David Attenborough on climate change and getting older

Karen Anne Overton 

He may be approaching his 90th birthday, but Sir David Attenborough has no desire to slow down. Fresh from an appearance at the Paris climate change summit, he fronts a startling new series David Attenborough's Great Barrier Reef, focusing on his favourite region on the planet.

David Attenborough and the Great Barrier Reef

Detail from Saville-Kent's 'The Great Barrier Reef'
Detail from Saville-Kent's The Great Barrier Reef (via Pinterest)

"There was a book by Saville-Kent called The Great Barrier Reef with enthralling hand-drawn illustrations which always enchanted me as a child. It was as if born from pure imagination. I thought no place on earth can surely exist."

Nearly sixty years after his first visit, Attenborough dives 1000 feet below the surface off the Queensland coast in a submersible that allows him to explore the world’s largest living organism like never before.

"It was the first place I was lucky enough to scuba dive, having just briefly learned how to use an aqua-lung in Plymouth and I was, entering those waters, confronted by magic and enchantment. The colours, the species, the communities of vibrant life was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was 1957 and I was astounded by remarkable beauty and life.”


“I’m always asked about my favourite place on the planet and more frequently than not, I say the Great Barrier Reef."



The dive also gives Attenborough the chance to properly examine the effects of climate change and how the rising temperatures and acidity of the seas is proving detrimental to the reef.

“You can see where the sea grass is going and you know that if it continues on like that for the next decade or so, the coral won’t be able to tolerate it. You can show experimentally that they’re incapable of living in these higher temperatures and the acidity will be such, that they won’t be able to form coral limestone anymore,” he explains.


On climate change

Attenborough admits that though he is incredibly passionate about spreading awareness of climate change he balks at being referred to as an authority on the subject:

“It’s an embarrassment in the sense [laughs]. I’m on the television talking about it so I understand but if you really wanted to know important things, an authority on climate change, you wouldn’t come to someone like me, you go to climatologist. I’m in that area and as a responsible citizen, I ought to have a view on these matters, and so I have a view, but it’s a second-hand view, I haven’t done the chemistry. I am a sufficiently educated scientist, I’m able to look at those papers and say they are scientifically respectful.”

The truth is, people listen to Attenborough. He is well respected and beloved and when he talks about something as serious as climate change we are compelled to pay attention.


On ageing and his brother's death


"That various bits of my body work, it’s not because I take exercise or eat any peculiar diet, or anything. I’ve lived a perfectly normal way, and yet here I am and still moving about. I’ve got two new knees and hearing aids, so yes, I’m mechanised to some degree."


What is surprising is how much energy he has at 89 to still keep working a pursuing his passions. He simply put’s it down to luck.

“I’m fantastically privileged. That various bits of my body work, it’s not because I take exercise or eat any peculiar diet, or anything. I’ve lived a perfectly normal way, and yet here I am and still moving about. I’ve got two new knees and hearing aids, so yes, I’m mechanised to some degree. But that’s all. And I’m fantastically lucky.”

Attenborough’s younger brother Richard was sadly not so fortunate with his health and after several years of ill health the actor passed away last year.

Richard Attenborough in 2007
David's brother Richard Attenborough in 2007 (via Wiki)

“People die. Your parents die. It’s obviously a profound emotional experience but you can’t say it’s unexpected,” he says “and Richard effectively died six years ago when he fell down the stairs and damaged his brain, he was never the same again. Technically he died, I got another few years with him, but he disappeared from my life in every sense, a long time ago.”

After traversing the globe several times over Attenborough says he is happiest to stay at home when he gets the chance going on to say:

“I don’t like travel for its own sake. I like what you find as a consequence on travel.  As you get older, you know, one knows what Venice is like… Though I wouldn’t mind going back there, the food’s not bad!”

David Attenborough's Great Barrier Reef will air on BBC1 in December

Love Sir David Attenborough? Browse his wonderful documentaries in the Reader's Digest shop.

Read more:
How climate change is affecting the UK bird population
Greenpeace and the rise of the eco-warriors