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The meeting between President Barack Obama and Sir David Attenborough was a first for both men. And the President’s interview of the renowned naturalist and broadcaster was a first for viewers on both sides of the pond.

President Obama Meets Sir David Attenborough
President Barack Obama and Sir David Attenborough – © Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

It was brilliant.

Simulcast yesterday on BBC America in the US and BBC One in the UK, the special one-hour program featured President Barack Obama interviewing Sir David Attenborough at the White House about the future of the planet, their passion for nature, and what can be done to protect it.

Filmed in May on Attenborough’s 89th birthday, their meeting was this the first time Attenborough had met a US president, and the first time Obama had met the broadcast pioneer he grew up watching — one who revolutionized nature documentaries through his now 60-year career of exploring nature across the globe and witnessing the positive amd negative changes that have taken place.

The President wanted to meet the naturalist to discuss climate change and its effect on the environment, and to ask Attenborough his thoughts on the most critical issues threatening our planet.

“I have been a huge admirer of your work for a very long time… you’ve been a great educator as well as a great naturalist,” said the President.

During their exchange, Obama spoke about his paternal roots in Kenya, how his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia established an enduring love of the natural world, and the initiatives he and his administration have undertaken to tackle climate change and address environmental issues.

He stated, “We’re not moving as fast as we need to, and part of what I know from watching your programs and all the great work you’ve done is that these ecosystems are all interconnected. If just one country is doing the right thing but other countries are not, then we’re not going to solve the problem. We’re going to have to have a global solution to this.”

“What we’re seeing are global trends that depend on the entire world working together, and sadly we haven’t made as much progress as we need to on climate change,” he added.

Attenborough related tales from his long career, his recent record-breaking dive on the Great Barrier Reef. and what he believes needs to be done about pressing issues such as the rising population, climate change, and renewable energy.

Said Attenborough, “I believe that if we find ways of generating and storing power from renewable resources, we will make the problem with oil and coal disappear, because economically, we’ll wish to use these other methods. If we do that, a huge step will be taken in solving the problems of the Earth.”

He continued, “I think what’s required is an understanding and a gut feeling that the natural world is part of your inheritance. This is the only planet we’ve got and we’ve got to protect it. And people do feel that, deeply and instinctively. It is after all where you go in moments of celebration and in moments of grief.”

Interspersed throughout the special are highlights from Attenborough’s films, including Life on Earth, Blue Planet, and Galapagos, and previously unseen black-and-white and color footage of Attenborough during his six decades with the BBC. Viewers also got to see behind-the-scenes footage of him with Obama, as well as videos and photos from Obama’s presidency, including his speaking at an Earth Day gathering and his family’s experience of the wondrous national parks in the United States. For added background and context, actress Olivia Colman provided narration.

Attenborough concluded, “On my 89th birthday it was to my considerable surprise to find myself in a place that I’ve never been to before… to visit the White House with the President of the United States. (He was) friendly, hospitable and genuine.” (And yes, White House staffers feted him with birthday cake.)

The special was intimate, intriguing, and touching. I couldn’t help but be moved to tears by the scenes of nature in its glory and of Attenborough with creatures living, reanimated by video technologies, and now extinct, including Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise that died in 2012.

Do give it a watch. The full interview is here:


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President Barack Obama and Sir David Attenborough: The Interview