1. The Power of Outrage and Optimism with David Attenborough
In this first episode, Christiana, Tom and Paul discuss why both outrage and optimism are needed to confront the issues of our time. Following on from this, Christiana and Tom have a discussion with David Attenborough about the school strikes, his career, and how we can use outrage to change the world.
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Christiana: Welcome, everyone. This is our very first episode of our new podcast, Outrage and Optimism, and we would like to talk about why both are necessary to reshape the world.
Tom: Hello and welcome to Outrage and Optimism, a new weekly podcast about reshaping the world. Thanks for joining us on this our very first episode. And today we set out why we feel that both outrage and optimism are necessary to move us beyond the crisis of climate change to create a kinder, healthier and more beautiful world for everyone. And we talk to David Attenborough, the broadcaster and naturalist and host of Our Planet, who has done so much to bring a love of the natural world to so many people.
But before that, as this is the first episode, just let us quickly introduce ourselves.
Christiana: I’m Christiana Figueres. As former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, what a mouthful, I had the pleasure of bringing all countries together for the Paris Agreement on climate change. And today I continue to work for my one and only boss, the global atmosphere on which all of us inhabitants of the planet depend.
Paul: And my name is Paul Dickinson. I co-founded CDP, the largest NGO showing what business is doing on climate change and where 20% of all global emissions are reported each year.
Tom: And my name’s Tom Rivett-Carnac, and I’ve spent much of my professional career working with and for both of these individuals. Paul was my first boss at CDP in the early days, and more recently I worked with Christiana at the United Nations running the secret strategic campaign to achieve the Paris Agreement.
Christiana: And, by now, we have all become very good friends and continue to want to work together.
Tom: And we’re going to be speaking to you every week about some of the most important issues that are now shaping our world. We’ve called the podcast Outrage and Optimism because we believe both are going to be necessary to make the transformations that we need to make. But we’re also aware that they seem like they shouldn’t fit together, so we thought we’d start this week by talking to you about why we’ve called the podcast that.
Christiana: Well, can we start with optimism, Tom?
Tom: Let’s do it.
Christiana: Because that’s sort of where… Honestly, that is where we all come from, right? That’s where our comfort zone is, in the sense that we have learned, over the past few years, that optimism is a very important component when you are facing any challenge. And if I look back, the first time that I realised that was more or less June 2010 when I was a very freshly named Executive Secretary of the Climate Change Convention and I went to my very first press conference.
And I was asked, Ms Figueres, given the fact that just six months ago the climate negotiations suffered their greatest failure in Copenhagen, do you think that the world will ever be capable of coming together to a global agreement? And I said immediately, without even thinking about it, not in my lifetime.
Not in my lifetime, I think, was very reflective of the global mood because after Copenhagen everyone was in a very bad mood about climate change. Most people thought it was too complex, too expensive and, in fact, even too late anyway so don’t even try. So there was really a very bad, depressed, we can’t do it, helpless mood about climate change.
Well, when I heard myself say, not in my lifetime, I realised that that was an impossible standpoint from which to start the challenge because if we do not believe that we can do something, then that is the most secure guarantee that we will not be able to do it. And, hence, I gave myself the personal internal task of changing my attitude toward that into, well, we don’t know how we’re going to do it. It is going to be complex. It is going to be very unpredictable but, yes, we have everything that it takes.
And slowly, through very intentional injecting of this optimism, we actually were able to turn what I would call the global mood around. And eventually we understood… And Tom and Paul, you were there and accompanied this process in a very important way where we all finally understood that optimism is actually not the result of an achievement but rather the input with which we have to approach any challenging task.
Tom: And I have such a strong memory of that, of that road to Paris where everybody thought that this was completely impossible. And you, Christiana, just held onto this sense of possibility and optimism in a way that kind of dragged everyone with you.
And you would be asked again and again, Ms Figueres, don’t you think this is impossible? We’ll never achieve a global agreement. And you said, we’re going to do it. These are the parameters. We have to do it. We have no choice. And that belief kind of became a self-reinforcing journey that actually, I believe, was a significant contributor to making it happen.
