Dedicating my next 20 years to climate change: An interview with Sir David King FRS MAE#

AAAS Award winner and former UK Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, shares his ambitious plans to tackle the global challenge of climate change. The interview was conducted by the Academia Europaea Cardiff Knowledge Hub.

Sir David King

About Sir David King FRS MAE#

Professor Sir David King FRS MAE is a South African-born British chemist, Emeritus Professor and head of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group. He is the founder and Chair for the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge.

Sir David was Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and Head of the Government Office for Science from 2000 to 2007 under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. During this time, he raised public awareness of climate change. From 2013 to 2017, he served under Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May as the UK’s Climate Envoy. In May 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sir David formed and led Independent SAGE, an expert group providing science advice.

In 2003, Sir David was knighted in the New Year Honours. In 2009, he was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1991, a Foreign Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002, and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2006. He was elected to the Academia Europaea in 2008. In February, Sir David was awarded the 2022 David and Betty Hamburg Award for Science Diplomacy by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The interview#

How did you first become involved in informing and advising policy on climate change?

“In 2000, I was approached to see if I would be interested in the position of UK Chief Scientific Adviser. The reason I accepted the post was my worry about the way that climate change was being dealt with. I was giving up a research team of about 30 people at the University of Cambridge but with Prime Minister Blair’s encouragement on Fridays and Saturdays I kept the research team going. Right from the beginning, I said I would only accept the CSA position on the basis that my work would be open and transparent, that within 3 months I would put the same advice into the public. And that is how I operated. I had to maintain the trust of the public as well as the trust of the Cabinet. It’s quite a tightrope to walk along but that is what I managed.”

What is your assessment of policy actions taken so far on climate change and what is needed going forward?

“The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has been meeting since 1992, yet we have reached one global agreement, in 2015. I was heavily involved, as was the British Government, in getting that agreement through. Overall, we’ve made very little progress. Real progress requires us to have abandoned fossil fuels by now. Of course we haven’t, so we are faced with a very real challenge – as we see from the AR6 reports of the IPCC.”

What do you think came out of COP26?

“COP26 was in some ways an important step forward and in other ways, it didn’t move things very much at all. Developed countries did not accept their responsibilities, and there is a very clear loss of trust between the developing and the developed world. It became very transparent in the negotiations themselves. The developed world has not managed to reduce its emissions as much as they should have done and I would point a finger at the United States as the worst performer in the developed world, and that is quite an indictment. The power of the American lobby system with the fossil fuel industry is simply enormous and governments find it very difficult to handle this. It has deterred progress massively. It requires the stature and capability of the United States to lead the way. And because the US has never led on the climate change issue, we have not done what we should have done.

We are now in an extraordinarily challenging situation. We have passed the point of irreversible loss of ice on land, which means sea levels will eventually rise by an incredible 10 metres, and it could be even more. 2 metres by the end of the century would be devastating. How does London survive a 2-metre sea level rise? We are seeing an irreversible process, all because we’ve put too many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere already. I’m worried for my children and my grandchildren. Yet we knew what the problem was, many years ago. We’ve just stalled, stalled and stalled. It hasn’t helped that countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia were also blocking progress. The United Nations is commendable for its decision making process which means that we got that Paris 2015 agreement, but then nations walked away from the agreement they had signed up to.

There’s another challenge. In democracies, incoming governments don’t feel obliged by the previous government’s commitments. Brazil’s President Lula was very clearly committed to action on climate change but Bolsonaro has reversed every single thing that Lula put in place, so the loss of the forests in Brazil has reached a tipping point. They are no longer net absorbers of carbon dioxide but are net emitters because of the rate of deforestation. A very detailed analysis of this has been produced.

We need a new mode of operation. The whole world is involved but it’s not only human beings that are involved. We have ignored the state of our ecosystems because we never valued them. The free market capitalist system has just used the ecosystem as a junking ground for several hundred years. I think we have to be humble and learn from the indigenous people of the world. The people living in the forests of Brazil and the rest of South America, they’re extremely frustrated with us because we don’t understand the value of ecosystems. The people who live on permafrost know how to live there.

I spoke with one of the members of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group Tero Mustonen, a representative of the Sami and Inuit people, and asked him what the temperature was there and he said, “It’s April, it’s pretty cold, -30C but we know how to live under these conditions”. I spoke to him again at the end of July 2021 and he said, “David, you’re not going to be believe it, the temperature is now +32C.” All because we’ve lost ice on the Arctic Ocean. During the 3-month polar summer, the Arctic ice that’s formed in the winter melts and the blue ocean soaks up sunshine and the air is also hitting high temperatures. This has never before been experienced. Forests in that area have been on fire and there have been lightning strikes. We are seeing a complete transformation. If the North Pole becomes a warm region, that warm air pushes cold air from the Arctic Circle further north and warm air comes up from the equator, with an amazing transformation in weather systems. Right along the West coast of North America we’ve had temperatures in excess of 50 degrees centigrade, even up in Canada. These temperatures have never been experienced before. We’re already experiencing severe threats from climate change and it can only get worse.”

