The Evolution of Our Climate as Described by David Attenborough

Liisi Ruuse
June 22, 2022

The immense beauty of nature and its ability to sustain life is increasingly diminishing. After 10,000 years of stability, we've only recently entered the era of disrupted balance caused by extensive land-use change and the (over)exploitation of natural resources. From 1937 to 2020, the natural wilderness has decreased from 66% to 35%, making way for population growth from 2.3 billion to 7.8 billion. This leads to an extreme concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere– 415 parts per million, which is already considered a danger zone by scientists.

To expand on this topic in a simple, yet powerful manner, we introduce you to David Attenborough – a British biologist, natural historian, and narrator of many beloved documentaries on climate, nature, and wildlife. Throughout his long career, Attenborough has visited every continent, exploring the entire planet and documenting the living world in all its variety and wonder. Sadly, during his 93 years, he has also seen and experienced the threatening scale of humanity's impact on nature first-hand. 

Attenborough might as well be the best-informed person to address the biggest challenges facing life on our planet– and this is exactly what he does in his documentary “A Life on Our Planet”, which he calls his “witness statement” for the environment.  

This article is a tribute to the immensely crucial messages Attenborough shares through his life's work. While it's worth watching the whole 1h 23min documentary filled with beautiful scenery and emotion, you can take a look at this 8-minute summary of the evolution of our climate: what went wrong and what to do about it.

David Attenborough – Image by Conor McDonnell / WWF-UK

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1937
World population: 2.3 BILLION
Carbon in the atmosphere: 280 PARTS PER MILLION
Remaining wilderness: 66%

The era of climate stability lasted for 10,000 years.

​​For as long as 10,000 years, the average temperature has not wavered up or down by more than one degree Celsius. The rich and thriving living world around us has been key to this stability. Phytoplankton at the ocean’s surface and immense forests straddling the north have helped balance the atmosphere by locking away carbon. Huge herds on the plains have kept the grasslands rich and productive by fertilizing the soils. Mangroves and coral reefs along thousands of miles of coastline have harbored nurseries of fish species that, when matured, range into open waters. A thick belt of jungles around the equator has piled plant upon plant to capture as much of the sun’s energy as possible, adding moisture and oxygen to the global air currents. The extent of the polar ice has been critical, reflecting sunlight back off its white surface, cooling the Earth. This era's biodiversity helped bring stability, and the entire living world settled into a gentle, reliable rhythm: the seasons that humans started to rely on.

“Everywhere you'd go, there was wilderness. Sparkling coastal seas. Vast forests. Immense grasslands. You could fly for hours over the untouched wilderness.” These are the words of Attenborough describing his then appreciation and now seeming naiveness that this will remain. 

1960
World population: 3.0 BILLION
Carbon in the atmosphere: 315 PARTS PER MILLION
Remaining wilderness: 62%

Humans started transforming what a species could achieve, but at the expense of nature.

So far, this era was the best time for humankind. The Second World War was over, and technology started to make people's lives easier. The pace of change was getting faster and faster and it felt like nothing would limit progress. The future was going to be exciting, promising to bring everything people had ever dreamed of. This was before any of us were aware that there were problems.

During this time, thanks to technological advances, Apollo went to space. It was the first time that any human had moved away far enough from the Earth to see the whole planet. And what we saw was a vulnerable and isolated planet.

It was the rediscovery of a fundamental truth: we are ultimately bound by and reliant upon the finite natural world. The wild is far from unlimited, and it needs protecting. Over time, the idea became evident to everyone.

1978
World population: 4.3 BILLION
Carbon in the atmosphere: 335 PARTS PER MILLION
Remaining wilderness: 55%

With a new-found awareness of the negative impacts, people were coming to care for the natural world.

Finally, there were the means to make people across the world aware of our negative impact on the planet. The change in people's mindsets started with humpback whales. The shift began with a publicly shared recording of whales being killed as they were so far only seen as a source for oil – dehumanized, so to say. Their mournful songs were the key to transforming people’s opinions about them. People have pursued animals to extinction many times in our history, but now that it was so painfully visible, it was no longer acceptable.

However, the destruction, consumption, and extensive use continued. The cutting of forests had the most impact. There is a double incentive to cut down forests. People benefit from the timber and then benefit from farming the land left behind. This is why we’ve cut down three trillion trees across the world. Half of the world’s rainforests have already been cleared. 

Undeniably, we can’t cut down rainforests forever, and anything that we can’t do forever is unsustainable. If we do things that are unsustainable, the damage ultimately accumulates to a point where the whole system collapses. 

1997
World population: 5.9 BILLION
Carbon in the atmosphere: 360 PARTS PER MILLION
Remaining wilderness: 46%

The ocean starts to die; simply caring wasn't enough.

The ocean used to be an astonishing vision of a completely unknown world, a world that had existed since the beginning of time - completely undisturbed by human presence. 

It was only in the ’50s that large fishing fleets first ventured out into international waters to reap the open ocean harvest across the globe. Since, they’ve removed 90% of the large fish in the sea, deeply disturbing the natural balance of marine life. The predators and large fish are responsible for keeping nutrients in the ocean’s sunlit waters, recycling them so that they can be used and reused by plankton. Without them, nutrients are lost for centuries to the depths, and the hot spots of life start to diminish. 

