An audience with Sir David King

Sir David King is credited with bringing climate change to serious political attention. But he is also a campaign of GM crops. How does that square?
I will tell you what the outcomes will be, and I will tell George Monbiot as well, who doesn’t understand half of it

Sir David King has been Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Government since 2000. In 2002 he changed the world when he declared ‘climate change is a greater threat to civilisation than terrorism’. At a stroke, the threat of climate change started to be taken seriously by all but President George Bush. Latterly he played a substantive role in the writing of the Stern Review on The Economic Impact of Climate Change, which has debunked the economic argument against taking action, to avert what Sir David now describes as potential climate catastrophe.

So Sir David is a man who undoubtedly takes climate change seriously and is keeping it high on the political agenda, at home and abroad. But on the face of it there are inherent contradictions in Sir David’s role. How does fact-based science and politics mix, and how does wealth creation and science mix? These potential conflicts were highlighted late last year when the government gave the go-ahead for trials of genetically modified potato crops in the UK. Had the science, wealth creation possibilities or politics – or a combination of the three – led to the decision that flies in the face of public opposition?

Similarly, aiming for a 60 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions when a great many climate scientists are saying an 85 per cent cut is required to avoid genocide in Africa smacks of political pragmatism, too, rather than science. We had 30 minutes to discuss these issues when we met at Sir David’s office within the Department of Trade and Industry in December, 2006.

Jon Hughes: Among the public, your name is synonymous with climate change. But your role as the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser is wider than that. Can you explain what your main areas of responsibility are?

Sir David King: Yes, in brief, I cover everything where the knowledge base comes into government-made decisions. So I advise the PM [Tony Blair] on everything from pandemic flu to foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks, to advice on what can be drawn from the science base. I suppose the most important activities I have introduced are foresight activities: where we are looking out to the end of the century for what are the risks on the horizon, what are the opportunities on the horizon and then advising the government on that; on what new processes to pursue and topics to explore, which we run for two/three years, drawing on the full science base.

In the UK, an excellent example of that is flood and coastal defence management where the programme took two-and-a-half years to complete. Before our programme, the Government was spending £200 million per year, now it’s spending £500 million a year. What that demonstrates is that as we move through this century, we will have to spend more to defend our environment against the effects of climate change. In the best-case scenario, we have agreed to keep emissions low, in the worst-case scenario, it is let rip… business as usual.

Jon Hughes: The thing that interests me about your role is that when you appeared before the select committee in May 2006, you said that wealth creation was one of your chief roles. How does that work? How, as the government Chief Scientific Adviser, do you marry the two? Do you look at the science and then go that science is valid in terms of science but it is not valid in terms of wealth creation or…?

Sir David King: Not at all. I think you’re looking for a dichotomy which doesn’t exist at all. I have to say that is completely misleading. What I will do is, on the one hand, look at the opportunities for wealth creation arising from our very strong science base. Let me just give you one example… This looks like a mobile phone, right? Look at the potential of a device like this to be used in the context of disease. If you place a DNA chip on the end of this phone (the rest of the technology stays the same), it becomes a mobile disease monitor. I’ve then got this out in the field; whether it’s a foot-and-mouth epidemic or whether it’s a flu pandemic, I can go around and put this in people’s mouths and within two minutes I’ve identified whether or not they have a disease.

I can pre-programme it to 16 diseases. I can then ping it through a satellite system to the WHO (World Health Organization). On maps there, they begin to see a new epidemic horizon somewhere in the world.

So you get movement to that point, to quench the outburst. That’s a device of the kind I’m talking about, where it’s wealth creation…you could sell millions of these around the world. When we ran a computer program to assist me with running the foot-and-mouth epidemic, that was on my wish list – there was no such device. You put this into the computer program and instead of costing the country £7 billion, with this device, it will cost £50 million. So when I say wealth creation – wealth creation from creating a new technological device and managing risks at the same time, there is no conflict. However, if you look at other wealth-creating opportunities, not all of them have the potential of managing risks as this does.

So when we talk about wealth creation opportunities, we would not always be sure that they are opportunities for managing risk but we would always make sure that these wealth-creating opportunities were opportunities in the real sense of the word, where the welfare of the human population is at stake.

We also must deal with what I think underlies your slightly hostile question, which is, if we are going to manage the impacts of climate change over the next 30 to 40 years – which are in the pipeline whatever we do on carbon dioxide emissions – we are going to need the wealth that we generate to manage that process.

The Thames Barrier doesn’t come free of charge. If we are going to work in the African continent, as we are – because we are now spending roughly £1.2 billion per year in the African continent; that’s a massive increase – we can only do that because we have generated the wealth. We are using our science and technology to ensure that we can continue to do that.

