Skip to content

Acting in the face of serious environmental changes

  • by JW

We must now look at the world through a new lens.” [David Attenborough, Planet Earth III]

“The more the environment becomes an election issue, the more there will be action on climate. Every time you vote – in every election – please tick the planet.” [Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives]


David Attenborough will be on our screens again as he reports on finding fossils along the Jurassic Coast

He was last on our screens at the weekend for the final instalment of Planet Earth III – which provoked the expected response from the usual detractors who nevertheless admitted they are in the minority.

The real messages are much bigger than this politicking.

David Attenborough himself is urging people to Become a Voice for Nature – inviting us all “to join him and speak up on behalf of planet Earth”.

And this has resonated.

For example, Durham University students feel the majestic footage is underscored by environmental shame – and that “the documentary is able to imbue in the audience a respect for adaptability, and in doing so, mobilise a growing awareness of our own inaction in the face of serious environmental changes”.

The Independent’s Gerard Gilbert felt the series showed us the closest David Attenborough has come to despair:

In the years since Planet Earth II, Attenborough has become increasingly vocal about the climate crisis and other eco-threats. And while the presenter still wants to remain more hopeful than alarmist, the new series is perhaps the nearest that the 97-year-old has come to throwing up his hands in despair. “Life is adaptable,” he said at the end of the opening episode. “But is there a limit to how fast it can do so?”

Whilst the Financial Times Rosa Lyster felt the BBC’s ‘Planet Earth’ used to be supremely soothing. Now it gives me nightmares:

The tone has since shifted from one of celebration to bleakest warning, where the only appropriate response seems to be unmixed dread. This is perhaps inevitable, given what is happening to the planet, but it is still worth pointing out that this tonal shift is also, to some degree, an editorial, stylistic decision. After Attenborough came under fire for saying that footage of climate destruction was a “turn-off” in 2018, the editors seem to have pivoted to the conclusion that scaring the daylights out of everyone is now the only way to effect some kind of change.

The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson reminds us, though, that David Attenborough creates yet more majestic TV – “but it will horrify you too”:

This is a whispered alarm, then, rather than a scream of despair, but there is a familiar structure lurking in the background, employed to similarly crushing effect on Wild Isles earlier this year. Attenborough and the team reel you in with the softer stuff, as they build towards the more brutal stories. “We must now look at the world through a new lens,” Attenborough says, at the beginning, seeding the idea that while a sea angel with a neon orange belly is beautiful to look at, we cannot then look away from the devastating effects of the climate crisis.

‘Often a great joy to watch’ … a mother and calf southern right whale in Planet Earth III. Photograph: BBC Studios

Not all the messages, then, are bleak.

Returning to David Attenborough’s Episode 8 Heroes:

Mohamed Nasheed is the ex-president of the Maldives. He attends every climate conference, trying to persuade fellow politicians and leaders to take action. We follow him to COP26 in Glasgow where he says, “If we cannot have a legally binding agreement, where countries agree not to push global temperatures above 1.5 degrees, my country will be gone, as will all the world’s coral reefs, and most of the rainforests.” As climate targets look more and more likely to be missed, Nasheed believes there is a solution. “The more the environment becomes an election issue, the more there will be action on climate. Every time you vote – in every election – please tick the planet.”