Paul: There’s a saying, you’ve probably heard it before, if you think you’re going to fail or if you think you’re going to succeed, you’re probably right.
Paul: And what I noticed during that whole process was, you say Christiana grabbed everyone, but it becomes like a party after a while, and then kind of like everybody wants to be there and wants to be on the right side. I remember that feeling like people were getting more optimistic, and they were getting more optimistic about the fact they were getting more optimistic, which was cool.
Tom: So if we understand that, and if we really hold that that is the case and that optimism is an input not an output to transformative change, then where does the outrage come in?
Christiana: Well, I think that we’re in a different moment now to where we were in 2010 to 2015 where the transformation that we needed to do was from pessimism to optimism because no one believed that it would ever be possible. Now we’re in a different moment.
Now there is outrage, as a very different sentiment to pessimism, because now we know we can do it. That’s the difference. Before, we didn’t know. Now we know we can do it. We know we have the technology. We know we have the finance. We know what the policies are. So the outrage is about how is it possible that, knowing that we can do it, why are we not doing it fast enough?
So it’s a very different sentiment. And I think that is the sentiment that we really need to bring in, as an important component into the transformational energies that are going to get us to the solution is really to open ourselves up to the outrage that many people are feeling in many different ways and that, frankly, we also feel.
Tom: Right. No, I completely share that, and I feel that sense of outrage myself with the loss of species, the impacts we’re seeing, these terrible storms that are hitting southern Africa and the awful impact that that leads to. But I think what’s interesting about what you’re saying is outrage almost becomes this kind of fuel of momentum that can wake us up out of our complacency. But we have to transform that into a productive view of the world, which is where the optimism comes in.
Paul: It was also, in the climate community, that first story to some extent. Whereas I sense now… Well, I know what took me into climate change was a sense of outrage at potentially massive loss of life, arguably inevitable loss of life on an unimaginable scale, well beyond World War II or something. So that’s what got me involved.
What I sense now is that the reason why Christiana talks about outrage now is it’s not just in the climate community. It’s society wide sense of outrage. And now, that the alchemy is again to turn that into an optimistic drive that unites us.
Christiana: Well, and the part that I think is most painful to me, and to the two of you and to many listeners, is the fact that we’re just having increasing frequency and severity of extreme events.
Just to give a couple of examples of the outrage, how is it possible that hurricane Idai in Mozambique rips millions of people of their livelihoods and leaves 900,000 children without knowing whether their parents are alive or, if they’re alive, where they are?
I, myself, feel incredibly frustrated about the fact that solutions are entirely available but they’re not being implemented as quickly as they could. I, myself, feel very sad when I think about the losses that we’re already suffering in the natural world. And I can totally understand that people feel helpless as individuals because they have no idea what they could do even if they want to do something. And I highly respect the outrage, frankly, that is being experienced by the young people who are demonstrating on the streets and calling us adults to account.
Tom: So that, to me, is very hopeful, the way it seems to be building and building. And it’s not only the school strikes. It’s Extinction Rebellion in London and around the world, people who have shown remarkable courage and commitment. And, myself, I still feel optimistic that we can actually come together and do this, but it is outrageous that we’re not making the progress we should be making.
Paul: All our lives, there have been… There’s been kind of suffering. The rich have not helped the poor to the extent that they should do. That’s a kind of background noise, and we grow up with a bit of a Teflon skin against that. The problem, as we all know, with climate change is you’re getting this increasing, exponential risk of a sort of unrecoverable change to the Earth’s system. And I think the alchemy of outrage into optimism is this sense of agency, this sense of action.
When I was hearing Christiana talking about all these terrible things just now, I was thinking, well, what can I do about it? And I was about to be diminished, but there can also be a moment of unity where we kind of come together and feel empowered. It’s one or the other, but if it flips, we’re good, and that’s the critical transformation.