What do you see as priorities in terms of research and innovation for tackling climate change?

“In 2015, getting 195 nations to agree on something was extraordinarily challenging. And in the run up to Paris, I made 96 official country visits, negotiating country by country. I had 165 climate attaches during the time of the Blair government. The UK is an island nation and sea level rise will drown us. So what we need is global action. So I decided we needed a massive push into alternative technologies for the post-fossil fuel world, and called for a group of willing nations to collaborate in research, development and innovation. 22 heads of government were in support and we were heading towards our target $30 billion by 2020 until Trump came in and withdrew the US part of the budget. But Biden has restored that and we’ve committed in those same countries, under the programme Mission Innovation, spending $40-45 billion dollars per year by 2025. We need this public money to de-risk getting new technologies into the marketplace, with the private sector picking up on the best emerging technologies. Bill Gates has so far invested at least a billion dollars into emerging technologies. We can create wealth out of this important transition because the energy sector is the biggest in the world in terms of wealth creation. The number of nations now involved is 25, representing 80% of global GDP and includes the major economies of the world. That was my programme and I’m very pleased with the way it has developed.

In 2017, I left Government, and had the objective to set up a centre for climate repair at Cambridge University, which I have done. The Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge in now delivering what I think is necessary. If we look forward in time, we need firstly to reduce emissions. Secondly, we need to remove excess greenhouse gases. Our objective is to work with people around the world and we’re forming large consortia to reach a level of removing 30-40 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year. Thirdly, we need to buy time because of what’s happened in the North Pole region. So we believe we’ve got to learn how to keep ice coverage over the Arctic Ocean throughout the polar summer. I know that sounds very challenging, but we’re making quite good progress in creating white cloud cover over the Arctic Ocean. Everything depends on how much money we can raise to achieve these objectives. Other people are trying other technologies, to see if we can refreeze the Arctic and reflect sunlight away from the Arctic region and keep it cold. So we need all the research in those areas.”

Are there risks to some of these technologies and if so, how high?

“We are focused heavily on imitating natural processes. The project I’m heavily involved in has a consortium of 6 institutions covering Hawaii, Woods Hole on the East Coast of America, the National Oceanography Centre in Britain, University of Cape Town Goa Marine Studies Institute in India. The name of the programme is Marine Biomass Regeneration. We believe that marine biomass (particularly crustaceans, fish and mammals such as whales) are way down in numbers from where they were 400 years ago. Whalers in oceans around the world were removing whales, killing them and taking them for their blubber. Bayleen whales are probably at less than 5% of the population they were, yet they were probably acting as a critical biological pump for the living matter in the oceans. You would think that since whales are predators of fish, that as we cull the whales, the fish population would go up. However, the reverse happened because the whale’s biological pump was turned off by removing the whales. And so what we believe is that if we can recover the global whale population, we return that global pump. We are close to completing our analysis of missing nutrients around the world and we will install those nutrients into the surfaces of the oceans from ships. Over 20 or 30 years, we’ll restore the whale population. As a result, I believe we will end up removing at least 20 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases per year; in addition to restocking the oceans, dealing with loss of biodiversity in the oceans, we will also be capturing a vast amount of carbon dioxide. So we’ve got a solution that deals with both loss of biodiversity and with climate change.”

Could you tell us about your role as head of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group. What are you aiming to achieve with the CCAG?

“The role of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group is to be a kind of agent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change operates under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, with 195 nations represented. It does a great job but it’s very, very slow. The IPCC reports we’re now seeing have taken 6 years to prepare because they have to be vetted by every nation and this is a laborious process, although very important. The latest IPCC reports are the most severe warning to humanity that has yet been put forward and I make the following statement:

“Today’s IPCC report serves as a stark warning that humanity’s chances of outrunning the devastating impacts of climate change are uncomfortably low. We commend the scientists involved in producing such critically important analysis.

“The severity of human influence on our planetary ecosystems has led to a series of irreversible tipping points. The first of these, in the Arctic Circle region, appears already to have tipped, leading to the series of devastating extreme weather events around the Northern Hemisphere last summer. The latest IPCC report is unflinching in its assessment of the narrow range of opportunities we have left to repair the damage, and the days we squander now directly impact humanity’s chances of survival, in any form that would be recognisable to us today.

