Gerry Farrell: Encounter that could save the world

President Barack Obama meeting Sir David Attenborough. Picture: PA
President Barack Obama meeting Sir David Attenborough. Picture: PA
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Half past ten at night is normally way past our bedtime, but we made an exception on Sunday night. We brewed up some extra-strong coffee, dimmed the lights, plumped up the cushions and hit the On button. We were ready for the Greatest Spectacle Of The Weekend. Nope, it wasn’t Glastonbury. (Kanye West was well worth missing, as I later found out.) We were primed and stoked for the most surprising mash-up this year: Obama vs ­Attenborough, with POTUS asking the questions.

It was hard to tell which of these two giants was most overawed by the other. Obama was nervous at first, his questions were a little too long and he nearly jumped all over Sir David’s answers. The World’s Greatest Living Naturalist looked curiously shy at times – as well as super-excited just to be in the White House. But they both settled down and it was a great privilege to eavesdrop while two of the planet’s most powerful and articulate people shared their unease at the way the world is going. We need people we can believe in and this pair made most politicians seem like pygmies. Especially those Republican politicians to the far right of Obama who question – or even deny – climate change just to suck up to their constituencies. Like Rick Scott, the current Governor of Florida, who has actually banned his employees from using the phrase “climate change” and recently made himself look ridiculous in an interview by refusing to say the words out loud.

Asked by Obama what inspired his interest in the natural world, Attenborough said exactly what I would have said: like so many children, he turned over a stone and saw a slug. He added that what he couldn’t understand was how so many children who were fascinated by creepy-crawlies and birds and fish in their early years came to lose that spark when they grew up. “So what can we do to save this little marble we all live on?” asked Obama.

Two things, suggested Attenborough. One, we need to find a way to store renewable energy. “If we do that, we can say goodbye to oil, coal and fossil fuels.” And two? Educate women so that as a species we learn how to avoid over-populating the Earth. What’s happening at present is the urbanisation of millions of people who then lose their deep connection to nature – that same connection we all feel when we stand next to the ocean, on top of a mountain or in the middle of a wilderness.

This is clearly an issue Obama wants to get to grips with in his final year as President. He’s done himself no harm by reaching out to Sir David Attenborough. What a legacy they could build if they keep working together.