Image: ClimateRepair/Wikimedia Commons

Climate expert Sir David King: ‘We have made ourselves look very small on the international scene’

The former UK chief scientific adviser on how to get superpowers talking—and the role Britain still has to play
December 21, 2023

I meet Sir David King at the Conduit, a members’ club he regularly visits when in London that brands itself as a “collaborative community”, a “catalyst for positive change”. When we sit down for coffee, a breakfast menu is still laid out on our table—eggs on sourdough and homemade granola with compote. “A changemaker’s breakfast, fuelling your impact”.

King, 84, was the UK’s permanent representative for climate change from 2013 to 2017 and chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007. He was knighted in 2003 after playing a key role in the response to foot-and-mouth disease, but he’s best known for driving government action on climate change. And in this area, he still has an appetite to make a difference. 

As head of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group of independent experts, King has proposed a strategy of “four Rs” to deal with climate change: rapid emissions cuts, removing carbon from the atmosphere, repairing or refreezing the Arctic and resilience—adapting to and preparing to face the locked-in impacts of the climate change humanity has already caused. “My fourth R—we’re doing really badly on that,” he emphasises. 

The third is perhaps the most controversial: King backs experiments aiming to prevent the Arctic melting by creating white clouds over the sea in the polar summer. Rather than calling this geoengineering—a term associated with unpredictable interventions in Earth’s natural systems, such as erecting sun shields in space—the technique King supports is, he says, biomimicry, imitating the way clouds naturally form by generating tiny droplets of water over the ocean. “We would test this at a low level. And the good thing is, you can just stop if there’s a problem,” King says. Clad in a cosy winter jumper, he is resolute, excited.

“The programme is very ambitious,” he admits. Not just in terms of the science, but the politics too. Tests are already being carried out over the Great Barrier Reef, to prevent bleaching, but the team would need political permission to work over the Arctic Sea from the UK, Canada, the Scandinavian countries—and Russia, which sees melting ice as a chance to reach resources. “I know the Russian scientists fully understand the scientific case. But that doesn’t mean that’s a political issue.”

“Climate change is the biggest challenge facing our civilisation, and the biggest challenge our civilisation has ever had to face up to,” King says, gravely. But he is remarkably optimistic about the likelihood of resource-hungry superpowers cooperating on climate action. Getting China, the US, the EU, Brazil and India talking is key, he says. And later: “I have little doubt that Modi is on the side of the angels on this issue,” remembering the Indian leader’s promises to “solarise” the third largest energy consuming state in the world. 

The UK still has a role, but “we have made ourselves look very small on the international scene,” says King. The coal plant in Cumbria. Freely giving licences for oil industry in the North Sea. Aside from the emissions, “it’s going to be a disaster in the sense that big investment will not yield the results that were anticipated,” he says. 

Over the years, King worked with four prime ministers: Blair, Brown, Cameron and May, and was as surprised as anyone by Cameron’s return to government as Sunak’s foreign minister. His knowledge of China, however, might be “the one attribute that he has”, says King, adding that the cold stance of Trump and Johnson towards Beijing had been a “backwards step.” 

One lesson King has for the negotiators of today is that understanding and empathising with powers about their problems—such as the energy demand of China’s middle classes—can open the door to progress. “If I go into a country, I have to try to see things from their point of view… I can’t walk into a country like some old British colonialists and tell them what to do.”