to know about the physical characteristics of this vast landmass,” he said. “Living down here, researching down here is quite hard enough for us to spend time in squabbling.”

Science has given a “rather better example than many a politician” of how to collaborate on a global scale, he added. “I don’t wish to paint scientists as saints, they too have their feuds and their quarrels and their arguments. But what is happening in the Antarctic is a very admirable example of how intelligent people can get together and sort out problems.”

Yet with regard to leaving the EU, Attenborough also had words of warning: “Whether we are in Europe or out of Europe, I hope that we will have policies that will take account of what is happening. And that we will do sensible things – whether that’s with plastics, or whether it’s with rising temperatures – to behave in a way that pays regard to our obligation to future generations.”

Professor Dame Jane Francis, Director of the British Antarctic Survey, echoed these concerns. In her speech at the reception, she said there was an urgent need to understand how the Antarctic ice-sheet is moving and what will happen if it melts.

Scientists are already making great progress towards this goal, she explained, by extracting ice-cores to measure ancient levels of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, and by drilling down under the ice sheet. She even described the “International Thwaites Glacier Project” as scientific “collaboration at its best.”

However, Francis later told the New Statesman that British contributions to Antarctic science could be threatened by Brexit. Some projects in the past have been funded the EU, and it would “be disappointing not to be able to be part of some of those projects again.”

“At the moment we are in a bit of a hiatus where we don’t quite know where the future is going,” she added.

For now therefore, national icons like Attenborough are left having to look to the past for examples of the “marvellous ideals” – of collaboration and exploration – which “make the pulse quicken in this age of squabbling we’ve got on today.”