In addition to excessive fishing, coral reefs were soon turning white, becoming skeletons. When scientists discovered that it is due to ocean warming, it led to another enormous reveal. We used to think that the global air temperature had been relatively stable till the ’90s. However, we came to understand that the ocean had been masking our impact and absorbing the excess heat. By disturbing the balance of the ocean, we revealed the true impact of human activity - a life-threatening climate change that has been a feature of all five mass extinctions during Earth's history.

As a result, today's average global temperature is one degree Celsius warmer than it was a century ago. A speed of change that exceeds any in the last 10,000 years. Summer sea ice in the Arctic has reduced by 40% in 40 years.

Yet, humankind kept on going. We have overfished 30% of fish stocks to critical levels. We cut down over 15 billion trees annually. By damming, polluting, and over-extracting rivers and lakes, we’ve reduced the size of freshwater populations by over 80%.

As much as 50% of the fertile land on Earth is now farmland and 70% of the mass of birds on this planet are domestic birds - the vast majority being chickens. We account for over one-third of the weight of mammals on Earth. A further 60% are the animals we raise to eat. The rest, from mice to whales, make up as little as 4%.

This is now our planet, run by humankind for humankind. There is little left for the rest of the living world. This seems like such lousy planning. We need the wilderness to keep Earth healthy and stable for us all to survive. 

2020
World population: 7.8 BILLION
Carbon in atmosphere: 415 PARTS PER MILLION
Remaining wilderness: 35%

​​Science predicts that, if we continue the trend, we could witness the following:

2030s
The Amazon Rainforest, cut down until it can no longer produce enough moisture, degrades into a dry savannah, bringing catastrophic species loss and altering the global water cycle. At the same time, the Arctic becomes ice-free in the summer. Less of the sun's energy is reflected back out to space without the white ice cap. The speed of global warming increases.

2040s
As frozen soils thaw in the north, methane is released, which is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide. This dramatically accelerates the rate of climate change.

2050s
As the ocean continues to heat and becomes more acidic, coral reefs worldwide die and fish populations crash.

2080s
Global food production enters a crisis as soils become exhausted by overuse. Pollinating insects disappear and the weather becomes more and more unpredictable.

2100s – 11 billion people
Our planet becomes warmer with four degrees Celsius and huge parts of the Earth are uninhabitable. Millions of people are rendered homeless. A sixth mass extinction event is well underway. This is a series of one-way doors bringing irreversible change. Within the span of the next lifetime, the security and stability of Earth, our Garden of Eden… will be lost.

What can we do to change the course?

We are facing nothing less than the collapse of the stable and healthy natural world– the very thing that gave birth to our civilization - the thing we rely upon for every part of our lives. No one wants this to happen. None of us can afford for it to happen. So, what do we do? 

  1. Most importantly, to restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity. The very thing that we’ve removed. It’s the only way out of this crisis we have created ourselves. We must rewild the world with trees, plants, animals, insects, and fish. A century from now, our planet could be a wild place again, with human-made everyday spaces and natural wild spaces co-existing in balance.
  2. Every other species on Earth reaches a maximum population after a time. The number that can be sustained on the natural resources available. On current projections, there will be 11 billion people on Earth by 2100. But it’s possible to slow, even to stop population growth well before it reaches that point.
  3. Renewable resources will never run out. The living world is essentially solar-powered. The Earth’s plants capture three trillion kilowatt-hours of solar energy each day. That is almost 20 times the energy we need just from the sunlight. Imagine if we phase out fossil fuels and run our world on the eternal energies of nature too. Sunlight, wind, water and geothermal. Within 20 years, renewables are predicted to be the world’s main source of power. But we can make them the only source.
  4. The living world can’t operate without a healthy ocean and neither can we. The ocean is a critical ally in our battle to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. The more diverse, the better it does that job. In addition to limiting fishing, the UN is attempting to create the biggest “no fish” zone. In one act, this would transform the open ocean from a place exhausted by subsidized fishing fleets to a wilderness that will help us all in our efforts to combat climate change. The world’s greatest wildlife reserve. 
  5. When it comes to the land, we must radically reduce the area we use for farming to make space for returning wilderness. And the fastest and most effective way to do that is for us to change our diet. Large carnivores are rare in nature because it takes a lot of prey to support each of them. For every single predator on the Serengeti, there are more than 100 prey animals. The planet can’t support billions of large meat-eaters. There just isn’t the space. If we all had a largely plant-based diet, we would need only half the land we use at the moment. 
  6. Forests are a fundamental component of our planet’s recovery. They are the best technology nature has for locking away carbon while being the center of biodiversity. Again, the two features work together. The wilder and more diverse forests are, the more effective they are at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Deforestation must be stopped and we must grow crops like oil palm and soya only on land deforested long ago. After all, there’s plenty of it.
  7. There must be a huge shift in our mindsets and behavior to live in harmony with nature. If we can change the way we live on Earth, an alternative future comes into view. We should discover ways to benefit from our land that help, rather than hinder, wilderness, and find ways to fish our seas that enable them to come quickly back to life. And ways to harvest our forests sustainably. We will finally learn how to work with nature rather than against it. 

Without us, the natural world will rebuild. It's not about saving the planet. It's about saving ourselves.

There's a chance for us to make amends, complete our development journey, manage our impact, and become a species in balance with nature. All we need is the will to do so. We have the opportunity to create the perfect home for ourselves and restore the rich, healthy, and wonderful world that we inherited. Just imagine that.

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