“And yet, there is a blind spot in the report when we discuss the climate beyond 2100. The younger generations amongst us, alongside future generations, will face climate disaster unless we act now. This is not a challenge for scientists to overcome, it is a moral duty for the whole planet to take urgent, co-ordinated action. Even if warming is limited to 1.5C, humanity and our biodiverse world will face an unstoppable global sea level rise that will exacerbate issues including poverty, inequality, war and food security.

“While reducing emissions of CO2 deeply, rapidly and in an ordered manner fair to all is critical, repairing the climate is now also of utmost priority. We must immediately begin removing excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at scale, while we buy time by rapidly researching ways to protect the ice caps, and complete an ordered transition to a fossil fuel free society.”

“This is a code red situation. No Government is taking it seriously enough. We must urgently seek productive collaboration between sub-national, national, and international bodies to do more to combat climate issues equitably, with determination and speed.”

Setting up the Climate Crisis Advisory Group gives us an agile group of experts who can respond very quickly. For example, our second report analyses the extreme weather events occurring during last summer. We published it at the end of August 2021 and showed how it was closely linked with what happened in the Arctic Circle region. So we’re able to respond very quickly. We’re not operating under the UN so we’re not subject to its very good democratic process, but nevertheless people recognise that we are the best expert group of its size in the world and we are getting a lot of attention. Our objective is to reach out into the global community and in particular to policymakers in government, business, finance and other sectors. We’re trying to influence individuals as well. The 15 members of CCAG do not get paid for what we’re doing and it’s expensive to run. I want to employ people at post-doctoral level to assist the members of the CCAG so that we can prepare reports that are well researched and keep up our ability to respond in an agile fashion. Our response to AR6 Part 2 came out within hours of it being published. We have people very close to the political system, as well as people covering economic, international law, and other aspects.”

Is it the speed of response that makes the difference because policymakers are looking for an answer today rather than tomorrow?

“Yes, we have never operated quickly enough. So the response to the AR6 report has to be about nations pulling together to deal with this global crisis, because if we don’t pull together, we’re not going to manage it. With every month that slips by, it gets worse. Next century is abominable. Imagine sea levels rising so that every major city on coastlines is under water. About once a year, 90% of the land mass of Vietnam will be under sea water, just 30 years from now. How many people will be looking to live somewhere else? Indonesia and Vietnam together provide more than half of the world’s rice. They won’t be producing rice once they’ve been flooded with sea water, as the land will be saline. So we’re looking at massive crop failure, we’re looking at massive food deficiencies. Yet we’re only looking at them if we don’t really shift dramatically. This is the world’s biggest problem and one that is terminal without a clear action plan.”

Science advice for policy has come to the fore during the Covid pandemic, both in the UK and internationally. What changes do you see in this field of work since the beginning of this century? How do you think science advice for policy should evolve over the coming years?

“In government, I found that we had a foresight programme, attempting to look decades ahead. I transformed it into an in-depth foresight programme. It was painstakingly slow and expensive to run but when I left, ministers and head of civil service told me how much it had achieved. How did it work? Let me give you an example. We studied infectious diseases for 3 years, including with people from Africa and China because we already believed that the next big pandemic would come from areas where indigenous people were living close to wild animals. We predicted that before 2030 there would be a pandemic, just as has happened. The British Government responded by investing in all the equipment our hospitals would need to handle such a pandemic. In 2012, that was all abandoned under the new austerity measures. So when it actually happened, we were completely unprepared. Under the Coalition Government, there was a system of top-down control from Government and I understand that, that if you are a Chief Scientific Adviser and you’re putting your advice into the public domain and into the Cabinet, that is a tightrope and you have to walk it very carefully. You need to keep the trust of the Government, but the Coalition Government and subsequent Conservative governments never understood the power of keeping the trust of the population and that really is the key to what I was managing.”

In what areas of work and activity will you focus your interests and energies?

“I divide my life into periods of 20 years. The first 20 was learning about the world, the place I’m living in and what function I might perform. The next 20 was about generating my career. I was kicked out of the country I was born in, South Africa, so I arrived as a refugee but very quickly took off in science. Over the next 20 years, I very successfully developed a very big research group, which was prominent globally in my field of study. I spent the following 20 years developing that and then I came to the point when I was approaching 60 and went into government until 2017.

And now I’m a free agent, so for the next 20 years I’m really focused on climate change. I’ve got grandchildren, and I’m driven by my belief in the world and its people. But of course my grandchildren are what will keep me going as far as I can into the future. I don’t think any member of my family anticipates that I’ll retire and put my feet up on a Greek island. Climate change is what I’m going to work on until I’m removed from the world.”

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