Tom: Yes. There’s a story that I came across a while ago that I think might illustrate part of this, and it comes from the civil rights movement in the US in the 60s. And we all remember that remarkable day or we remember stories of that remarkable day on the National Mall where Martin Luther King gave his transformative speech, I have a dream, and kind of lifted the rhetoric.
But I was looking into that a little while ago, and I didn’t realise that John Lewis, who is actually still a representative in the US Congress, House of Representatives, was there that day and he was one of the Big Six organisers who created that march. He was the son of a sharecropper. He’d endured terrible hardship as a boy. He was one of the speakers on the stage prior to King, and if King’s speech was about optimism, his was about outrage.
And he stood there, and he said things like, we are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over, and then you holler, be patient. How long can we be patient? We want our freedom. We want it now. The kind of righteous anger that he charged all of those people with was the kind of… If you imagine that as kind of like a build-up of energy, and if you watch it, and there are videos of this, it’s quite a remarkable moment.
But then into that stepped King, and he transformed it with this amazing optimistic vision that took that energy of outrage and made it productive and turned it into a vision and actually precipitated this amazing movement that led to this incredible outcome. And the reason that I noticed this was, 50 years later, Lewis was asked about this, and he said this amazing thing. He said, I learned that day that in changing the world there is room for both outrage and anger and optimism and love. And I think that just…
Christiana: There you are.
Tom: It captures this, how that sense of outrage can be transformed into something so productive and so beautiful.
Paul: Optimism is the direction and outrage is the fuel.
Tom: So what I’m excited about by this podcast, and now we’re beginning our journey in doing this, is we are going to explore both of these, together and with others. So every couple of weeks we’re going to get together for a conversation like this where we take an emerging issue that we absolutely have to win on if we’re going to prevail.
So that might be the emergence of climate refugees, it might be how cities are responding, it might be the emergence of policy in different countries. And we’re going to dig into the outrage and the optimism that are driving these different forces and how we can have an impact to improve it.
We’ll then have the opportunity to go off and interview some of the most amazing creative thinkers in these spaces. And we’ll then put those interviews out to help the listener go deeper into really understanding what’s happening in these areas.
So I think it will be an amazing journey, and we are starting today with what, to my mind, is probably the most exciting interview we could ever possibly have started with.
Christiana: And we are making an exception, right? Because this is the first episode, we’re actually going to have this chat among the three of us plus put out for you, our listeners, an amazing interview. But we will probably not be doing that later on. This is a starting…
Tom: It’s a one-off.
Christiana: Bonus. And who are we interviewing today?
Tom: So we have a conversation for you with Sir David Attenborough. David Attenborough, as no doubt most listeners know, is the preeminent broadcaster and naturalist and creator of films about the natural world.
And recently he has been increasingly and admirably vocal about what’s really happening with climate change. His most recent documentaries, the amazing piece on Netflix called Our Planet, seven-part series, and a BBC film called Climate Change – The Facts, really are excellent. So many of us will have grown up listening to his voice. I certainly did, and it’s one of the reasons why I then got into environmentalism and climate change.
So we made this interview about three or four days ago, and it was remarkable to sit down with David. I would just say he really goes there on issues with climate change.
Paul: Let’s hear it.
Tom: Sir David, thank you so much for joining us and for participating in this podcast.
Sir David: Pleasure.
Tom: I don’t know about Christiana, but the reason that I work on environment and climate change was your films, which I watched as a boy, so it’s amazing to be sitting here…
Sir David: That’s what happens [overtalking] for a very long time.
Christiana: Millions of people will say the same thing.
Paul: Millions would say the same thing.
Tom: The process of creating the Paris Agreement gave us a sense of the power of optimism to bring countries together to do something most people thought wasn’t possible. But we also see, of course, the fraying at the fabric of the web of life and the sense of outrage that precipitates in us and others. And we believe both of these impulses, which taken to their extremes are forms of denialism but, properly applied, are both necessary. So we want to have a conversation with you about that balance and how we utilise that to change the world.
So, Christiana, over to you.
