Sir David King, The U.K. Science Adviser, Urges Action On Climate Change
Sir David King
The scientific understanding of climate change is mature enough that nations should act now to help prevent long-term impacts such as the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the chief scientific adviser to the British government said at AAAS.
Sir David King, who has warned in the past that human industrial activities make a significant contribution to global warming, said the United Kingdom has pledged a 60 per cent reduction in its emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases by 2050. He said Britain, which currently has the presidency of the Group of Eight (G8)a group of seven leading industrial nations plus Russiais determined to make the case for emissions reductions.
"We need to take the rest of the world's nations with us," King said in his 14 September lecture. He said he remains at a loss to understand some of the continuing skepticism about climate change in the United States.
King reported on the recent G8 meeting at Gleneagles, Scotland, where climate change and other science-related topics, including improving sustainability in Africa, were on the agenda. His lecture was sponsored by the Washington Science Policy Alliance, a coalition of science policy organizations, and the British Embassy.
Carbon dioxide, produced both by natural processes and by the burning of fossil fuels, is now at 379 parts per million in the atmosphere, King said. What level might start to trigger the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet? There are differences of opinion among scientists, King said, with some saying as low as 400 parts per million and some as high as 700. He said his own view is that the trigger point is probably somewhere between 500 parts per million and 550. The levels are rising at about 2 parts per million a year, King said. At that rate, the 400 parts per million would be reached within a decade.
King said melting of the Greenland ice sheet eventually could raise sea levels by up to 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) with dire consequences for many coastal cities. But the process would not happen quickly.
A computer model by the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Britain suggests that, once the process becomes irreversible, it still would take 600 years for roughly 40 per cent of the ice sheet to disappear. By then, sea levels would have risen three meters (9.8 feet), the analysis suggests, and coastlines would be changing.
Beyond the possible effects of long-term climate change, some coastal cities and regions already face dangers from flooding and storm surges. The British constructed a series of moveable gates on the Thames River east of central London to control storm-driven tidal surges sweeping upriver from the North Sea. King said the gates, completed in 1982, were expected to be used infrequently. But in recent years, he said, they have been employed six to seven times a year.
On the topic of African sustainability, King said it is time for developed nations to move beyond food and medical aid to Africa to help develop the infrastructureschools, universities, hospitals, roads, airportsthat African nations need to spur their own economic development. Poverty is being reduced on every continent except Africa, King said, and Africa is losing about 100,000 skilled people a year as they migrate abroad for job opportunities. King himself grew up in South Africa.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair established a Commission for Africa to examine the range of problems facing the continent. More than half of the 17 commissioners were prominent Africans.
The commission recommended that G8 nations contribute $1 billion for general education improvements, $500 million to help revitalize Africa's institutions of higher education and $3 billion over 10 years to establish several African Institutes of Science and Technology, modeled after similar centers that were established by donor nations in India.
Nigeria and Tanzania already have set aside property in bids to win one of the proposed centers, King said.
King also stressed that aid to African nations should be "untied," with donors allowing the recipients as much flexibility as possible in deciding how to spend money as long as some general criteria, such as good governance, are met. "We should not impose on Africa our own model of what should be done," King said. For road building, for example, "it's good engineering, it's not state-of-the-art engineering that's required," King said.
Read the text of Sir David King's plenary address to the 2004 AAAS Annual Meeting here.
16 September 2005