"We are facing a man-made disaster of global scale," David Attenborough warned audiences at the opening ceremony of the UN climate change summit on Monday – "Our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change."
Attenborough has the portentous task of being the people's stand-in, or voice, at this month's Conference of the Parties (COP) 24, a series of UN-sponsored climate talks being held in Katowice, Poland. These are said to be some of the most important meetings to be had on climate change since 2015 and will be integral to smoothing out the practical arrangements of the Paris Agreement. Indeed, they are so critical to the fight against climate change that officials began the conference a day early to get a head start on negotiations.
"If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon," Attenborough told the 200 or so delegates in attendance.
David Attenborough at the COP24 opening ceremony. Guardian News/YouTube
The natural historian and Blue Planet presenter is at COP24 as part of an initiative called the "People's Seat", a project designed to articulate the concerns and hopes of the 7.5 billion people across the planet who would not otherwise be in attendance. It has adopted the hashtag #TakeYourSeat, which anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account can use to share their message on climate change. Some of these were collated and presented to attendees during the opening ceremony.
"I am only here to represent the voice of the people, to deliver our collective thoughts, concerns, ideas, and suggestions," Attenborough continued.
"The world’s people have spoken. Their message is clear. Time is running out."
COP24 is the first set of climate discussions since the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in October 2018, which stressed that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, global temperature rise must be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
There is an added sense of urgency following a string of studies released in recent weeks revealing we are vastly off track when it comes to meeting the climate goals laid out in Paris, let alone the much tougher 1.5°C target. These include reports showing the last four years have been the hottest on record, CO2 emissions are back on the rise after three years of stability, and global greenhouse gas emissions are at a record high.
Or, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, "We are in trouble. We are in deep trouble with climate change."
"Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption," he told delegates at the opening ceremony.
"Nor are we doing enough to capitalize on the enormous social, economic, and environmental opportunities of climate action," he added, referring to the fact that by meeting targets, we could gain 65 million jobs and $26 trillion dollars in the next 12 years alone. What's more, he said, a drop in air pollution could save more than a million lives per year.
According to Guterres, emissions must drop by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and we must achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
"It is our job here in Katowice is to finalize the Paris Agreement Work Programme – the rule book for implementation," he added.
"We cannot afford to fail in Katowice."