Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 94-99)

30 MARCH 2004


  Q94 Chairman: Good morning, Sir David.

  Professor Sir David King: Good morning, Chairman.

  Q95 Chairman: Thank you very much for joining us. Could you introduce your colleague?

  Professor Sir David King: Yes, I have brought Claire Durkin along, who is Director and Head of the Energy Innovation and Business Unit in the DTI.

  Q96 Chairman: You are both welcome. We want to look today at the whole question of climate change and your approach to that, and also touch on energy policy as well. I will, if I may, open up by asking a question which I am sure you are expecting and have probably answered before, which is whether or not you stand by the remarks that you made in your article for Science magazine where you said that you believe climate change was a more serious threat than terrorism?

  Professor Sir David King: And to add in the word that was included there, "even". I say that because I cover all of science in government and this, of course, includes our post-9/11 activities—setting up a working group to examine our resilience to post-9/11 type activities—and this became formalised as the Science Advisory Panel for Emergency Response, which I chair. So I work very hard on that front. Nothing I said was intended to underplay the importance of that agenda. My direct answer to you is no, I do not withdraw any of those comments, nor have I been asked to. At the same time, what I was trying to draw attention to was the severity of the warnings from climate change scientists at the moment. I will not spend too much time on this, but if we look back in time for the globe we probably have to go back 55 million years before we find carbon dioxide levels as high as we are now at, and, of course, our carbon dioxide levels are still rising. Fifty-five million years ago was a time when there was no ice on the earth; the Antarctic was the most habitable place for mammals, because it was the coolest place, and the rest of the earth was rather inhabitable because it was so hot. It is estimated that it was roughly 1,000 parts per million then, and the important thing is that if we carry on business as usual we will hit 1,000 parts per million around the end of this century. So it seems to me that it is clear on a global and geological scale that climate change is the most serious problem we are faced with this century. The science is telling us about it. We are beginning to put together what we have to do to meet the problem, and it is now a question of policy makers getting together internationally and dealing with it.

  Q97 Chairman: You are absolutely clear that the cause of this lies with mankind's activities and not with some natural phenomenon?

  Professor Sir David King: Yes. This is an extremely complex problem and there are at least 1,000 scientists who have, over the last 200 years, contributed to our understanding of the earth's climate system, but there is a very, very strong consensus that the 0.6 to 0.7ºC global temperature rise that we have seen over the last 100 years is largely attributable to anthropogenic effects; it is attributable, largely, to increased production of carbon dioxide, methane, NOx, SOx, and CFCs—all of these larger molecules which are greenhouse gases.

  Q98 Chairman: Going back to the comparison you made with terrorism, which I think has been criticised as an unhelpful comparison by government sources, what precisely prompted you to draw that particular comparison? Were you thinking in terms of the number of people who have already died as a result of global warming and rising water levels, or the potential number of people who may be affected in the future? Were you drawing a numerical comparison in terms of a scale of tragedy?

  Professor Sir David King: Let me first of all respond by saying I join in the criticism of the response to that sentence, in the sense that it is not fruitful to discuss whether terrorism is a more difficult problem than climate change; I think we have to get on and deal with each of these major challenges. At the same time, I think I have just spelt out why I think that the climate change issue is such a tremendous challenge to all of our societies. Yes, 31,000 excess fatalities in Europe during last summer's heat wave. We have extreme events that we always have had and always will, but the frequency of these extreme events is going to increase with time, and is already increasing with time. So we can look at these events and say these are climate-change related events. Equally, the flooding that we had two years previously. Climate change scientists have made it quite clear that linkages between severe flooding and severe hot summers are climate-change anticipated effects.

  Q99 Chairman: It was reported after your article appeared that No 10 attempted to gag you or to stifle your remarks—shut you up in some way. Were you aware of that?

  Professor Sir David King: I certainly read about it in the papers but there was—

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