HER name was supposed to be a joke. Instead it became a reminder of the threat our planet faces.

The public, according to a popular vote, had wanted to call Britain's new Antarctic research vessel Boaty McBoatface.

That, however, was deemed too flippant for a ship to ply the southern oceans investigating global heating.

And so on Thursday Prince William and his wife Catherine, the Earl and Countess of Strathearn, formally named the RSS Sir David Attenborough after one of the world's great prophets of the climate crisis.

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The 93-year-old naturalist, accompanied by daughter Susan, attended a ceremony at the Cammell Laird shipyard to see the ship named in his honour.

Speaking before the naming ceremony, William said: “As last week’s climate protests the world over and yesterday’s report on our oceans and frozen regions demonstrated, there has never been a more important moment for this ship to get to work, and there is no person more fitting for this beacon of scientific research to be named after than you, David.

“You have shown us how awe-inspiring the natural world is, and also how fragile and endangered it is, and you have inspired us all to do as much as we possibly can to protect it.

“It is my immense privilege and relief to welcome Sir David Attenborough, rather than Boaty McBoatface, to speak.”

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Addressing crowds who had come to see the ship, Sir David said: “It’s no news to any of you that the world is facing great, great problems and the most aware of that are the young people of today, who will inherit this world.

“Great problems require great research and facts in order to solve them.

“That’s what this astonishing ship will be here to do, to find out the facts and find the science with which to deal with problems that are facing the world today and will increasingly do so tomorrow.

“There could be no more important function for any ship, anywhere in the world, than those which are going to be dealt with by this remarkable ship, at the cutting edge of science.”

He said it is the “greatest possible honour” that the ship carries his name.

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The Countess of Strathearn, the ship’s sponsor, formally named the vessel and a bottle of champagne was smashed against the hull to mark the occasion.

The royal couple were given a tour of the ship and met engineers, including young apprentices, who were involved in the build.

They also met scientists, schoolchildren and heard from the ship’s captains and crew members about its ice-breaking capabilities and navigation systems.

Mackenzie Grieman, a scientist with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and colleague Rob Mulvaney showed the royals ice core which is 85,000 years old.

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Ms Grieman said: “You can hear the carbon dioxide in them as it crackles and pops.”

She said carbon dioxide levels in ice core can be monitored and the levels today are the highest they have ever been.

As he held a piece of the core, William said: “It’s quite hard to know how to treat an 85,000-year-old piece of ice that’s melting in your hand.”

The royals also saw the miniature submarine which was given the name Boaty McBoatface, after it was vetoed for the main ship despite 124,000 people voting for it in a public poll.

Alexander Brearley, physical oceanographer for BAS, and Eleanor Frajka-Williams, physical research scientist for the National Oceanography Centre, explained the work of the submarine to the couple.

Mr Brearley said: “They had really good insight and asked really good questions.”

On the bridge of the ship, William took a seat in the driving chair while Kate watched on and joked: “Shall I leave you to it?”

The RRS David Attenborough, which is owned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and operated by the BAS, will enable world-leading research to be carried out in Antarctica and the Arctic over the next 25 to 30 years.

Sir David, meanwhile, this week launched a broadside against Australia's prime minister Scott Morrison after warning the Great Barrier Reef was at risk.

He said: You are the keepers of an extraordinary section of the surface of this planet, including the Barrier Reef, and what you say, what you do, really, really matters.

“And when you’ve been upstanding and talking about what I see as the truth and and you suddenly say, ‘No it doesn’t matter ... it doesn’t matter how much coal we burn ... we don’t give a damn what it does to the rest of the world.”

Australia has one of the worst records on carbon emissions with per-capita figures five or six times that, for example, of Scotland. Sir David, speaking in an interview with Australian TV, added that a "bleached reef is a tragic sight, a desperately tragic sight, particularly if you’ve seen it before, and you know what it could have been like”.

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Sir David has previously criticised the number of climate deniers among politicians in Australia, which is a major producer of coal but which is also facing significant climate threats. This month Australian carried out an emergency relocation of fish from its drying-up Murray Darling river system.