Jom Hughes: The reason behind that question is that if you’re in control of around £3 billion a year to invest on certain research and development…

Sir David King: May I just rephrase that. £3.4 billion per year comes into this office. And the only control this office has is in the proportion that goes into the arts and humanities, engineering and so forth. But there is certainly no engagement with the process by which those monies are then submitted out to awardees. There is another budget, which is around £2.5 billion per year, which I certainly oversee, which goes into government to manage the knowledge-based system – research and development across government departments. That has to be fit for purpose; that is, where a government department is preparing itself for all sorts of eventualities. So, for example, if we have a foot-and-mouth outbreak, we have to have the laboratories to run the tests.

Jon Hughes: I understand. If we can move on. The latest science-based decision involved GM potatoes, allowing trials to go ahead, and you are on the record as being in support of GM technology, seeing it as a potential wealth creator…

Sir David King: Just so that I can put that into my own words. What I did was create a GM science group, which I chaired. We met for a year. All of our meetings were in the open; a number of people attended those meetings; I think we met for about 100 hours; we had a full range of scientists drawn from the community of science on there. In addition we had scientists from NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. The production of that report determined government policy towards GM and I’m saying all of this because we had full buy-in from all the members of that committee.

If you read that report, I think you will see that what we are saying is, GM is a new technology, along with a whole range of technologies that have been devised by mankind to develop new kinds of products.

Those technologies are responsible for the green revolution that has occurred in developing countries and that has brought down mortality rates by a massive amount. In India, for example, the Green Revolution improved with the use of GM technology – you will see that. The point we make is that because this is a new technology, because this is a new process, we have to see that the regulatory process is up to the new technology. So any product stemming from that new technology has to be very carefully tested. So we don’t just reject technology: as always, we examine the product. So I don’t accept or reject a green light for all GM – absolutely not. What I am saying is we need proper regulatory processes to then look at the process of regulation. So, if we find, as with the case of GM potatoes, that all of the tests are satisfied, then we continue.

That’s a bit difficult for someone to take, who’s got a black-and-white attitude towards a particular technology. But then, I am always answering the questions! What’s your opinion on radiation technology in the development of new crops?

Jon Hughes: You’re asking me? I haven’t got long enough with you to go down that road.

Sir David King: The point I’m making is, why did you pick on GM?

Jon Hughes: This is a contemporaneous issue…

Sir David King: So is radiation technology…

Jon Hughes: I think the public at this time are more aware of GM technology than radiation technologies… We will include that in the piece, that more people need to be more aware of radiation technology. But we need to move on.

Referring to GM, I’d like to briefly look at the precautionary principle. We can agree on the definition, that ‘when there is reasonable suspicion of harm, lack of scientific certainty or consensus must not be used to postpone preventative action.’ Now you don’t like the word ‘principle’: you told the select committee it will cause inertia in scientific research and development. My understanding of science is that the ultimate aim for a scientist is to prove the unknown part of a problem. There are so many unknowns with GM, that if, say, you’ve got terminator technology, it could escape, it will have impacts on biodiversity…

Sir David King: Read our review. Certainly all of the NGO representatives on my panel were satisfied.

Jon Hughes: In terms of the precautionary principle, you don’t like the word ‘principle’, preferring ‘approach’. Can you explain more about why?

Sir David King: A precautionary approach is an approach where if you’re going to cross the road, you look both ways and then look again in the first direction and then cross the road, looking all the time. That’s what we teach children in the message to cross the road. Now, what is the principle that underlies that? I’m a scientist, I can keep the word ‘principle’ for scientific facts that I know hold a scientific equation. f="ma" [a formula combining Newton’s second and third laws of motion: Force equals mass x acceleration] operates for all particles. Now what is different about the precautionary ‘approach’ to crossing the road and the precautionary ‘principle’ that you should use when crossing the road? I don’t understand it.

The precautionary approach simply means, of course, my function in advising government is to manage risk; you can never manage risk to zero on everything – absolutely not.

Jon Hughes: Just one last question on GM. If you have assessed the risk 10 to 15 to 20 years down the line, have you assessed the opportunity cost of not doing it? It might be more beneficial not to introduce such crops into the UK.

Sir David King: Of course, that is part of the risk analysis.

Jon Hughes: Within the risk analysis, do you consider keeping the UK GM-free and look at whether the opportunity cost along the line will be far more beneficial to do so? Would that be part of the equation?

Sir David King: What do you mean by GM-free?

Jon Hughes: Free from genetically modified crops.

Sir David King: But every crop has been genetically modified since 5,000 years ago. We genetically modify crops by breeding.

Jon Hughes: That is a far different thing.

Sir David King: It’s not far different from a lot of techniques that have been used over the past 200 years. You’re focusing on one technique; I’m saying, look at the products – and that’s what we’re doing; we’re looking at the products and we’re saying, ‘actually, there is nothing in this product that is…’ You’re asking about the unknown. So, for example, the worry would be that you’ve got a product that is going to generate a protein that is going to poison some proportion of the population; so what we do is scan for all of the proteins that are produced. And that’s part of the regulatory system.

