Profile: Sir David King

Profile: Sir David King

‘Climate change is the single biggest challenge our civilisation has ever had to face’. On the eve of the British election, and as the Australian Government finds itself in deep trouble over the postponement of a long-awaited emissions trading scheme, there’s some very challenging and wise words from the former UK Government chief scientific advisor Sir David King, who now heads Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment:  ‘I think we need a 21st century renaissance … if we are going to manage this in a way that doesn’t lead to massive breakdown of our global economies.’

Wanted: a 21st-century renaissance

By Oxford Today Editor Greg Neale (Volume 22 Number 2, Hilary 2010).

‘This is the single biggest challenge our civilisation has ever had to face.’ As a scientist, academic and senior government adviser, Sir David King may have had moments in his career where he has had to use language diplomatically measured, but when he talks about the issue currently dominating his thoughts, he is directness personified.

Sir David, Director of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, and a former chief scientist for the British government, is talking about climate change and the scale of the response that humanity must make to it if we are to negotiate the 21st century without economic and social catastrophe. ‘It requires all major countries, all players, to act together’, he observes.

In that sense, the Smith School, one of Oxford’s newest centres of research – it opened its doors in October 2008 – is likely to prove a lesson in such cooperation and pooling of talent. Its offices may lurk behind a relatively anonymous façade in a building that overlooks the Gloucester Green bus station, but inside, a bright and airy atmosphere welcomes the visitor, as if challenging any traditionalist idea of academics working in cloistered solitude, untouched and untainted by the worlds of commerce or politics, let alone other academic disciplines.

The School was set up to focus on global environmental issues, and to bring together leading academics as well as figures from business, industry and government. A principal aim is to find ways of cutting fossil fuel use without impeding economic growth, and to foster sustainable living. The School brings together academics from around the world and from different disciplines and backgrounds, including various environmental sciences, law, economics and international relations, as well as people from business and government backgrounds. Across the University, meanwhile, more than 60 academics from various departments have been appointed faculty associates of the School. ‘We are genuinely multidisciplinary’, Sir David says.

The speed with which the Smith School has established itself is also, one feels, a challenge to the more measured pace sometimes associated with a university established more than eight centuries ago. Certainly, Sir David gives the impression as he recalls the School’s beginning, there is no time to be wasted.

‘I started on 1 January 2008, and it was an initial hard slog for three to four months to establish a kernel of staff around me, and then it all started happening remarkably quickly’, he says. ‘By the time we opened the doors, we were about 30 people and are still growing. I think it’s fair to say that we hit the ground running.’

His approach to recruitment also reflects a career spent bridging the worlds of academic research and industry. ‘We were able to start with a good bunch of young research fellows, together with a remarkable bunch of more senior visiting fellows from abroad’, he reflects. ‘I think one of the cleverest things we did was to put an advertisement in The Economist for senior people – and so, at a relatively low cost to ourselves, we had some very brilliant people from around the world.’

The process has continued, and already the School can point to a roster of distinguished international scholars who have been visiting fellows. They include Professor Dan Bodansky, an international lawyer who advised former US President – and Rhodes Scholar – Bill Clinton on climate change issues. Professor Bodansky, who was a visiting fellow in the first half of last year, returns to Oxford later this year. That White House connection was echoed last year when Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s Vice-President, was a keynote speaker at the inaugural Smith School World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment, along with the presidents of the Maldives and Rwanda.

Less high profile, but with significant potential for policy development, are some of the School’s research projects. ‘We have established a very significant project on the future of mobility, looking at mobility from the point of view of moving people and goods around villages, towns, countries, from country to country, and extrapolating forward to the next century and talking to all of the providers of mobility about how to adapt to a low-carbon economy’, Sir David says. ‘The key to what we are doing is working with the private sector, working with governments and working with academics to find solutions.’

After an academic career working at several universities – Imperial College, London and the University of East Anglia, as well as Cambridge, where he was Head of the Chemistry Department and Master of Downing College – Sir David became chief scientific adviser to the British government and Head of the Government Office for Science, and gained a grandstand view of how science and public policy could come together. Then came the job at Oxford. He has no doubt of the value to the Smith School of being where it is, rather than at some of the other British universities in which he has worked.

‘There is no question that the reason I came here, rather than any of those places, to establish this school, is precisely because of the convening power, the brand name of Oxford’, he says. ‘This isn’t about finding solutions that are only relevant to Britain and British companies and the British government. We are a global operation, and the global recognition of Oxford is really what we are building on. I don’t think we could have pulled together such a marvellous group of people to the World Forum without that brand name – Oxford. However, the second factor is we have a level of in-depth expertise on environmental issues around the University. I think most of my new colleagues have been surprised to find just how much activity there is here. So I think that we can compete with anywhere in the world, given the strength we have.’

That multidisciplinary strength, he argues, also helps attract the interest and cooperation of business and industry, which must be part of the solution to environmental and sustainability issues.

‘We are sitting at the nexus of the private sector, governments and academics, with the private sector being our major sector that we work with. We are working with them to discuss what the future is going to look like. So we are looking 30, 40, 50 years hence, and we are saying – because this issue of decarbonising is going to be more and more important – your company will either have to adapt to a low-carbon economy or create an opportunity out of the innovative processes that can lead us towards a low-carbon economy. If you get there first, you are going to knock your competitors out of the way. In other words, we are very keen to say, here is an opportunity for you in the private sector.’

He adds: ‘On the other hand – and I use the case of General Motors as my counterexample – if you are not fully aware of what governments will do, and the directions that everyone will move in, you might become a white elephant. General Motors, by focusing a significant investment into the development of Humvees for the private sector, was leading itself into becoming a stranded asset. So our discussions with the private sector are all about self-interest.’

