Secretaries of State, Ladies and Gentlemen, I was most touched to have been asked here this evening, along with both my sons, to launch this really remarkable series. It is also a much-awaited opportunity to pay tribute to, and thank, Sir David Attenborough for all he has done over so many years to bring the wonder, the fascination and, increasingly, the desperate plight of the natural world to our attention.
Above all, he has done so much to lift the veil of ignorance from our eyes about the intricate and integrated beauty of our home. The film of “Our Planet”, so astonishingly crafted by Silverback Films and with the support of WWF and Netflix, will, I pray, help to provide an essential means of reaching and teaching hundreds of millions of people around the world. Education about what we have, what we have destroyed and what can and must be regenerated could not be more timely or more urgently needed.
I often wonder why we have waited so long to take the action we were so evidently required to do. Fifty years ago - as it happens about the same time I made my first speech about the environment – the space flight Apollo 8 took “Earth Rise”, the photograph that showed for the first time the incomparable beauty – and fragility – of our planet. Surely, one might have thought, we would have known then the responsibility we had, what we had to do and the perilous path along which we were treading.
But, since that time, we have cleared fifty percent of the world’s rainforests, destroyed fifty percent of our coral reefs, poisoned our rivers – and, indeed, whole swathes of the Ocean with the run-off from industrialized agriculture - and have dumped hundreds of millions of tons of plastic into the Oceans as well.
And, of course, in doing so we have instigated as Sir David also said just now, the world’s sixth mass extinction event and have accelerated CO2 emissions to the extent that climate change is now a very real existential threat to our whole civilisation. Welcome, Ladies and Gentlemen, to the Anthropocene, an epoch formed by the impact of Man.
And perhaps the greatest crime of all is that we knew what were doing. Informed consent being the basis of democracy, should we not reject informed destruction as the basis of catastrophe? And, it appears, we have only belatedly, partially and somewhat reluctantly come to the realisation that Our Planet does not refer to the “our” of Homo sapiens, but rather to the whole, astounding miracle of life on Earth.
We share it equally and, as is becoming only too obvious, for our own survival we desperately need the rest of the Natural World, with which we are intimately inter-connected, but which we have been taught to exploit and dominate as something separate from ourselves.
It has given me great pride to see how both my sons, in different ways, have taken up the cause of restoring the balance of Nature.
When they were much younger I never thought they were paying attention to anything I said or did! But when I turned seventy last year I discovered, to my astonishment, that they had! My sons are both keen to remind me that we know what the problem is, we no longer need permission to act, but the priority is now to focus urgently on finding and implementing solutions. It is also glaringly obvious, as we look around our world, that these solutions need to heal the environment and our societies.
There is much, though, about which we can be hopeful. We can change our behaviour, we can embrace a circular economy, we can embrace renewable energy, we can make soil health the basis of our agriculture, we can meet the Sustainable Development Goal targets on the Ocean and forests, we can regenerate and restore our degraded landscapes, we can ensure that investment reflects the risks inherent in destroying natural capital as well as climate change and we can ensure that the infrastructure, on which some $90 trillion is to be spent in the next twenty years, is zero carbon and enhances the lives of those who depend upon it.
Not only do we have the solutions, we also have the money! In other words, the costs of keeping to 1.5 degrees of warming are relatively small and the benefits are enormous, whereas the costs of not doing so are catastrophic. So what I want to know is how can we sacrifice our children’s and grandchildren’s entire future, let alone the future of all life on this miraculous planet by not doing what we know is required – now? These self-same children and grandchildren are already raising their voices and demanding action…
We can do all of these things because we must and, by doing them, we will invest in technologies and activities that will secure employment and prosperity.
Climate change and biodiversity loss are not only going to wreak havoc on future generations, they are starting to wreak havoc on us already (particularly, and tragically, on the poorest and most vulnerable) and we have no choice but to be the change we need, for there is nobody else.
For that to happen as many people as possible, across all cultures and languages, must understand the natural world and our place within it. We are Nature ourselves. “Our Planet” will be a critical part of that process and I hope and pray that it will catalyse an enduring determination to cherish and protect the Earth, “Our” only home.