When Greta met David

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 In December 2019, the British radio station Radio 4 invited climate activist Greta Thunberg to edit one of its flagship programs.  As part of the show, Greta chose to interview natural historian Sir David Attenborough.

“It’s an honor to meet you,” the teenage activist told Sir David Attenborough when she interviewed him for the show.

Attenborough has been presenting documentaries about the natural world for the BBC since 1954.  The veteran broadcaster began his career as a producer at the BBC, where he launched the Zoo Quest series.  He was made controller of BBC Two in 1965 and went on to become its director of programming.

He has made a number of seminal programs for the BBC, including Life on Earth and the landmark Blue Planet II which transformed attitudes to the growing problem of plastic in the world’s oceans.

“I’m very flattered you say that,” Attenborough replied when Thunberg welcomed him to the Radio 4 show.

“She’s achieved many things that many of us who have been working on it for twenty-odd years have failed to achieve…”

When asked to reflect on Thunberg’s contribution to the climate debate, Attenborough said, “She’s achieved many things that many of us who have been working on it for twenty-odd years have failed to achieve… You have aroused the world.  I’m grateful to you.  We all are.”

Climate change debate

His thoughts reflect an earlier statement he shared with Vanity Fair: ““Scientists understand in greater detail than ever before the impact we are having on the natural world, yet many people are unaware of the scale of this impact and the implications it has for us.  Consequently, tackling climate change and protecting nature are as much communications challenges as they are political or scientific ones.”

Thunberg certainly seems to be helping climate scientists and naturalists like Attenborough find a way through the communication challenges; the radio show being a case in point.

Critics ignition

The show attracted praise and criticism in equal measure.  Some commentators asked why BBC journalist flew presenter Mishal Husain to Sweden to interview Thunberg for the show.  This is at odds with Thunberg’s own stance on reducing carbon emissions from travel.

It also stood in contrast to Thunberg’s interview with Attenborough.  The two activists spoke via a Skype call – thereby reducing the need for travel and its associated emissions.

The Human effect on the climate

Their conversation was illuminating and inspiring in equal measure.  Attenborough spoke of his own realization of the effect humans can have on an ecosystem when he visited Easter Island.  He went on to explain how, when he first started talking about climate change, its effects were often dismissed as an isolated incident.  Today, he says this is less easy to do.

Nevertheless, Attenborough is still dismayed by the attitude of and lack of action from politicians: “The trouble is, politicians are just concerned about tomorrow and the day after.  And when you say, ‘There’s this big danger looming in 20 years’ time, we’ve got to do something now’, they say ‘Yes, of course, we’ll do it the day after tomorrow’.”

It’s a topic about which Thunberg has also expressed concern.  She agreed that there is much work to be done “to highlight the gap between what the science calls for, and what is actually being done.”