An interview with Sir David King, Britain’s top scientist and climate crusader
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has earned a rep as a global leader in the fight against climate change, and, at least in part, he has Sir David King to thank for it.
King, the U.K. government’s chief scientific adviser and an outspoken advocate of aggressive action to forestall global warming, has pushed the climate crisis up the PM’s priority list. He was instrumental in making the U.K. the first nation to commit to greenhouse-gas reductions that go beyond Kyoto, and in positioning climate as one of two top issues at last year’s G8 summit, hosted by Blair.
King’s headline-grabbing rhetoric has put climate change in the spotlight, and King himself in the hot seat. He’s become a target of the American right and been publicly heckled by U.S. climate skeptics during lectures. He has also raised the ire of some in the environmental community for arguing that nuclear power, gasified coal, and carbon sequestration are necessary weapons in the battle against global warming.
Your comment that climate change poses a bigger threat to humanity than terrorism turned a lot of heads internationally. How did you come to this conclusion?
That sentence originated from an article I wrote in Science. I pointed out that, for example, the 30,000 deaths in Europe from the hot summer of 2003 — which have been closely correlated to global warming — indicate the kind of security problems we are faced with.
Let me be clear: I in no way diminish the threat of terrorism to our society and way of life, quite the reverse. It is a very serious threat. But I don’t think it is even comparable to the threat to our civilization that global warming represents.
How did you help bring climate change to the prime minister’s attention?
I engineered an invitation to give a lecture on the current state of climate-change science in 2002, the Zuckerman Lecture [PDF], that went around to all the cabinet and many influential people in British government. The most important turning point was the decision the prime minister made very quickly after that — he is, by the way, a very decisive sort of person — to look at the U.K.’s energy policy in light of global-warming science. That led to further research and eventually a white paper in 2003 that committed the government to reducing carbon dioxide 60 percent by 2050. It was the first time a government had come forward and said, “We are going to go beyond Kyoto.”
Was it intended as a challenge to other heads of state to follow suit?
In part. We put ourselves on that path so as to provide Britain with a strong position in negotiating with other countries. The prime minister has followed this up with clear advice to his cabinet ministers to raise the profile of climate change worldwide. I became his unofficial ambassador on the matter, and in the past 18 months, I’ve delivered over 140 lectures on climate science around the world at his behest.
What was the 60 percent CO2 reduction figure based on?
It was consistent with figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Without reductions of 60 percent by mid-century, I believe the melting of the Greenland ice sheet would be irreversible, and sea levels would rise by seven meters from that alone. Knowing that the world’s great cities are on coastlines and would therefore be underwater, we felt that was something to be avoided.
What would the global-warming impacts be on the U.K.?
We did the most detailed analysis yet conducted of the impact of climate change on any one country, examining the flood and coastal defense risks for the U.K. over the next 80 years. It demonstrates that if we globally continue burning fossil fuels at the current rate, by 2080 it will be extremely difficult to protect British homes and cities from coastal flooding, fluvial flooding, and flooding from rainfall in our cities.
Are you already seeing impacts?
Rainfall patterns are already changing across cities. Just in the last decade, we’ve been seeing flash floods from tropical storms that bring a lot more water to our cities than we’ve previously experienced. Our drainage and sewage systems are not able to cope, so we get massive flooding.
Many of the politicians and oil-industry executives of the U.K., such as Lord John Browne of BP, are seen as global leaders on the climate issue. Why, would you say, are your leaders ahead of the game on this matter?
It’s a nontrivial fact that the U.K. has always been very interested in the weather. Remember that Britain developed its leadership position through trade and war. In order to be one ahead of the opposition, you need to predict weather better than they do. So our meteorological office is placed within the military, which means it has always been exceptionally well funded. That’s why the Hadley Center, which is in the Ministry of Defense, is a world leader on modeling climate change. It is widely respected in the U.K., both by our leaders and our citizens. A recent opinion poll revealed that about 90 percent of the British public believes that global warming is a real threat.
You’ve been heckled at your lectures by U.S. climate skeptics who argue that climate science is “in its infancy” — an opinion that has also been voiced by members of the Bush administration.
I’ve been chased around by several people funded by the Competitive Enterprise Institute who make these kind of statements that simply fly in the face of all the evidence. To say that climate science is in its infancy is quite simply puerile. The greenhouse effect was established by [Joseph] Fourier back in 1827. By 1896, [Svante] Arrhenius had calculated that we would see global warming by five degrees centigrade if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubled. That’s pretty close to what current scientists are saying. So the state of knowledge is 100 years old plus.
What’s your opinion of the Bush administration’s approach to climate change, in particular its argument that both Kyoto and domestic regulations could pose a threat to the U.S. economy?
What I’m not going to be able to do is criticize any other government. I can say that in Britain our economy since 1990 has grown by about 40 percent, and our emissions have decreased by 14 percent. So to argue that you destroy your economy by reducing emissions is blatantly incorrect.
Furthermore, we feel we have a competitive advantage in getting into the Kyoto CO2-trading program early; we believe it is an incredibly important new commodity exercise that will spur crucial technology development and soon begin to pay dividends for our country.
You were quoted in a recent BBC article as saying that the U.K.’s targets of reducing carbon dioxide emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2010 are “a bit optimistic.” Why?
Meeting the 2010 target will be challenging, despite the significant program of action under our 2003 white paper. The key problem is the rapid decline in the contribution of nuclear power to the U.K.’s energy mix that will be seen over the next decade as existing plants reach the end of their lives. Ministers are currently considering what further steps can be taken to get back on track, but it will be a tough call.
So do you worry that your mid-century targets are not achievable?
I will not deny that significant further policy and technology innovation will be needed over time for this to happen. I do think that we have the framework right and will see emissions continue to decline significantly to 2020 and beyond. The targets do not need to be adjusted; they are achievable.
To what extent will nuclear play a role in achieving these targets?
Deploying a range of technologies to radically decarbonize our energy systems over just a few decades is a challenge that should not be underestimated. We need every tool in the bag to address it. Even taking the most optimistic projections, dramatic investments in energy efficiency and renewables will not be enough. I believe the government is right to revisit now the question of new nuclear. The question of nuclear waste is of course an important one. It is worth noting that the next generation of nuclear plants would add only around 10 percent to the U.K.’s nuclear waste pile over a 40-year period, given the greater efficiency of more modern reactors.
What about coal generation and carbon sequestration?
It also seems certain that fossil fuels — coal and gas — will continue to contribute significantly to meeting U.K. and global energy needs for at least the majority of this century. This is a political and practical reality that it is important to acknowledge. Carbon capture and storage technologies offer the possibility to address this.
What have you personally and the British government in general done to improve your energy efficiency?
I drive around in a Toyota Prius. The government car service in London is shifting over to hybrid-engine vehicles as fast as we can get them. We are also deploying energy-efficiency measures on government buildings and bolstering public transport systems.
The bigger point, however, is that there’s a tremendous effort within our government to get more people into science and technology. We are doubling our funding in this area and now producing more science, engineering, and technology graduates as a proportion of 22-year-olds than almost any other country in the world.
How much progress do you think was made at the recent Montreal climate negotiations in the effort to forge a foundation for a post-Kyoto international agreement?
Excellent progress was made in Montreal on a number of important fronts, including strengthening of the practical mechanisms for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol and the agreement to launch a process for targets beyond 2012. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect for me was the very constructive approach to the discussions adopted by developing nations such as China and India.
But it is of obvious importance that any future framework be inclusive, bringing in the U.S. and involving fully key developing nations. There is no question that the international community has a long way to go if it is to minimize the risk of the most dangerous climate-change impacts occurring.