Sir David King offers a final warning

23rd September 2021

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Chris Seekings, senior reporter for Transform magazine

The UK government’s former chief scientific adviser Sir David King talks to Chris Seekings about his career, the latest IPCC report, COVID-19 and COP26

A refugee who fled South African apartheid and rose to become the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King has for decades warned against the political and economic choices that have led to the climate crisis.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed earlier this year that human activity’s impact on the climate is “unequivocal”, setting in motion “unprecedented” damage that may be “irreversible” for thousands of years. Despite this “code red for humanity”, scientists say a total catastrophe can be avoided if the world acts fast to deliver the emissions cuts required to stabilise rising temperatures.

In his latest role as chair of the recently formed Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG), King hopes to guide the public, governments and financial institutions through the steps needed to protect and repair the planet.

The awakening

King worked with the African National Congress in the early 1960s, during apartheid in South Africa. “Mandela was leading the movement, but he had gone underground, and I was writing open letters to newspapers setting out the reasons why this system could not continue,” he says. “My upbringing exposed me to massive disparities in wellbeing – if you were black, you were unable to rise in society at all. It was a big political awakening for me.”

After obtaining his PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in 1963, he was kicked out of South Africa for his affiliation with the anti-apartheid movement. “I arrived in Britain as a refugee, but I was happily employed at Imperial College London as a postdoctoral fellow with funding from Shell, which set my scientific career off.”

His interest in climate change came after he was made head of physical chemistry at Cambridge University in 1988. The university had undertaken groundbreaking research into the depletion of the ozone layer – research that played a key role in the creation of the 1987 Montreal Protocol. “I had admiration for the work, and for the science behind changing atmospheric conditions due to increased emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). That was my introduction to climate change.”

In 2000, King was headhunted for the position of chief scientific adviser to then prime minister Tony Blair, and stayed on in the role during Gordon Brown’s premiership. “We started what I call real action on climate change,” he says. “We appointed 165 climate experts to our embassies around the world, and got all our ambassadors to understand that this issue was absolutely critical going forward.”

King would go on to lead international climate negotiations for the Foreign Office under David Cameron, who, to his surprise, gave the negotiators a budget of £4.5bn over 10 years – an amount that was increased to £9bn in 2015. “We were playing the leadership role globally.”

The state of play

Despite these efforts, the IPCC confirmed in August what scientists had feared all along: that climate change tipping points are being reached, and that the damage may be irreversible. Some believe this could lead people to feel disengaged from the issue, and to believe that total catastrophe is now inevitable. For King, this is only a minor concern.

“The main message is that, unless we make the transitions necessary, we are going to lose what we understand by our civilisation over the coming decades,” he says. “If sea levels continue to rise, the map of the world will be dramatically changed, because 80% of our cities sit on coastlines – so we’re going to see a massive transformation. I’m not saying it’s the end of humanity, but it’s certainly the end of humanity as we know it.”

The signs are already here, with severe heatwaves, storms, fires, droughts and floods no longer unusual across the entire Northern Hemisphere – and the situation could get much worse. “We have just experienced a period of methane explosions in the Northern Arctic region that could lead to a rapid rise in global temperatures, because methane is a much more serious greenhouse gas per molecule than CO2,” King explains. “The severity of the storms we’ve seen in Europe this year is surely a wake-up call to all of us. There are actions we can take, and the very last thing we should do is give up. I don’t believe that is an option at all.”

King is also keen to point out that the IPCC’s latest findings are expressed in a cautionary way, because they have had to be approved by 195 nations; he believes sea levels could rise by many metres, rather than just centimetres. “At the CCAG, we are much more expressive and clearer about what we think the future looks like, and what actions need to be taken.”

“The very last thing we should do is give up. I don’t believe that is an option at all”

Climate repair

CCAG is a group of world-renowned climate experts, launched by King in June to provide governments, financial institutions and the public with the most comprehensive climate science and solutions to the crisis. It recently published a report warning that net-zero emissions by 2050 is now “too little, too late”, and that net-negative strategies are the “only viable option”. This will involve rapid emissions reductions, the removal of carbon from the atmosphere and, perhaps most importantly, climate repair.

“We need to remove greenhouse gases at scale – there is too much up there, and the danger is that tipping points could set off others,” says King. “However, by repairing broken climate systems, we may be able to buy some time and avoid some tipping points.”