Christiana: So, Sir David, one of the very exciting chapters of activism that has burst out in just the past few weeks or months is these young people that are taking to the streets. To be very specific, Fridays at noon. And we have met with Greta and had a very interesting conversation with her. But the last movement, Friday, on March 15th, had 1.5 million young people in the streets all over the world.
So I would be interested in knowing from you… They have definitely understood the seriousness of climate change and the seriousness of non-action or delayed action on climate change. Do you think that their outrage is justified? And should they have any sense of optimism in addition to their outrage?
Sir David: Well, I think their outrage was certainly justified. There’s no doubt about that. And there will be cynics who try and dismiss them and say, well, they don’t understand about the world and the way it works.
But young people, it’s true, may lack experience, but they also have clear sight, and they can see perhaps more clearly than the rest of us who have been around for some time and are concerned about conditional clauses and, oh, on the other hand and that sort of stuff. But people of their age see it very clearly, and we older ones should take notice of what they say.
I find it enormously encouraging that that is so and that they understand the simple dependencies, the simple discoveries of science about our dependence upon the natural world and our place within it. And that is the one big reason I have, anyway, of feeling that we are making progress. If we weren’t making progress with young people, we are done.
Christiana: Absolutely. But I had almost a one-hour or more conversation with Greta Thunberg in Davos, and I had a very hard time bringing her over to the space of hope, bringing her over to a space of optimism. She and all of these other young people are, as you say, justifiable furious. They’re angry with us. They say, we have been at this for 30 years and we still haven’t solved this.
How do we balance that? Do we have to balance that? Do they balance it within their message? How do we reach a productive tension between those two forces so that we can move forward? Because if anger leads to paralysis, we’re not going to get anywhere, and if optimism leads into naivety, we’re not going to get anywhere. How do we actually bring those two so that we move forward?
Sir David: Well, just one word, understanding. Understanding is what they have to have, perhaps in more detail, but we have to have too. My generation is no great example for understanding. We’ve done terrible things, in my generation. And is it that we didn’t understand or we didn’t know? I don’t know whether it’s just ignorance or pig-headedness. I tend to think that it’s…
Christiana: Is that pig with a B or with a P?
Sir David: That’s a good question. Perhaps big-headed pigs is what I’m talking about. But I believe that we… The facts are now clear, you know, and it wasn’t the case when we were 16 or 18. I certainly didn’t, if someone said to me, you depend upon the natural world for every mouthful of food you eat and every lungful of air you breathe, I’d say…
Christiana: That would have been difficult to understand.
Sir David: Yes. I honestly think we wouldn’t. And I was supposed to be, as a 16-year-old, I’m studying biology at school. I’m supposed to understand these things. Well, what I knew about was dog food and how to cut it up. And the classical zoology didn’t account for ecology.
Christiana: And ecosystems.
Sir David: Ecology is really quite a recent subject.
Tom: Just one question about understanding, because you’ve been involved in this for so many decades, but my understanding is that you came to your sense of outrage about what was happening to climate quite late.
Sir David: Well, yes and no. It was apparent to me in the mid-50s that we were… That humanity was actually having a damaging effect upon the natural world in a significant way in that we’d exterminated things. We were beginning to realise that there were a number of species which were hovering on the brink of extinction. We understood about that, but that was a very limited understanding.
And in a way, I don’t wish to denigrate it too much but, in a way, it was like stamp collectors who are saying, oh, these stamps are rare and therefore they’re valuable. They weren’t valuable because of their rarity. They were valuable because they were key to a whole lot of connections. That’s the point. And we were slow in bringing that to a realisation.
From my own point of view, I worked for the BBC, and the BBC at the time was essentially a monopoly in that nobody else, no other broadcaster, dealt with natural history in a serious way. Now, if you’re in a monopoly situation, you have to be very careful about what you say because it better jolly well be right, and you avoided controversy.
