Forests burn, glaciers melt and one million species face extinction. Can we humans save the planet from ourselves? Here, Sir David Attenborough speaks to us about the climate crisis and his hopes for the future. His words begin our new focus on Sustainable Earth, looking at how we transition to a carbon zero future, protect the planet's resources, reduce waste and build resilience.

Those in power can influence change. And those with knowledge and the ability to innovate can provide solutions to a great number of problems.

Sir David Attenborough

“It might seem like an obvious thing to say but we need to keep saying it: our planet is precious.

It provides the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink. You have only to take a walk through a forest and look up at its canopy to see the outstanding beauty and complexity of ecosystems. Pause in the stillness among the trees and contemplate what is surrounding you: it’s mind-blowing.

But, rather than cherish this planet – our home – we have too often treated it with contempt. Today, as a consequence, we face disaster on a global scale.

Everywhere we look, we see how ecosystems are threatened. The most striking illustration of climate change that I have seen is seared on my memory: the first time I saw a dead coral reef. It had actually bleached. Where once it had been full of hundreds of species, it was like a cemetery.

A few decades ago, the idea that humans could change the climate of our planet was unthinkable. Now this is incontrovertible and we are talking about the risk of irreparable damage. Rising temperatures mean parts of the planet are becoming uninhabitable. Species less able to adapt to rapid changes will be wiped out. Famine will lead to forced migrations. There will be major upsets in natural boundaries, leading to social unrest.

Fortunately, we are now better informed about the state of the world than ever before. We’ve seen a worldwide protest movement grow, led by young people afraid for their future and the future of their planet. We must listen to them. We must respond. We must act – and act now.

We’ve seen before what can be done. When scientists identified the cause of a catastrophic hole in the ozone layer, the world acted. We saw global leaders listening to scientific evidence and taking action.

The climate crisis is a much larger problem, but if we can all pull together, I believe we can solve it. What each one of us does in the next few years will determine what happens in the next few thousand years. There is hope if we all – every single one of us – take our share of responsibility for life on Earth.

Those in power can influence change. And those with knowledge and the ability to innovate can provide solutions to a great number of problems. 

I have had the honour of being part of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative from its inception 12 years ago. I’ve seen what can be achieved when great talent is combined with great ambition: bringing together leaders in research, practice, policy and teaching gives us the greatest chance of developing the solutions required to save our planet.

In the same way, the new initiative Cambridge Zero will be vital. Combining expertise, from science and technology to law and policy to artificial intelligence and engineering, Cambridge Zero will help drive a vision for a carbon neutral future.

It’s a source of comfort to me that people are recognising that their world is at stake, that the ocean is not infinitely full of food, that the ground is not infinitely full of minerals, that life on Earth is not impervious to the damage we cause.

Our planet hangs in the balance. The only way to operate is to believe we can do something about it, and I truly believe we can.”

Broadcaster Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries have brought the wonders of the natural world to our screens – from the splendours of terrestrial life, to the otherworldly underwater kingdoms and the frozen ends of the Earth – but they also increasingly show our planet’s fragility in the face of habitat destruction and climate change. He is an alumnus of Clare College and has given his name to the campus of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative – the largest cluster of biodiversity conservation organisations on the planet.

Read more about our research linked with Sustainable Earth in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

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