“On Thin Ice” debuted in the UK on Wednesday night, and reviews were just starting to roll in at press time. According to The Telegraph’s TV critic, James Walton, the episode did, in fact, focus on the impacts of climate change rather than mankind’s contribution thereto. Although the episode started with dire warnings about global warming’s toll on the polar regions, including a shot that cuts to an oil refinery:
The longer the programme went on, though, the clearer it was that Attenborough remains a BBC man to his bootstraps. At times, indeed, the result felt virtually like a parody of the Corporation’s determined commitment to the sort of balance that proves its worth by annoying both sides
Aerial photos of the Arctic showed that between 1980 and 2010, 30 per cent of the sea-ice has disappeared. For thousands of years the Wilkins ice shelf off the Antarctic coast was a solid Yorkshire-sized block, some 200 metres thick. Now it looks like a collection of huge white London Olympics logos.
Even so, the only cause of the melting that Attenborough mentioned was a shift in wind direction. At no point did he suggest any human involvement in climate change - and whenever possible he pointed out the animals that have benefited from the warmer conditions.
The lack of emphasis on human industry’s contribution to climate change is unfortunate, but perhaps viewers should not be too dismayed. An early November article in The Telegraph pointed out Attenborough caught a lot of flak with his last blockbuster series, Planet Earth, for “showing heart-stopping footage of wild creatures without mentioning the threats they faced.” According to the article:
Sir David retorted that “by showing the glories of the world” the series would “help persuade people that this planet is worth saving”
That’s not an unreasonable sentiment. As award-winning science journalist Michelle Nijhuis recently suggested, “It’s not (always) about the Lorax.” That’s a clever way of saying that although, “there’s a lot of genuine tragedy on the environmental beat,” perhaps environmental are too quick to reach for the “bad news” frame when “other-than-tragic” narratives are available.
There is no doubt that the poles face a grave, manmade threat from climate change, but there hasn’t exactly been a shortage of attention to that fact. A lot of people wanted to see Attenborough use his celebrity status to spur the world to action.
“His opinion on this may do for global warming what Walter Cronkite’s opposition to the Vietnam war did to American feelings about our futile involvement in that conflict,” Jerry A. Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, wrote on this blog.
Maybe focusing on the majesty of the Arctic and Antarctic this time around will do.