And even in the 50s I’m not sure that I would have gone out onto a limb and said that the world was going to be damaged by the fact that we might lose the Hawaiian goose. I wouldn’t have said that. I was aware of the extinction problem, and I hope I was aware that it was not just a question of, as it were, stamp collecting and losing the rarities, that it was more significant than that.
But if you are in a monopoly situation, you have to be absolutely sure of what you’re doing. You don’t want to be shot down in flames by someone. And there were plenty of people gaming for you, plenty of people saying, oh no, rubbish.
So I issued warnings at various… There wasn’t a single big series I did that I didn’t at the end say, you know what, there’s a problem. So that you are showing the natural history of the world, because it’s wonderful, it’s beautiful, it’s exciting and it’s important but…
Christiana: Inviting everyone else to fall in love with it as well.
Sir David: Yes. Maybe yes, but then that last point had to be said, and we were saying it. And we were able to say it louder and louder and louder as the world came behind us. So we could say to our critics, and there were critics who said, oh, a lot of nonsense. Still are, as we well know, in various parts of the world are people saying it’s rubbish.
Christiana: Your increased sense of urgency in your call and in your message, is it because of that, that you feel that there’s more public opinion, there are more sources of information? Or is it because, frankly, we are running out of time? There is truly an urgency here now.
Sir David: No. I think the…
Christiana: Or is it both?
Sir David: Well, I think it’s both, but I think that what wasn’t there was the absolutely, totally 100% convincing evidence, which there is now, about what’s going on in the stratosphere and the upper parts of the atmosphere, and indeed what’s happening to the world. You don’t have to argue about it. You can see that we’re killing coral reefs.
Christiana: Yes, and many other species. 60% of species, gone.
Sir David: Yes, sure.
Tom: I mean I think now there is the certainty there, and now we understand the extent of what’s happening, but we live in a very interesting time where so much of humanity is divorced from a daily experience of the natural world. They live in urban environments. In a way, and your programmes have done so much to precipitate this, we need to make the natural world more of a lived experience for those people so that they feel more of a sense of guardianship and custody. Do you think that’s right?
Sir David: Well, it would be an ideal situation if we could do that, but the fact is that over 50% of the population, of the human beings on this Earth, are urbanites. It means that over half the people alive today are out of touch, to some degree, with the natural world. And some of them peripherally, but quite a lot of them totally out of touch.
And the paradox is, that because of the mass media like television and so on, they are in a position to know more, and probably do in a sort of book learning sense or electronic image sense, they know more about the natural world than anybody before in history.
Nobody knew the giant lemur until we filmed it and put it on television in the 60s. Nobody knew about the giant lemurs. How would they? That’s important, but it’s only one part of the thing. Why is it important that they should know about? Why is it really important that primates like that should continue to survive? And the answer, of course, is the complexity of the ecological web and so on. But that’s highly theoretical, and I wonder and worry that we haven’t really got that message over yet by any manner of means.
Christiana: But it is a matter of urgency because you’re saying 50% of us are already urbanites, but over the next few decades there’s going to be 75% of the population living in cities, many of them in mega cities. And if our care for mother nature actually depends on a personal, almost emotional, connection rather than just an intellectual understanding, how are we going to bring those two things together?
Sir David: A very difficult thing to know. One would like to think that we could solve the question, to some degree, by the way in which you integrate the natural world and the urban world, and we’re learning quite a lot about that.
And you do find Londoners who are delighted to know that there are Peregrine Falcons in the middle of the city or, coming to that, in the middle of New York, that they are there, and people rejoice in that. So the two are coming together to some degree, I think.
Christiana: So do you see the future with green cities? Do you see us with growing cities rather than constructing and building cities?
Sir David: I think that there is that element. I can’t believe that it’s actually going to be a major transformation of urban living. But what it can do is that, if you preserve little bits of it in the urban situation, it makes you more conscious of the richness and splendour and wonder and importance of it in the big scale.
So that people living outside cities could see perhaps a reason why they shouldn’t spread too far into what has been the wild circumstances and why they should be careful about what they do and not try and turn the whole of the countryside into an extension of an asphalt playground.
