May 4, 2022
12 min read

The Climate King

Daniel Whitaker

Sir David King is probably the man most responsible for the breakthrough Paris Agreement. He has made a career pairing science with international negotiations on battling climate change. And he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

Free market capitalism, and the technologies it has spun out, have been incredibly successful, but if we’re in competition, we tend to ignore what we’re doing to the ecosystem.

Sir David King

In 2004, while working as the Chief Scientific Advisor for the UK government under Tony Blair, Sir David King wrote an article for the American journal Science criticizing the US for not taking climate change seriously after the Bush administration failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

“We can only overcome this challenge by facing it together, shoulder to shoulder,” King wrote. “If we do not begin now, more substantial, more disruptive, and more expensive change will be needed later on.”

At the time, what we recognize today as a climate crisis was still controversial; some dubbed King an “alarmist,” and in 2006, NBC News even playfully called him Britain’s “controversial climate King.” In their defense, it’s certainly true that King has never shied away from expressing a contentious opinion, not if it meant putting a global climate agenda on the political map. 

A leading voice in climate action

Hindsight, however, has proven King’s appeal for joint action to be prescient, more relevant than ever, and his work has been instrumental in ushering in a paradigm shift in our thinking about the threat of global warming.

Now 82 years old, King is founder of the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge and head of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, an independent global scientific body created in response to the climate crisis to inform and guide climate repair.

I spoke with Sir David King on the grounds of Downing College at Cambridge University, on a windy day in April with the sound of gulls loudly calling back and forth to each other in the background. Sprightly and engaging, King continues to be a leading voice in the call for climate action and a towering figure in forging global consensus on how to tackle climate change together.

“I think that individuals can make a contribution,” he says. “But when you work together with people with different backgrounds on a new area, particularly areas that are interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, the advantages of working in large groups are immense.”

Is competition hurting our climate? Sir David King and journalist Daniel Whitaker discuss the ills and the good of a free market on our climate.

The art of collaboration

King offers as an example one of the projects at the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, the Marine Biomass Regeneration program, where he and others are working with five major marine studies institutes around the world, sending ships “to the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian, and the southern oceans to see what can be done about recovering fish, whale, and crustacean stocks.”

The idea is that whales act as critical biological pumps for marine life and restocking them could end up removing billions of tons of greenhouse gases per year. Projects of this size and complexity require “serious collaboration,” says King.

Global climate change conference negotiations work at an even larger scale. In 2015, in the lead-up to the Paris Agreement, King visited more than 100 countries as the UK’s Special Representative for Climate Change, negotiating bilaterally case by case for global action and established 165 climate attachés, experts in climate change, in British embassies around the world.

They were also backed by an enormous budget of £9.2 billion “which meant that when we went into a country to negotiate, they knew we had deep pockets. I think it was a very productive process. When it came to the first day of COP21 in Paris, I knew there was going to be an agreement.”

Different generations, same belief: only collaboration can bring the rapid decarbonization we need.

OPEC: a reckoning with climate change

Clearly, both the large group meetings and the intimate trust-building meetings are essential elements of collaboration. But how do you approach countries and companies who believe their vested interests are threatened?

“I think it’s very simple. The oil and coal industries that will survive are those that rapidly understand they need to become the energy companies of the future, which means they’re leading on renewable energy, nuclear energy, alternative energy systems, and everything allied with them, i.e., electric vehicles and so on. So, I think unless those big companies use their economic power, their ability to borrow money from banks, etc., in an endeavor to switch across, they are actually not going to exist over the coming 20 years.”

The same holds true for countries like Nigeria, says King. “What does Nigeria do, for example, if we take one of the rapidly emerging economies in Africa and that economy has emerged entirely based around oil? All of their wealth is emerging because of the exploitation of oil, and we understand that they need to use that wealth to launch the second phase of their wealth generation. If these governments and countries can understand that, then, of course, they will continue to be wealthy.”

Understanding what “crisis” really means

“We need to see considerably more collaborations, particularly with companies in the developing world.” The wealthy countries, says King, have a real role to play in helping the least developed regions or even regions rich in fossil fuels make the transition. “What has happened, for example, in Glasgow at the most recent COP negotiations was a complete loss of trust between the developing world and the developed world.”

The result, says King, “is very serious in terms of what is needed: an ordered transition away from fossil fuel technologies into a new era.” Moreover, while the term “climate crisis” was a readily accepted phrase at COP26, there wasn’t a real understanding of what the word “crisis” means.

“We’ve seen extreme weather events across the northern and southern hemispheres over the last two years that have caused massive amounts of loss and damage around the world. I’m talking about hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth. The insurance and reinsurance sector are faced with very big losses just from the past year – and this is just the beginning. This is only going to get worse.”

Extreme weather caused by climate change demands an urgent and unified response.

