The historic COP26 summit got underway in Glasgow on Monday and Sir David Attenborough was there to deliver a fittingly impassioned speech for the opening ceremony.

As “People’s Advocate” for this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (a.k.a. COP26), Attenborough has taken on a special responsibility to advocate for change. In response he has taken every opportunity in the past few months to tell world leaders exactly how important this conference is and what needs to happen to limit global warming and secure a better future for the planet — and his opening speech was no different.

The broadcaster and naturalist has spent decades documenting the natural world and has seen first-hand the devastating impact of the climate crisis, insight that he has brought to his environmental advocacy. 

“In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could witness a wonderful recovery,” he told the world leaders and activists listening at COP26.

The aim of the summit, which will be held until Nov. 12, is to ensure that countries take action to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, and ideally below 1.5 degrees. It is vital that progress is made towards that goal. You can read more about what is predicted to happen as a result of global warming that reaches 1.5, 2, and 3 degrees here.

As well as Attenborough’s speech, the delegates gathered also heard remarks from other speakers including the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson; the UN Secretary-General António Guterres; a young Samoan climate activist Brianna Fruean, Prince Charles, and more, at the ceremony.

Here’s what Attenborough had to say. 

1. ‘We Are Already in Trouble’ 

Attenborough began by describing an era before the Earth’s climate was stable, describing it as a “brutal world.” But he said that by 10,000 years ago the temperature had stablised, which led to a period that allowed civilizations to flourish — and that situation had stayed the same, “until now.”

He highlighted the fact that climate change was already happening and that we are already in trouble, as seen by increasing extreme weather events globally.

He added that amid all the noise surrounding the summit, progress to stop climate change really depends on one simple thing — cutting carbon emissions.

Attenborough said: “As you spend the next two weeks debating, negotiating, persuading, and compromising as you surely must, it’s easy to forget that ultimately the emergency of the climate comes down to a single number — the measure of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.”

2. ‘This Story is One of Inequality, As Well As Instability’ 

Throughout his speech, Attenborough emphasised the need to recognise the injustice that poorer nations are dealing disproportionately with the impacts of the climate crisis despite the fact they did little to cause it. “Today the ones that did the least to cause this crisis are the ones experiencing the most impact,” he said.

But he said that by working together the world could turn things around, and in the process ensure that the world becomes a fairer place, too.

“We are going to have to learn together how to achieve this, ensuring none are left behind. We should use this opportunity to create a more equal world, and our motivation should not be based on fear, but on hope,” Attenborough continued.

3. ‘The People Most Affected by Climate Change Are No Longer Some Imagined Future Generation' 

As well as highlighting the unequal impact of the climate crisis on different nations, Attenborough talked about the imbalance inherent in the fact that it is younger generations alive today who will face more of the worst effects of climate change, while not having caused it.

“The people who are alive now, and those from generations to come,” he said. “They will look back at this conference and consider one thing: did that number stop rising and start to come down as a result of commitments made here?”

He said that thinking about younger generations and our own children and grandchildren, might give the impetus to change. But he warned against the “all too human characteristic of failing to see the bigger picture in pursuit of short term goals.” 

4. 'We Are the Greatest Problem-Solvers That Have Ever Existed on Earth’ 

While Attenborough’s speech did not shy away from the harsh reality of the climate crisis, he also emphasised that there is hope if people work together to tackle the problem.

He said that humans have the capacity to solve the problems that have led us to this point.

“We now understand this problem, we know how to stop the number increasing, and put it in reverse,” he explained. “We must stop carbon emissions this decade. We must recapture billions of tons of carbon from the air. We must fix our sights on keeping 1.5 degrees within reach.”

Attenborough was clear that making this effort would be good for everyone in the world, and bring about many extra benefits. “We will all share in the benefits, affordable clean energy, healthy air, and enough food to sustain us all.”

Most importantly, he emphasised the need to work together. “If, when apart, we have destabilised the world’s climate, we can work together to save it.”

You can take action with Global Citizen right now to help call on world leaders to take the urgent action needed to curb emissions, deliver climate finance, and tackle the climate crisis. Head here to find lots of actions you can take, from using social media and email to share climate messages to world leaders, to signing petitions, to taking quizzes about solutions to climate change, and more. 

Global Citizen Life

Defend the Planet

‘Is This How Our Story Is Due to End?’: David Attenborough Kicks Off COP26 With Desperate Plea to Leaders

By Helen Lock