Tom: And one area where, just talking about how this sense of connection can be precipitated that leads to action, plastic has been remarkable over the last few years. And you’ve said how astonished you were the degree of change that people were prepared to make and the number of people that were prepared to do that.
I suppose the question comes, climate is, in a way, a more multifaceted and difficult issue to communicate because it’s sort of everywhere and nowhere. It’s affecting everything. How do we precipitate that type of moment that you were able to precipitate on plastics more broadly for climate?
Sir David: Well, there’s always been people so far who’ve gainsaid it. People said, oh, no, no, no, the climate’s not changing. But there are fewer and fewer, and as the dreadful catastrophes that are overtaking all parts of the world now because of extreme weather. It’s becoming more and more acceptable and understandable and believable by ordinary people that yes, there weren’t that number of tornadoes in the past. Yes, the dreadful famines that we’ve faced. There weren’t those in the past.
And so I think the evidence is mounting up. I don’t find a lot of people arguing when I say I’m not surprised to hear about the way in which Australia’s heating up, or indeed California. And people will say, yes, yes, I believe that.
And, of course, linking it to precisely what they do with their own energy sources is another question. I still remember, I’ve forgotten how long ago it was now, but travelling in New Mexico and so on in very high temperatures. And seeing every single house with refrigerators, air conditioners thumping out all the time and not a single weather, aerial wind vane collecting energy. Not one.
Christiana: And maybe no one at home.
Sir David: No. Maybe that’s one too, yes. I mean the profligacy of how the western United States have dealt with energy is extraordinary. And actually there’s one, which I’m not well-informed about, but the scarcity of water is going to be a real, real problem, is it not?
Christiana: Indeed. We all know that Barcelona has already had to bring water in through barges. In South Africa we had a water crisis. It has already been hitting large cities.
Sir David: And you still sprinkle the lawn in summer.
Christiana: Or golf courses.
Sir David: Yes. Golf courses, indeed.
Christiana: So you have said, thinking of these very, very acute issues, you have actually gone out on a limb, Sir David, and you’ve said the future of civilisation really depends on how we deal with climate change now.
Sir David: Yes.
Christiana: And, of course, we see examples of totally irresponsible behaviour. Do we also see some examples of responsible behaviour? I.e. do you have any reason to have any degree of confidence that we actually will be able to address at least the worst impacts of climate change in a timely fashion?
Sir David: Well, the big jump has yet to be made. I mean what I used to say, and I still feel, is that actually the actual nature of Homo sapiens is to actually be aggressive, with one culture with another. History, that we learn all about, is a history about wars, about people winning wars and losing wars. That has to change. The history of the future has to be about agreements.
So human beings are not accustomed for one culture to agree with another culture. That’s not in their nature, one would think, except of course there is one, well perhaps two, prime examples.
The one is when we actually were aware of what was happening in the upper atmosphere and the destruction of the ozone layer. But then, if I may say so, it was scientists who argued the case. It was scientists who diagnosed it, and it was scientists who were actually able to produce the evidence. And, almost quietly, governments actually saw the validity of the arguments and did something about it. That was one thing, and that was some cause for optimism.
The other thing, of course, was when, in fact, the maritime nations of the world got together and suddenly realised that they were bringing whales to extermination. And that if they went on whaling in the way they had, with these modern devices where they could explode into a whale’s body and destroy them, if we went on doing that, there were going to be no whales.
And the perfectly simple prospect faced them that they had to agree to do something about it. And they did. Fair dos. And so there’re now whales are more abundant than they have been for 200 years, which is wonderful. Okay, well, if we can do that, we’ve got a lot more agreements that we’ve got to sort out.
Christiana: We also have the Antarctic Treaty. They all got together.
Sir David: Indeed.
Christiana: And they decided that they would keep that for scientific research and peace, the entire continent.
Sir David: Yes, that’s quite true.
Christiana: That’s a pretty impressive agreement.
Sir David: That’s quite true.
Christiana: We also have the Paris Agreement.
