The celebrated wildlife filmmaker and zoologist David Attenborough has been honored with the UN Environment Program’s most illustrious title, the Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement award, granted in recognition of his “outsized impact on the global environmental movement.”
Attenborough, now 95, has been recording, writing and presenting films about the natural world since 1954, when he first presented the BBC television nature series zoo quest. His presence throughout more than half a century of lavish, intricately produced BBC nature documentaries has made him a household name not only in his native UK, where he is regarded a national treasure, but worldwide.
In the latter part of his career, Attenborough has gone beyond presenting stories about animals, plants and their habitats, to advocating more widely for action to protect the natural world and to combat human-caused climate change.
At the COP26 climate conference in November last year, Attenborough delivered what was widely agreed to be one of the most powerful speeches of the whole summit, calling on nations to “rewrite our story to turn this tragedy into a triumph.”
“Our burning of fossil fuels, our destruction of nature, our approach to industry, construction and learning are releasing carbon into the atmosphere at an unprecedented pace and scale,” he warned, before making his call to action.
“We must use this opportunity to create a more equal world, and our motivation should not be fear, but hope,” he said.
Presenting the award, UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said of Attenborough:
“If we stand a chance of averting climate and biodiversity breakdowns and cleaning up polluted ecosystems, it’s because millions of us fell in love with the planet that he captured on film and writing, in his voice.
“Sir David’s work will continue to inspire people of all ages to care for nature and to become the restoration generation.”
Accepting the award in an online interview with Andersen, Attenborough said: “without the United Nations… we will never solve the environmental crisis. The world has to get together. We are living in a new era where nationalism simply isn’t enough… we must wave goodbye to it. We must feel that we are all citizens of this one planet, because unless we do, we won’t solve the problems.”
It’s the latest of a long series of prestigious awards for Attenborough, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1985 for services to broadcasting. As well as holding numerous medals and trophies from governments and institutions globally, he holds more honorary degrees from British universities than any other person, with 32 to his name.
UNEP’s Champions of the Earth award was inaugurated in 2005 to recognize environmental leaders worldwide. In 2020 the Lifetime Achievement award was given to the American sociologist and environmental activist Robert Bullard, for his work fighting environmental oppression and systemic racism.
The four other Champions of the Earth award categories are Entrepreneurial Vision, Policy Leadership, Science and Innovation, and Inspiration and Action.
Policy Leadership laureates include Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, who last year won international acclaim for her impassioned speeches on climate justice at the United Nations General Assembly and at COP26.
Among those recognized as Science and Innovation Champions is Canadian atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, awarded in 2019 for “her stalwart commitment to quantifying the effects of climate change and her tireless efforts to transform attitudes on climate change.”
Champions don’t have to be individuals: in 2019, UNEP presented the Fridays for Future movement with its Inspiration and Action award, saying the movement had “electrified the global conversation about climate change at a time when the window of opportunity to avoid the worst effects of rising temperatures is closing.”
A full list of UNEP’s Champions of the Earth can be found here.