Sir David Attenborough is a British Broadcasting Corp. filmmaker who was knighted in 1985 for his science and nature documentaries. He spoke recently with Alex Morales, climate change reporter for Bloomberg News. The interview was conducted at an event marking the publication of “Edward Wilson’s Antarctic Notebook,” by David and Christopher Wilson. The book celebrates the scientific notes and artwork that Edward Wilson produced on British explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s two Antarctic expeditions in the early 1900s. The venue was the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust's London Wetland Centre. Scott's son Peter, a founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature, established the trust in 1946.
Q: You’re here to celebrate the centenary of Captain Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition. How important were the early explorers to our scientific understanding of the extremes of the planet?
A: They were the pioneers. At the time they had a huge influence because it was the first bit of information. Taking the first step of anything, understanding what’s happening at the Poles is very important. That no discovery he made revolutionized anything immediately is neither here nor there. It was the first step.
Q: How important was Edward Wilson’s role?
A: It was a scientific expedition, and he was responsible for the first steps in trying to discover what was happening to life on the planet down there in the Antarctic. He had a little laboratory – a hut which is still there with broken test tubes. He was taking the first steps in trying to understand what was happening to the weather, what was happening to the ice, how it was developing.
Q: In the modern-day world, what can we learn from studying the poles and their ecosystems?
A: Is it or not the case that the ice is shrinking? Why is it melting, and how is it melting? What should we expect, and what can we prepare for? And how quick? A million questions that we need to solve in order to grapple with the problem.
Q: You’ve mentioned the ice shrinking. How worried should we be about the ever- shrinking sea ice in the Arctic Ocean?
A: Within the next decade, the ice in the North is likely to melt in summer to such an extent that there could be regular communication through the Arctic between the Atlantic and the Pacific. What that will do to commerce, to economics, to geopolitics is likely to be a very major effect. The wildlife too.
Q: Since we’re touching on the topic of global warming, you’ve come round fairly recently to speaking about that topic. Could you talk me through the evolution of your thinking in this area?
A: That’s not actually true. If you look back to the State of the Planet, 11 years ago, I was going on about it. Before that, in the 80s and 90s, we were still accumulating evidence. It’s a proper attitude for any scientist to be skeptical until you’ve got enough evidence. It was no more than that; it wasn’t that I disbelieved it – I was wishing to look at the evidence.
Q: What would you say to the still sizeable body of skeptics who doubt global warming is man made?
A: It would seem to me that it would be absolutely extraordinary if the most numerous and powerful species that the planet has ever seen didn’t have an effect on the climate. It would be absolutely amazing. But whether we did or whether we didn’t is neither here nor there, when we know we’re faced with the problem of increasing temperatures and climate change. No one can deny that the climate is changing – it IS changing. And if we do nothing, it’ll be changing with increasing speed.
Q: You’ve recently completed your own television series on the poles, “The Frozen Planet.” What surprised you the most during filming?
A: The sheer tenacity and skill and endurance of the cameramen. Absolutely extraordinary to spend three months camping by yourself with one other chap amongst a colony of penguins is extraordinary.
Q: Have there been any risky moments during all your years of filming wildlife documentaries?
A: Not many. One doesn’t go in for derring-do. You’re trying to go in for pictures as efficiently as possible, and we don’t take many risks. I haven’t had any really dangerous encounters. Not in danger of losing my life.
Q: But Of the wildlife, perhaps, what surprised you the most?
A: The most astonishing revelation was the behavior of killer whales and the degree to which they collaborate and hunt with a degree of communication, which you find very difficult to believe – it’s absolutely extraordinary.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: I don’t mind whether I’m remembered or not.