Sir David: Well, the Paris Agreement, yes, I was talking about the predecessors.
Sir David: The Paris Agreement was the great source of hope. I know you were organising it, but I was sitting around listening to you talking. And I was there with David King, I remember walking behind him, he was the chief scientist of Britain at the time, and he was walking on air. It was a joy to behold him. He was saying, we’ve done it. We’ve done it. And you were there doing it. He had insights into all the arguments and the debates and one thing or another that had taken place. He was there watching the whole grisly business, but he…
Christiana: It was grisly. You’re right.
Sir David: Well, you were there, very much so. And it was I was infected by him. I left thinking, yes, we have done something. Of course, not we, they have done something.
Christiana: Well, we as humanity.
Sir David: Yes, we as humanity, indeed. And then when the leader of the United States decided he wasn’t part of that humanity.
Christiana: What did that do to you?
Sir David: I thought, well, it’s only for four years and maybe eight years, and if it has to be endured, we can clench our teeth and hope that whoever succeeds him will see the same evidence and then some, because there will be then some.
Christiana: Yes indeed, sadly. So you’re doing a new piece on climate change. Is that true? Are you launching a piece on climate change?
Sir David: I’m doing a new series, a seven-part series on Netflix, which looks at ecosystems and sees, first of all what they are, and then what need to be done in order to sort them out. And fairly simple solutions but solutions which require government action.
Christiana: Yes. Only government?
Sir David: No, of course, because in democratic societies I hope governments reflect popular reflection of democratic passions and democratic demands that you won’t get anywhere, I suppose that’s not true to say. You might well get anywhere by almost fascist, totalitarian methods but they don’t sustain. You have to carry the passion [?] with you, and that’s why the debate that is going on now around the world about the conservation and so on is of crucial importance.
It’s all very well to say that, yes, you can deal with the upper atmosphere, or indeed you can deal with the Pole without the man in the streets giving it necessarily his full advice and that it can be left to statesmen and wise people to do those things. But with the sort of reforms that we need now, which are reforms about how you eat and about how you package your food and about how you run your motorcars and how you get your energy, those are all things which the man in the street and the woman in the street have got to deal with.
Christiana: Which means there’s also a role for corporations here.
Sir David: Yes.
Christiana: In addition to governments.
Sir David: Absolutely so because the corporations are reflecting their shareholders or their customers. Yes.
Tom: Sir David, we’ve taken a lot of your time. Thank you very much. We have one final question, if that’s all right? So it can be very hard to internalise the reality of what some of the changes that are possibly in our future might look like. Loss of biodiversity and other issues can be very painful in all sorts of ways.
And I just wondered what sorts of stories do you tell yourself about the life that your great-grandchildren will lead? Do you see that as inhabiting a world that is increasingly poorer or do you see signs of hope that they can live in a way that is regenerative and that’s a brighter future?
Sir David: Do you know I don’t spend time thinking about that because I can’t bear it. I’m just coming up to 93, and so I don’t have many more years around here. And I find it difficult to think about what’s beyond there because the signs aren’t good. And I hope I would be doing what I’m doing and saying what I’m saying whether I spent time speculating about how awful the catastrophe might be or whether I don’t. It seems to me unnecessarily specific.
There is a profound moral reason why we’re doing what we’re doing, and it’s not restricted to morality about other human beings. It’s morality about the world. It’s a morality that concerns the whole of the animals and plants that exist in this world, which are a result of three and a half billion years of evolution. And that one generation should come along and think it has the right to maltreat it to the extent that it obliterates great sections of it is, to me, insupportable. It’s not a question of argument or calculating how bad or unbad it is. It’s just a moral issue.
We have an obligation on our shoulders, and it will be to our deep eternal shame if we fail to acknowledge that.
Christiana: Do we have an option?
Sir David: We have no option. No option if we want to survive. But the reason is because it’s right.
Tom: Sir David, thank you so much.
Sir David: Okay.
Christiana: Thank you very much.
Sir David: Thank you.