One of CCAG’s most eye-catching proposed climate repair solutions would involve refreezing the Arctic through marine cloud brightening. In a nutshell, this would involve imitating a natural process wherein sea salt is collected in clouds, creating a white cover that reflects sunlight back away from Earth.

“What is happening in the Arctic Circle region is the origin of many, if not all, extreme weather events,” King says. “We may have to learn how to recreate ice cover over the Arctic Ocean during the Arctic summer. We’re using a natural process, but if there was a negative feedback, we could always stop it. It’s not as if the cloud brightening is going to continue if we stop putting these salt particles up in the atmosphere.”

Although King believes that carbon removal will be a critical solution to the climate crisis, he is “very worried” about many of the offset programmes used by large companies in their net-zero strategies. “You could fly to Australia and offset your journey by paying no more than 10%, which is ridiculous in terms of the amount of CO2 you are emitting,” he says. “You'd have to probably pay three or four times that ticket price to cover the emissions. I'm afraid offsetting is a very, very misleading part of the whole process.”

He would also like to see a new approach to cap-and-trade schemes for emissions. “There is a much smarter way to do this, which is to deal with the mining of coal, oil and gas and to place a carbon price on that,” he explains. “Fossil fuel companies would then face a heavy carbon price on mining, which should be a progressively-increasing price, and eventually be so high that it brings an end to the practice.”

The CCAG was inspired by the Independent SAGE group, founded by King to provide scientific advice to the UK government and public at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During his time as the country’s chief scientific adviser, he ran a foresight programme looking at the potential for zoonotic infectious diseases, believing that a new virus transitioning from animals to humans was most likely to occur in China or Africa. The spread of COVID-19 is believed to have begun in a Wuhan wet market.

“It's not as if this was a surprise,” King says. “It was certainly not a surprise to see the Chinese government respond exactly as we outlined they should, which was to isolate parts of the country from those that had been in contact with the disease. The UK government did virtually nothing until 23 March 2020, and I don’t think we know what scientific advice was going in at that point in time.”

He believes we are going to have to live with booster jabs, and potentially further lockdowns, for the foreseeable future, and that the government should have been more transparent with the advice it was receiving at the start of the pandemic. “Tony Blair and Gordon Brown fully understood that if I gave them advice on actions, they would, within a month, have to put that advice into the public domain.”

Time for leadership

Although King speaks fondly of the leadership he encountered working in government, he says the UK’s efforts were never going to be enough to combat the global challenge of climate change: larger countries such as the US must take a more prominent role, and this may require radical political change.

“The strength of the lobby system in the US political system is simply amazing. It’s undemocratic and, quite frankly, the fossil fuel companies – led by the coal industry in particular – have been feeding the propaganda against climate change, and they’ve been doing it very effectively, with billions of dollars,” he says. “Biden is showing us a way forward, and I know John Kerry well and admire his position on climate change, but they are still constrained by their Senate and Congress. They’ve got a tiny majority, and because some Democrats are likely to vote against real climate action, I’m not sure that leadership is there in place yet.”

He draws comparisons with China. “Even though its emissions are rising due to its growing economy, its use of fossil fuels as a percentage of total electricity production has dropped from 75% just 15 years ago to around 56% today. The US can’t claim anything like the effort that China has put in.”

Despite the UK’s small size, King is keen for it to reaffirm its leadership role at COP26 in November. However, he is concerned for the scale of the challenge that COP26 president Alok Sharma is facing in the lead-up to the climate summit.

“I am in close contact with Alok, whom I got to know at the Foreign Office when he was a junior minister there, and he is very committed to real action on climate change.

“But I made 96 official country visits in the run-up to COP21 in Paris, as all the hard work had to be in advance so I knew the nature of the agreement that would be reached. That is what Alok is trying do now, and it’s very challenging for him as he is not an internationally known figure. It is quite possible that Boris Johnson will step in on the last day and take over the presidency.”

If this were to transpire, Sir David hopes that the summit does not end in empty promises. “The prime minister has stated that we will reduce our emissions by 78% by 2035, a wonderful statement to make on the international stage, but we need a much clearer idea on how we get there.” He adds: “I believe the right words will be said, and it’s crucial the right actions follow.”

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