Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet shows the toll the demise of the Earth’s natural places is having on the people who study them.
By Graham Readfearn
One of Australia’s leading coral reef scientists is seen breaking down in tears at the decline of the Great Barrier Reef during a new Sir David Attenboroughdocumentary to be released globally on Friday evening.
Prof Terry Hughes is recounting three coral bleaching monitoring missions in 2016, 2017 and 2020 when he says: “It’s a job I hoped I would never have to do because it’s actually very confronting …” before tears cut him short.
The emotional scene comes during the new Netflix documentary, Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet, and shows the toll the demise of the planet’s natural places is having on some of the people who study them.
The film visits scientists working on melting ice, the degradation of the Amazon, and the loss of biodiversity, and looks at a 2019/2020 “summer from hell” for Australia that featured unprecedented bushfires and the most widespread bleaching of corals ever recorded on the Great Barrier reef.
The 70-minute film features another Australian scientist, Dr Daniella Teixeira, walking through a blackened landscape where she was working to conserve endangered glossy black cockatoos.
“There’s no sign of any wildlife at all,” says Teixeira, with footage of twisted and burnt animals and trees turned to charcoal. “There’s nothing left.”
The documentary, fronted by Attenborough, is centred on the research of Swedish scientist Prof Johan Rockström, whose work looks at the concept of tipping points and boundaries in different systems around the planet, such as the polar regions, the Earth’s biodiversity and the climate.
In 2017, the heat waves, extreme wild fires, and flooding
around the world confirmed beyond doubt that climate
disruption is now a full-blown emergency.
We have entered Churchill’s “period of consequences”, yet
governments have simply watched the disasters magnify,
while rushing ahead with new pipelines and annual trillions in
fossil fuel subsidies.
Governments simply cannot say they did not know. The
events we are seeing today have been consistently forecast
ever since the First Assessment by the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change, which was signed by all
governments back in 1990, which The Lancet has described
as the best research project ever designed.
Unprecedented Crime first lays out the culpability of
governmental, political and religious bodies, corporations,
and the media through their failure to report or act on the
climate emergency. No emergency response has even been
contemplated by wealthy high-emitting national governments.
Extreme weather reporting never even hints at the need to
address climate change.
It then reports how independently of governments, scores of
proven zero-carbon game changers have been coming online
all over the world. These exciting technologies, described in
the book, are now able to power both household electricity
and energy-dense heavy industry.
We already have the technical solutions to the CO2 problem.
With these solutions we can act in time to reduce greenhouse
gas emissions to near-zero within 20 years.
These willful crimes against life itself by negligent
governments, oblivious media and an insouciant civil society
are crimes that everyday citizens can nonetheless readily
grasp – and then take to the streets and to the courts to
protest on behalf of their children and grand-children.
This thoroughly researched and highly-documented book will
show them how.
Netflix says the film documents “the most important scientific discovery of our time – that humanity has pushed Earth beyond the boundaries that have kept Earth stable for 10,000 years, since the dawn of civilisation.”
Hughes has become a high-profile scientific figure in Australia for his research on the complex impacts of global heating on the world’s biggest reef system and his monitoring flights to document mass bleaching.
“In big thermal extremes like we’ve been seeing during mass bleaching events in recent decades [corals] can actually die very very quickly. They cook,” he says in the documentary.
Hughes told the Guardian that “if anything I think the emotional response has lessened over time” and that the 2016 bleaching event in the north of the reef “was the most confronting”.
“But it’s still deeply saddening,” he said.
He said Rockström’s research, which he has collaborated on, was “simple and powerful” and showed how the world was on a “trajectory that is not sustainable”.
“You can easily transgress a tipping point and not notice it for a couple of decades,” he said, adding he thought the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere had probably reached a tipping point for coral reefs in the 1980s.
Hughes, of James Cook University’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said the black summer bushfires and coral bleaching “points to Australia’s vulnerability”.
In the documentary, Attenborough says: “We are heading for a future where the Great Barrier Reef is a coral graveyard.”
He describes Australia’s 2019/20 summer as “a summer from hell, fuelled by record-breaking temperatures and drought”.
Texeira, from the University of Queensland, is filmed in February 2020 returning to sites on Kangaroo Island off the South Australian coast where she was studying endangered glossy black cockatoos.
She finds one of the nests erected to help the birds on a fallen tree with an iron plate around the trunk to stop possums climbing up and attacking the young.
With the iron buckled from the heat and the nest melted, Texeira says: “They weren’t enough to save them.”
She told the Guardian: “There are days when I still get overwhelmed. At the end of the day, we’re humans and we have emotions.”
She had been visiting the island for four years and the fires had come just as she was completing her PhD.
“I have come out the other side now but it has really made me more focused on the urgency of the problems and how we as scientists can make changes now.”
Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet is available on Netflix on 4 June
Remorseless financial crises. Extreme inequalities in wealth. Relentless pressure on the environment. Anyone can see that our economic system is broken. But can it be fixed?
In Doughnut Economics, Oxford academic Kate Raworth identifies the seven critical ways in which mainstream economics has led us astray – from selling us the myth of ‘rational economic man’ to obsessing over growth at all costs – and offers instead an alternative roadmap for bringing humanity into a sweet spot that meets the needs of all within the means of the planet. Ambitious, radical and thoughtful, she offers a new, cutting-edge economic model fit for the challenges of the 21st century.
About the Author
Kate Raworth is an economist whose research focuses on the unique social and ecological challenges of the 21st century. She is a Senior Visiting Research Associate teaching at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, and a Senior Associate of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.
Over the last two decades Kate has worked as Senior Researcher at Oxfam, as a co-author of the UN’s Human Development Report at the United Nations Development Programme, and as a Fellow of the Overseas Development Institute in the villages of Zanzibar.
She has been named by the Guardian as one of the top ten tweeters on economic transformation.