INTERVIEW WITH SIR DAVID KING Civilisation faces 'greatest challenge'

Posted: 24 February 2007

Sir David King, Chief Scientist to the British Government, says in an interview published this week that climate change is 'the biggest challenge our civilisation has ever had to face up to'. This extract from that interview by Jon Hughes, deputy editor of The Ecologist, is published here by arrangement with that magazine.

JH I'm presuming that climate change is such an important issue, that I would be right in saying that every piece of work governed by your department is now measured against what is required by climate change?

Sir David King
Sir David King
DK I think that it is the biggest problem facing us in the 21st century. It is the biggest challenge our civilisation has ever had to face up to.

JH In 2002, you said climate change posed a bigger threat than terrorism and it would require something in the region of a 60 per cent cut in emissions...

DK In 2003, the British government published a white paper that said we would reduce our C02 emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. What is important about that is that we were the first government to make a unilateral declaration. We have got bogged down in negotiations with countries around the world, including the US. In order to break that deadlock, we decided as a government to simply unilaterally do what we thought was necessary to be done. The government will demonstrate in the White Paper next year how we are going to achieve a 60 per cent reduction by 2050. However, if by, say, 2020, we have international agreement on action and the action requires a further cut in carbon dioxide emissions and all countries are agreed on that, we will be in a position to do that.

Britain 'leading the way'

JH Based on all the science which was included in the Stern report, the science in the IPPR report (Meeting The Climate Challenge; recommendations of the International Climate ChangeTaskforce).

DK Based on the science that I promulgated and pressed for. For example, the science of the Exeter meeting which was driven by myself. More familiar with it than I suspect you are. So what is the question?

JH The critical question seems to me that a lot of scientists think that it requires an 80 to 85 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions and you need to start working on it now; and as a scientist studying the same data...

DK Please don't come to me and tell me I am a scientist. I am the scientist who will give you, if you like, a lecture on climate change and I will tell you what the outcomes will be, and I will tell George Monbiot [columnist of The Guardian]as well, who doesn't understand half of it. But let me just say this... Supposing I said to you, as I have said in an article in The Guardian, it would be much fairer if we had stopped at 300 ppm [parts per million of CO2]. 383ppm - which is where we are today - is going to give rise to, and will continue to give rise to, dangerous climate change impacts around the world. That's where we are today. So when someone says to me today, 'Shouldn't we be reducing by 80 per cent?', I have many, many questions to ask about that. Who do you mean by 'we'? Do you mean the entire world, including Africa; or do you just mean the developed world; or do you just mean Britain? Britain produces two per cent of the world's carbon dioxide. What do you mean by that? Why are you pointing the finger at me?

I consider it to be an unnecessary question because Britain is leading the way internationally as a result of the moves I pressed for back in 2002. We are leading the way. If we can get the international agreement of all the leading countries to reduce emissions by 60 per cent by 2050, we will have made a substantial step forward. If we then find, as we did with CFCs, that we have to ratchet the process up and head towards an 80 per cent reduction, then, believe me, the British government is going to be in the vanguard. There is little point in discussing 60 per cent versus 80 per cent until we have at least international agreement on the first step.

Zeroing in on Greenland

JH The confusion arises when the government and you say climate change requires we cut GHG emissions by 60 to 65 per cent, but a substantial body of scientists is saying it has got to be 80 to 85 per cent, or it is genocide in Africa and we're risking very real problems. The question is, which is it?

What does the science say the cut should be?

DK I'm sorry, the climate change scientists are not saying it's got to be 85 per cent or there's going to be this. Can I just explain the misunderstanding around the figures?...

The scientific community are saying...what is going to be catastrophic that we should use as a symbol of what shouldn't happen, and they're all zeroing in on Greenland. If we lose all the ice in Greenland, sea level goes up 6.5 metres, 80 per cent of our natural habitat will go underwater, there is something to avoid. What is the point, in terms of carbon dioxide, at which we irreversibly start losing Greenland ice? If you can tell me that, that's more than any other scientist in the world can. There's no scientist who is saying they know what the level is. We're all trying to look at it in terms of probability distribution. So that we know, at 450ppm in the atmosphere of total greenhouse gas, it's quite possible that we will be past the point of melting Greenland ice. But it's quite possible that we will have saved Greenland this year...

JH Are we not past it now? Figures have been passed to me that say the rate of melt this year is going to be revealed to be a tenfold increase on what was expected.

DK Well, I can tell you what the rate of Greenland melt is, from the latest 10-year satellite data. The melt rate is between 100 and 240 cubic kilometres of ice.

JH Which is far greater than it has been.

DK The previous expectation was 80. So not 10 times, let us be precise! It is melting faster than we anticipated.

JH Is it tipping?

DK We don't know. That's the problem. The scientists are working hard. There are at least 3,000 scientists working on the problem of climate change and to suggest there is a consensus opinion of 80 per cent reduction is simply untrue.

Reproduced with permission from The Ecologist

The full text of this interview may be accessed here