Ross Clark

David Attenborough is making the same mistake as Greta Thunberg

David Attenborough is making the same mistake as Greta Thunberg
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It wasn’t so long ago that Sir David Attenborough came across as a calm voice of reason. His much-admired documentaries touched on environmental issues but were not driven by them; they were not morality plays. But something seems to have got into Sir David. He has become a Greta of the third age.

The rot set in last April when he narrated a programme on climate change which used the same, tired old trick Al Gore has used: running a commentary on climate change against pictures of hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and floods, as if to plant in the viewer the idea that all these events were caused by, and therefore wouldn’t have happened without, climate change.

A reasoned analysis would put it differently: that while there is plenty of evidence that global temperatures are rising, that Arctic sea ice is retreating and the global sea levels are rising to the tune of 3mm a year, the evidence linking this to extreme weather events is somewhat tenuous.

Today, Sir David was at it again. In an interview to begin what the BBC says will be a whole year of coverage focussed on climate change, he descended into hyperbole, making the following assertion: “As I speak, south east Australia is on fire. Why? Because the temperatures of the Earth are increasing.”

He added that it was “palpable nonsense” to suggest otherwise.

Actually, while he was speaking a few parts of south east Australia were underwater rather than on fire. Rains, which until recently meteorologists were saying wouldn’t arrive until March, have provided at least some relief. But let’s not beat around the bush, as it were, over that. Also this week the University of East Anglia and others rushed out a study claiming that climate change has increased the threat of wildfires.

The period of the year in which the weather is ideal for wildfires, they say, has been extended in about a quarter of the Earth’s vegetated surface. Interestingly, Australia was the one part of the Earth where they were less sure about the increased risk thanks to very high natural variability in high temperatures and drought.

However, in spite of the apparent risk of wildfires increasing, the scientists note – as I reported here three weeks ago – that the amount of land actually being burned by wildfires is falling. What does that tell you? While risks might be growing in some areas, we are getting better at preventing wildfires and better at putting them out. Changes in land use, more fire barriers and so on have all helped to contain the spread of flames.

This rather gets to the heart of climate change and what we have to do about it. In the alarmist narrative, as advanced by Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and now, it seems, Sir David Attenborough, we are helpless in the face of climate change. The only thing we can do to prevent climatic apocalypse is try to halt any change in the climate by stopping all greenhouse emissions pretty well tomorrow – something which is problematic because it would mean the global economy ceasing to function. Unless we are happy to go back to pre-industrial poverty, we need time to develop new technologies.

In reality, we need to respond to climate change through a mixture of reducing greenhouse gases and adaptation. We are not helpless in this. We can build sea defences, we can, over time, relocate urban areas from the most vulnerable areas, we can shift agriculture in line with changes in climate. And, as we have already proved, we can reduce wildfire risk through better land management. This is all assuming, of course, that we continue to have an economy which allows us to do these things.

Look at it from the point of view of the Australian government responding to this season’s wildfires: do you close down your fossil fuel industry tomorrow in the hope of marginally reducing global carbon emissions (which will mean fires continuing to occur as they always have done), or do you learn the lessons of this year’s fires and mitigate the risk through adjustments to land use and pre-emptive burning – as Tim Blair wrote here last week?

Of course the two things are not mutually exclusive: Australia, like the rest of the world, can and should seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time as pursuing adaptation to changes in climate. But if we are going to pursue the Greta/XR/Attenborough alarmist line and fool ourselves into thinking we can approach climate change with a prevention-only approach then we are not going to achieve anything but make ourselves poorer.