Our initial conversation took place in the weeks before the Copenhagen summit on climate change. The summit opened in the wake of renewed arguments from some critics, who dispute that industrial and agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases are leading to global warming – an argument reflected recently in the letters pages of Oxford Today. Sir David is unequivocal.

‘The scientific consensus is absolutely clear and the information rolling in year after year simply underlines how sound the science is’, he insists. The potential consequences of climate change are the reason he describes it as civilisation’s biggest challenge, requiring a unified response.

‘If, for example, one major country were to say, “We’re not going along with this”, the manufacturing sector that depends on the smokestack industries, which depend on massive energy usage, could well simply migrate into that country, and we buy all those goods back, and the problem is not solved. So it requires an international agreement for joint action of a kind that we’ve only once achieved before, again on an environmental issue, where CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons, linked to the destruction of the ozone layer] were slowly phased out.

‘The second reason I think it is a challenge is not only because it requires joint action, but also because of the nature of the challenge in the face of a [world] population that will rise to nine billion by mid century. So if we’ve got population density increasing on our land mass, and if we’ve got rising sea levels and rising temperatures, with increasing desertification, it means that the usable land mass is diminishing as the population is increasing. So food production, fresh water availability – all of these challenges become much more severe as a result of climate change being added on top.’

He concludes: ‘I think we need a 21st century renaissance – and by that I mean a transformation at least equivalent to the Renaissance or the Reformation or the Industrial Revolution – if we are going to manage this in a way that doesn’t lead to massive breakdown of our global economies.’

That, Sir David believes, means not only international cooperation between nations, but also individuals acting in small ways that bring about change.

‘An obvious thing to say is that it’s individuals who make up the population, the nine billion who will inhabit the planet by the middle of the century’, he argues. So the multiplier is enormous, and if we all change our behaviour, then the problem is solved.

He smiles at a memory: ‘I think I may have made myself a little unpopular with the car manufacturers, when at the end of a lecture to a group of students in London, I was asked by a young woman in the audience, “What should I be doing?” and I said, “You should stop admiring young men in Ferraris!” I didn’t realise that there were representatives of the media in the audience, and you can imagine the headlines in the papers the next day. But the point I was trying to make was a very serious one: that we all need to rethink what our status symbols are. We have through the centuries come to admire people who are big energy consumers, and give them a lot of status. We need to invert that. Every one of us contributes to this culture of wastage, and without much effort, we can turn that around.’

Perhaps it is because of this belief that collective effort can still help avert disastrous climate change that Sir David was not as dismayed as many by the outcome of the Copenhagen summit in December. Many observers had hoped that the summit would agree stronger international measures on greenhouse gas emissions, but even before the gathering, Sir David was taking a more cautious view.

‘Because President Obama is hostage to his own senate on global climate change policy, Copenhagen did just about all we could have expected’, he says. ‘Every country is now engaged in tackling climate change, developing nations found their voice and showed their muscle, and the US is now involved positively if not leading the way. ‘The conference was not the place to achieve a new deal. Much is now needed if a new protocol is to be agreed in Mexico at the end of this year, which meets the needs of the world.’

If business and industry could be persuaded to adopt sustainable solutions for reasons of economic interest, what, I wondered, did Sir David, with his experience of government, think would persuade politicians who work under the pressure of regular elections and are often accused of short-termism?

‘I think you are asking me, right at the end, the most interesting question’, he responds. ‘Short-termism always tends to win out. However, if we come back to individuals and what they can they do: if you have a society that recognises the challenges to our grandchildren, we can think that far ahead and it becomes a major issue. And so by raising this in the public mind as the biggest challenge we are facing, I think that becomes something politicians have to do something about.’

That, I suggested, was moving beyond a scientific or purely economic approach to environmental issues, and raising other questions – of values and a different attitude to what constitutes a good life.

‘We’ve lost sight of that’, Sir David replies. ‘Well-being rather than consumerism. And when I talk about a 21st-century renaissance, that’s exactly what I mean. Hoping that we can focus on that, our well-being; what makes us satisfied human beings.’

Sir David King

Born: South Africa, 12 August 1939

Educational career: University of Witwatersrand; Imperial College, London; University of East Anglia; University of Liverpool; University of Cambridge (Head of Chemistry Department, 1993-2000; Master of Downing College, 1995-2000).

UK government’s chief scientific adviser and Head of the Government Office for Science, October 2000-December 2007.

Director, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford, since January 2008.

President of the British Science Association, 2008-9.

Officer of the Légion d’Honneur, October 2009.

The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment was founded by a benefaction from the Smith Family Educational Foundation, and has a home in George Street, close to the centre of Oxford. ‘The School’s aim is to find ways of cutting fossil fuel use worldwide without impeding any country’s economic growth, and to foster sustainable living so that all of us enjoy health and lifestyle advances without doing any more damage to the planet’, an introductory mission statement on its website proclaims.

The School’s activities are primarily based in a network of research centres:

The Centre for Climate and Development is promoting sustainable development in poorer countries; the Centre for Low-Carbon Mobility is improving transport for us and our goods; while the Centre for Catastrophe Risk Management deals with the risk and cost of disasters. Planned developments include a centre for environmental economics, a centre facilitating the low-carbon switch for business and a centre for climate science and regulation.

Editor’s note: Special thanks to our British friend and artist Graham Byfield for drawing our attention to this fine article which focuses on the work and words of a gentleman, scholar and scientist with his feet firmly planted on mother earth. Sir David King was in Australia as a keynote speaker at the Greenhouse 2007 conference, which also featured a speech by the then Minister for the Environment Malcolm Turnbull. – Ken Hickson

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