As the BBC embarks on a new strand focused on sustainability and the environment, Rick Stafford from Bournemouth University and Peter J S Jones from University College London ask that they do not shy away from highlighting the dramatic shifts required to reverse climate change.
Guardian journalist George Monbiot wrote a damning critique of the BBC and David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries in late 2018, arguing that they do little to illustrate the huge environmental issues faced by the natural world.
Since then, Attenborough has adopted a much stronger position. He spoke at both the UN Climate Summit and the World Economic Forum in Davos, and used his platform to highlight the threats of climate change.
Embarking on a new collaboration, Attenborough and the BBC confirmed their position in a one-off documentary entitled Climate Change: The Facts, which aired last night (18 April). The hour-long film explained the effects that climate change has already had and the disasters it might cause in future.
Although it’s crucial to raise awareness among the public about the impacts and threats of climate change, it’s equally important to explain how to fight it. That’s something the BBC has been more quiet about.
‘We need to revise our economic system and its dependence on growth to prevent the unnecessary consumption of the world’s resources’
The recent series Blue Planet Live featured a segment on the Great Barrier Reef in which it stated that coral bleaching is the result of climate change. That places the BBC in line with the scientific consensus. The same episode later described the “heroic” research effort that is needed to save the world’s reefs from coral bleaching, and covered the capture and transfer of coral spawn to a new location.
However, science has already given the solutions to address this problem. Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Institute for Public Policy Research and some of our own research all clearly indicate that tackling climate change and other environmental issues – including biodiversity loss, soil erosion and even ocean plastic pollution – requires major changes to society.
We need to revise our economic system and its dependence on growth to prevent the unnecessary consumption of the world’s resources. As the youth climate strikes leader, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, clearly puts it, we need “system change, not climate change”.
‘Insights into the natural world can present a sense of environmental optimism that promotes action’
In an era when schoolchildren are striking for climate action and radical proposals for climate action are entering the political mainstream, the BBC’s timidity towards even discussing solutions seems odd.
Covering these arguments is political but goes way beyond party politics and certainly wouldn’t breach impartiality guidelines. Audiences might understand that this isn’t as interesting as coral spawning being captured during a lightning storm, as was shown on Blue Planet Live, but if the BBC doesn’t address the solutions to climate change, then how can there be an educated public that understands that saving the planet requires more than individual gestures like carrying a reusable coffee cup?
There’s no doubt that Attenborough’s BBC documentaries have inspired millions of people around the world to take environmental issues seriously. His programmes have encouraged many of our students to undertake degrees in environmental sciences.
Their insights into the natural world can present a sense of environmental optimism that promotes action. Whereas failing to address the political and economic solutions necessary to stop climate change means the BBC could fail to respect its own values in education and citizenship.
With their new documentary, Attenborough and the BBC can challenge our current economic system – only then can they fulfil their duty to inform the public with accuracy and impartiality.
Rick Stafford is professor of marine biology and conservation at Bournemouth University. His research is currently focussed on understanding and protecting the marine environment in a holistic manner. Dr Peter Jones is a reader in environmental governance at University College London. He has spent more than 20 years undertaking interdisciplinary research on the governance of human uses of marine resources.
David Attenborough speaking at Davos in January 2019. Image: World Economic Forum/Boris Baldinger (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)