Tom: So, it’s been a few days since that interview and, honestly, I still feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. David Attenborough has been such a key figure in my own relationship with the natural world that to sit there in the room with him and see the emotion in him at the thought of losing the biodiversity that he’s treasured and shared with so many for decades just cut me to the core.
I found it so emotional to see that in him, and it kind of just underlines, as if we needed any further underlining, the real seriousness of the situation we’re facing. And this is it. These years are it. This is our opportunity to get on top of this, and the sense of sadness that is evident in him is what’s at stake.
How are you both doing?
Paul: I’m fine in an odd way. I delight in what David Attenborough has done. He’s 93. I’m 54. His comments crystallise absolutely for me my responsibilities, our responsibility. He’s given us so much, and I will do all I can to protect his great-grandchildren.
Christiana: Well, I must admit that I share his deep sadness at experiencing and suffering the losses that we’re seeing in the natural systems. I, myself, witnessed the extinction of a very beautiful golden toad species that became extinct in 1989, precisely the year in which my second daughter was born. Now, when I became aware of that, I frankly just could not bear the thought that I had inherited a planet with a certain richness and that I was handing over a severely diminished planet to my two daughters.
So I totally agree with Sir David that we have an obligation on our shoulders. And, for me, that obligation is not to sit back and accept the demise of species, accept the very difficult life-threatening circumstances that we might cause for future generations, in particular the vulnerable populations around the world. But rather to do absolutely everything that is necessary for us to create a better and not a worse world for future generations.
Tom: Well, I completely agree with you, Christiana, and I’m sure that many listening will, too. The story of how the loss of the golden toad, and the fact that your children would never see it, led to your own personal sense of motivation and commitment that ultimately led to your role in one of the most important climate treaties in history, is really moving.
And I think this is what we need to bring to this podcast. We do need to feel outraged, and we then need to feel the hope and optimism that comes from realising that we have this last chance to make it right. And we can make it right. At this moment, if we do what is required of us, we will solve this challenge. And that is not something that any future generation will be able to say.
So I think this has been a difficult episode. The conversation with David is moving, but it’s also realistic about the situation that we’re facing, so we really appreciate all of you listening, coming on this journey with us. And I think if there is something to be taken from it, it’s that that sense of the reality and the sadness of the situation can move us to commitment, to dedication and to the hope and optimism of creating a better world.
So this is the beginning of this new conversation, and we are so pleased to be having it with all of you. Each week from now on there will either be a conversation between the three of us on an issue that is mission critical for us to resolve and move forward on in the coming years or there will be an accompanying interview that reflects on the issues the three of us raised and helps you, the listener, understand at a deeper level and from a different perspective.
So please do subscribe, wherever you get your podcasts, and we’ve got some great conversations coming up from some remarkable people we’re going to be talking to. We’ll be talking to people, of course, who’ve been involved in climate change for a long time but also some very different types of voices.
For example, next week we’ll be in New York, and Christiana and I will be sitting down with Ellie Goulding. We met Ellie this year in Davos where we were so impressed with her commitment and dedication to making the world a better place. She is, of course, a globally known singer songwriter who’s achieved international fame and recognition for her music. So check it out. We’ll be talking with her about outrage and optimism and how she brings her activism to her music.
It just remains for me to say that Outrage and Optimism is a production of Global Optimism. The co-hosts are Christiana Figueres, Paul Dickinson and me, Tom Rivett-Carnac.
I’d like to thank everyone who made this happen, Pete Clutton-Brock, Clay Carnill, Chloe Revill, Natasha Rivett-Carnac, Alexandra Vargas Murera, Sarah Thomas, Marina Mansilla, Callum Grieve and Zoe Tcholak-Antich.
I’d also like to thank our good friends Nigel Topping from We Mean Business and Michael Northrop from Rockefeller Brothers Fund for believing in us.
You can connect with us on Facebook and Instagram and join the conversation, and we really hope you’ll subscribe and also that you’ll leave us a review as we try and get this new thing going. Thank you so much for listening. We’ll see you next week.