Reducing emissions and capturing greenhouse gases

King is adamant that even if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2030, it still won’t be enough. “The IPCC is telling us ice on land is now melting irreversibly. That’s a 7-meter sea level rise, just Greenland ice melting. Adding the ice in Antarctica, on the Himalayas and the Andes – you’ve got a 10-meter sea level rise and more.”

This, in turn, would “blow away” the 1.5 oC temperature target, releasing vast amounts of methane trapped in the permafrost around the North Pole, and driving global temperature to “unbearable” levels.

The only way around this, says King, is to simultaneously reduce emissions while also removing already existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The Marine Biomass Regeneration program is just one such bio-mimicry solution being looked at by the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge. But there are also engineering solutions, such as Direct Air Carbon Capture, with more innovations in development.

“We need to learn how to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at scale. And by ‘at scale’ – today we’re emitting about 40 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – I mean that we need to learn how to remove 30 to 40 billion tons a year and continue doing that probably until the end of the century. Then we’ll create a future that’s manageable.”

Partnering for methane removal

At this point, Sir David King and I are joined by someone who epitomizes the partnerships necessary for the Centre’s work to succeed: Siemens Energy engineer Amber O’Connor. “Ultimately,” says O’Connor, “it’s a combined effort that’s going to tackle climate change.”

Her current focus is scalability. Whilst there is established technology which works well for elevated concentration levels of methane, other technologies which could potentially treat lower concentration levels are not yet commercially viable. This is an area of development planned by the Centre which needs further investment. Supported by Siemens Energy Ventures, she has devised a crowd-funding channel, where people’s contributions are fully visible on blockchain and can be displayed as nonfungible tokens (NFTs). She explains: “People are more environmentally conscious, they want to do their part, not just to donate, but also to have something to show for it.”

Ultimately, it’s a combined effort that’s going to tackle climate change.

Amber O’Connor

Siemens Energy

Siemens Energy engineer Amber O’Connor is devising new ways to provide opportunities for people to fund technology developments in climate repair.

Can a free market bring sustainability?

The project has potential to work as an example of the future of positive disruption, something which various renewable energy technologies are already achieving. Continuous disruptions have been “with us since the Industrial Revolution,” says King, and he’s appreciative of the contributions Siemens Energy has made in recent years.

“Their wind turbines are the most efficient in the world. The technology for building them, as well as transporting and mounting them, is simply remarkable.” But King also views some parts of the private sector as a source of trouble. “The power of the fossil fuel lobby is enormous,” he sighs, and in his opinion is the reason why the USA has lagged behind climate leadership actions in Europe and in China.     

“Free market capitalism, and the technologies it has spun out, have been incredibly successful,” he says. “But if we’re in competition, we tend to ignore what we’re doing to the ecosystem. We throw stuff into the oceans and we’re creating major problems for the future of humanity without really focusing on how to have a manageable future.”

He adds: “The economic system has been so very successful in the past, but – it’s difficult to say this – I’m not sure that it’s fit for purpose in the 21st century, and there’s a massive challenge. How do you switch from what has been successful to something that really is fit for a new era?”

One answer is government regulations. King offers Germany’s and the UK’s feed-in renewable energy tariffs as an example of constructive market shaping. “Where the private sector tends to have failed the system, is by trying to influence governments not to regulate, for example, regulating a phased withdrawal from coal, oil and gas.”

A younger generation may feel more immediately the threat of climate change and are more open to collaborative solutions since the future will be theirs.

Collaborating for future generations

Of course, there are more dimensions to collaboration than just public and private. King offers wry observations of how scientists and NGOs sometimes struggle to work together effectively. But he is optimistic about the younger generation and ambitious engineers like Amber O’Connor. 

“Younger people are keener to work together on this. So, I do think there is a generational side to this. They understand our future more readily than I think many people in the intermediate generation.” O’Connor agrees wholeheartedly: Her two- and four-year-olds drive her forward to create a world in which they will be able to thrive – for King his grandchildren provide the same motivation.

“My youngest grandchild is two,” he says. “Is she going to be around at the end of the century? What will the world look like then? And what will her children face? As soon as you start thinking like that, you’re drawn into future thinking and preparing for a future.”

It seems that to an extent our young can also be a vital source of renewable energy. But even so, King thinks we humans have a problem when it comes to our time horizons. “Humanity is used to looking back over 6,000 years of civilization, but we can’t look forward even 70 years with any comfort.”

Does the daunting challenge ahead, even after so much personal effort, make him feel weary? He smiles back indefatigably and leans forward as if sharing a secret: “You know, what I’ve learnt in life is that if you’re doing something that’s rewarding, and you are getting results, then it’s no longer tiring.” 

May 4, 2022

Daniel Whitaker, based in London, is an economist and journalist who has been following the changes in the renewable energy sector for years. His work has appeared in a number of media outlets, including the Financial Times and The Economist.