Deal with climate change like you tackled ozone layer, David Attenborough tells leaders

Naturalist pleads for Cop26 action, on board a ship named after him

Sir David with the crew of the RSS Sir David Attenborough in London. AP Photo
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Sir David Attenborough has called on world leaders meeting for Cop26 to listen to the science and take action, as they did with the ozone layer in the 1980s.

The natural historian made the plea on board a polar research ship named after him.

Days before the UK hosts 197 countries for climate change talks at the Cop26 environment summit in Glasgow, he compared the speed with which world leaders responded to the damage to the ozone layer with the current pace of action.

Sir David said: “It was science in the Antarctic which warned the world of the hole in the ozone layer. That was 1985.

“The remarkable thing is it only took two years for the world to take notice of the warning that the hole was damaging our globe, for the nations of our world to take action. And that saved the world from major damage. It was two years later (than the warning) that agreement was reached in Montreal. We all know now of the magnitude of the dangers facing us in the immediate future.

“Would it not be marvellous to suppose that as a consequence of science’s discoveries that the nations of the world join together and actually did something at Cop? I hope and pray for nations getting together and listening to the science of what has to be done if the world is not to be overcome by catastrophe.”

Following evidence from British scientists that revealed the extent and damage of the hole in the ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol phased out the use of CFCs in only two years.

After making its London debut on Thursday, the RRS Sir David Attenborough will go on to make its first Antarctic mission later this year. Commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council, the new research platform is part of a major government polar infrastructure investment programme designed to keep Britain at the forefront of world-leading research in Antarctica and the Arctic.

The vessel, almost named “Boaty McBoatface” in an online public poll before ministers overruled it, is being used as a platform to address the climate crisis ahead of next week’s summit.

Speaking aboard the ship, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, echoed Sir David’s calls for “urgent, science-based action” by world leaders.

Referring to a maximum rise in temperatures above pre-industrial levels, he said: “The key message is that 1.5C is both important and achievable.

“We need collaboration internationally across science to make sure that we get science innovation across the world globally accessible, and we need to build capacity for research and development in those countries which need it in order to get to the solution.”

He said a good result from Cop26 would be a commitment to “active plans”.

“If you work back from 2050 and ask what you need to do you can’t rely on something coming along late in the day and saving us.

“It’s about utilising the technologies we have now, getting them in place as soon as we can at scale … and making sure we use both technology and natural actions and behavioural changes.

“But if we don’t do it now then we can’t make that goal, so it’s an urgent call for action with detailed plans.”

Sir Patrick said he now cycles to work, eats less meat and takes fewer flights.

“One of the messages that needs to come out is that there are little things we can do and those little things can aggregate across millions to make quite a big impact,” he said.

“ (It’s not about) abolishing those things but just reducing a little bit can make a difference.”

Following confirmation by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would not be attending, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been lowering expectations of what might be achieved at the global summit.

He admitted that Cop26 is “in the balance,” describing it as “both unbelievably important for our planet but also very difficult”.

Meanwhile, US climate envoy John Kerry has said Cop26 is the “chance to win a victory for the next century, for life on this planet”. He warned all big emitters must take action on climate change.

Speaking at the London School of Economics, Mr Kerry said there was “real, meaningful and growable” momentum among countries and businesses to power a shift to green economies.

But he warned there was still a gap between action pledged by countries in the next decade and the levels of emissions cuts needed to avoid dangerous warming.

Glasgow could be a new beginning to promote action on tackling climate change over the next “decisive” decade, he suggested.

Mr Kerry said all countries must work together. He said G20 countries — the world’s largest economies, which include China, the US and the UK, and account for 80 per cent of emissions — had a particular responsibility.

He criticised countries such as China for arguing they deserved “carbon space” because other nations had developed in the past when they had not, meaning they should be allowed to pollute more.

He warned: “Mother Nature only has one measure of how much emissions are in our atmosphere.

“She doesn’t measure whether it’s US, China, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, it’s just atmospheric.

“Every ounce matters, every tenth of a degree of temperature matters.”

Updated: October 29, 2021, 1:36 PM