Jon Hughes: The point I’m making is…

Sir David King: What we need to be careful of is that we don’t just use a blanket curve that becomes meaningless. And frankly, when you just say ‘release of GM commercial crops’, it is so meaningless – we have been modifying crops for such a long time. What I’m saying is, the technological method for releasing the product is important in the sense that I have to make sure that regulation keeps up with it.

Jon Hughes: In terms of GM and nanotechnology, how can you regulate nanotechnology?

Sir David King: How have we ever regulated technology? Since the Egyptians started making face powder, that’s nanotechnology. There is nothing new about nanoparticles except that scientists have learnt how to quantify them. We’re now in a good position with nanoparticles because we can examine them in fine detail. When the Egyptians ground powder to put on their faces, that was nano-technology. Every time you breathe in, how many nanoparticles do you breathe in? They’re in the air. So again, what are we creating this fear about when you say nanoparticles? They’re nothing new.

Jon Hughes: I’m not talking about everything. Pollution in the atmosphere…

Sir David King: In London, we used to have smog generated by the nanoparticles of carbon, produced by coal fires, that caused precipitation of water, and that creates smog. So we stopped the burning of coal and, bingo, that stopped smog. So we have in the past learnt how to regulate nanoparticles. Those nanoparticles were also very bad for human beings.

Silicosis in mines is an impact of nanoparticles: they cause massive problems for people, inhaling small particles is a massive problem. We know that. Cigarettes – for God’s sake, don’t smoke cigarettes – because you’re inhaling nanoparticles.

Jon Hughes: But in terms of nanotechnology, the talk is of using ‘living organisms’ in electrical circuits in the home. Now we can’t possibly know the outcome and impact of that.

Sir David King: Why not?

Jon Hughes: If we look back to 40 years ago, if industry had chosen bromide compounds rather than CFCs, we would have been in real trouble…

Sir David King:
But what if we go back to the point where vaccines were developed and we had listened to the people who say or were saying ‘don’t try those things, they might kill the population’. We have managed to eliminate a whole range of diseases using vaccines. But if you look back at that period, you see that every NGO objected.

Jon Hughes: But some people would say that while vaccines have eliminated some diseases, as a result you have created others…

Sir David King: Get real. Come on. Are you actually going to argue that people today are suffering from diseases in the way that they were before vaccines were developed? Because that is a nonsense, an absolute nonsense. We are still vaccinating our entire population. We have managed in Africa to roll out vaccinations against polio and we have virtually eliminated polio around the world. Don’t tell me that that is …

Jon Hughes: I can’t go there; we only have a few minutes left. Now, the Stern Review… we can agree on Sir Nicholas’s figures?

Sir David King: Yes, I supplied the science.

Jon Hughes: 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: 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.

Jon Hughes: 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…

Sir David King: 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.

Jon Hughes: 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)…

Sir David King: 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?

Jon Hughes: 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…

Sir David King: 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 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. 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.

Jon Hughes: What I’m…

Sir David King:
You and Monbiot…

Jon Hughes: …trying to figure is, if the scientific community is saying…

Sir David King: What you and Monbiot are asking…

Jon Hughes: Really, I’m not playing Monbiot’s tune…

Sir David King: Let me just tell you this. You are chasing a question that is non-scientific. What I’m saying is, I’d rather we weren’t here today. I’d rather we hadn’t used so much fossil fuels that we had already created dangerous climate change. I’d rather we weren’t.

Now, in the practical world, we are advising governments on action, we are reducing our emissions by more than any country in the world. Now we need to take our partners and the rest of the world with us. That’s where the priority is. And I wish I could get the support of The Ecologist on that.

Jon Hughes: You will get the support of The Ecologist and we are aware that you are the man who changed the world. 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 realproblems. The question is, which is it?

What does the science say the cut should be?

Sir David King: 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?

[Sir David is passed a note]

Sir David King: I’m sorry, I have to go. But first, this is a critically important point. The community that says we have to reduce by 85 per cent – and you’re saying that isn’t Monbiot, funny that – the scientific community are saying what should we avoid happening that is going to be catastrophic; I’m not going to say dangerous. Sea levels are rising, climates are getting warmer. 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…

Jon Hughes: 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.

Sir David King: 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.

Jon Hughes:
Which is far greater than it has been.

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

Jon Hughes: Is it tipping?

Sir David King: 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.

Jon Hughes: One last question. El Niño is here, yes? We see El Niño brewing here in 2052, don’t we (see box), and the heating up of the ocean by 6-7° C. But this is what I unerstand the Americans have measured now. Basically, what I am asking is, are we further down this road than we previously thought?

Sir David King: Once again, you have to look at the probability curve distribution and unfortunately they are quite broad. In other words, the best state of the science, which is what I fed into the Stern report, is to produce a probability distribution curve. We can’t say anything more than this is the most probable with all of the information that we have. But the breadth of that information, the uncertainty is quite wide.

[At which point, Sir David put on his jacket, shook hands and left for his next appointment.]

Jon Hughes is the Ecologist's Deputy Editor.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2007

I will tell you what the outcomes will be, and I will tell George Monbiot as well, who doesn’t understand half of it

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