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Sir David A. King Wins 2022 AAAS David and Betty Hamburg Award for Science Diplomacy

Sir David A. King, Founder and Chair of the Centre for Climate Repair in Cambridge, England, has been awarded the 2022 David and Betty Hamburg Award for Science Diplomacy for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The award recognizes an individual or small group in the scientific and engineering or foreign affairs communities who have made outstanding contributions to furthering science diplomacy. In April 2021, AAAS announced that the AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy has been renamed in honor of David and Betty Hamburg.

The Hamburgs started their careers jointly studying human coping processes under severe stress--from physical stress to mental illness, severe depression, poverty, and war--after meeting at the Yale School of Medicine in 1948. Over a lifetime, they blended their scientific knowledge, understanding of human behavior, and profound compassion into a unique, humanistic vision that recast our understanding of how health and science are intertwined with international conflict and world peace.

Their impact on AAAS was particularly profound, as they helped establish the organization’s Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy, which facilitated the development of public reports and policy recommendations, forged through active programs that brought together a variety of communities, both domestic and international, in the areas of bioengagement, science and security, nuclear proliferation and space security issues. Today, that work continues on through the Center for Science Diplomacy.

The award is made possible with philanthropic support, and AAAS gratefully acknowledges Carnegie Corporation of New York for its generous contribution to launch the renamed award and the individuals and foundations whose contributions have begun an endowment that will allow us to sustain it in perpetuity.

Over the last five decades, King, a South African-born British physical chemist, has worked at the forefront of international action to address climate change. As the U.K.’s Chief Scientific Advisor from 2000 to 2007, King elevated the role of climate change in the country’s foreign policy diplomacy. More recently, he helped establish The Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University.

King agreed to an interview with AAAS where he reflected on his career and offered advice to other scientists engaging in public diplomacy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: In terms of working on this issue of climate change with the public, with government, what have been some of the challenges that you've seen and how have you tackled them? What are the big challenges in terms of communicating the urgency of this issue to the public and to the government?

A: Outside of my physical chemistry research, my best attribute for the job I took on is that I’m pretty good at explaining things in simple terms but without dumbing down. Tony Blair really used to enjoy, I know this because he said it, talking to me about science. He says I wish I had done a science degree. And when I brought other scientists in to talk to him, he would say Dave never fuzzes me the way you are. I don’t want you to use these long terms. Right, so I’m able to speak and communicate on very complex issues but without using very private terminology that most of us are very used to using.

So I cut my teeth on a foot and mouth disease outbreak here in the United Kingdom in the year 2001, so it was right early on in my appointment to work with Tony Blair. And I got together a group of modelers. We modeled the epidemic and we realized the government was operating it incorrectly. And we set out a new way of managing this epidemic. And Tony Blair said to me, right, I frankly don’t fully understand but I’m going to ask you to go on television and radio explaining to everybody what you’re planning to do. And I did that every day for about three months. So I was on television and radio explaining what we were doing, how we were bringing it under control. So I got a public voice in that way. And I think it’s fair to say I used that public voice, first of all, to persuade Tony Blair that climate change was the biggest challenge the world is faced with or ever has been faced with as humanity. And it’s almost as if the rest is history, in the sense that I had won his ear. I was seeing him every single day for that three-month period. In the morning, cup of coffee in hand, just having finished his breakfast, I would be there briefing him on how it was going.

And the modeling we had done proved to be better than we could have expected. Everything worked out as we predicted. I think it’s fair to say that was crucial because I think produced a report on flood and coastal defenses for the United Kingdom. I had 120 people, experts drawing out this report for me and this was taking us out to 2018. This report was published in 2003. And what this report showed was that with climate change running forward as it was, big sections of Britain would be under water by 2018. And London would be seriously flooded, and so on. So the cost to the United Kingdom: we’re an island nation surrounded by water, when there are storms at sea there are storms in land.

And we set all of this out and we also set out what we should do. I never set out a problem without setting out the solutions. And what we should do is domestically reduce our admissions. And then on the global scene lead the climate negotiations. Because if the rest of the world didn’t follow, then we were cooked anyway. It was a strategy that I’m still working on quite frankly. We are faced with, and I was faced then, with extreme, this answers your question a bit better, extreme skepticism in the United States which I never anticipated. I was sent by Blair in April 2001 to the White House to explain to the President why climate change action was necessary. And I didn’t exactly make a lot of progress, right? You would say that that was a failed mission.

But what it did, on that mission I actually met for example John Kerry on that period. And just being up there on Capitol Hill I met a whole range of governors and senators and so on. Which was absolutely fascinating. This notion of climate skepticism, I hadn’t come across before. And of course John Kerry was on the side of angels and George Bush frankly was not. So it was tough. Tony Blair was working closely with George Bush, particularly post-9/11 and became I think it’s fair to say George Bush’s most trusted colleague in the international sphere. But on climate change, for example at a G8 meeting that was held in Scotland, I tried to get an agreement ahead of the heads of government meeting. We agreed climate change was the only item on the agenda, and we were in the chair. And this usually happens. The chiefs of staff meet to try and thrash out an agreement. We could get an agreement from 7 out of 8 countries, but the United States, every agreement came back red lined. So anything that had any real meaning was red lined. So that’s really where I hit the biggest problems.

As a matter of fact, at the AAAS winter meeting in Seattle, I was invited to address the meeting. This was probably the biggest audience I’ve ever addressed in that great big congress hall in Seattle. And at this point I was saying what needed to be done on climate change, George Bush did not agree with this. I don’t know what transpired between George Bush and my Prime Minister Tony Blair, but what happened was that Tony Blair said you’re not to do any press briefings in Seattle. So I give this talk, wonderful massive crowd. I answered questions at the end of the talk, but as soon as I was surrounded by the media I wasn’t allowed to talk to them. Now I believe that Bush had told Blair that he was never to bring me into the White House. Because that was the last time I’d ever been to the White House until Bush was in his second term and coming towards the end when I think he was welcoming anybody in.

Sir David A. King and colleagues
Sir David A. King along with Fatima Denton and Arunabha Ghosh, colleagues of his at the Climate Crisis Advisory Group | Courtesy of Climate Crisis Advisory Group

Q: What advice do you have for scientists who are engaging in diplomacy in their communities in their countries on their issues. What are sort of the things that you’ve learned in your career that you would want to impart to other scientists doing this work?

A: The single most important thing is as scientist your integrity is the most important quality you have. When you publish a paper, you have to be honest because if somebody else finds you’ve cheated in any way, that’s the end of your scientific career. Integrity in a scientist is critical. Because there’s a whole bunch of other people out there trying to shoot you down.

The same has to be true for a scientist in the political domain. Your integrity is your singularly most important property. It’s what makes a scientist stand out because all of that training brings you into that position. Now I’m saying to you I know many chief scientific advisers in the States and in Britain who have not followed that rule. If your head of government, if your Prime Minister or President says for God’s sake don’t tell the public anything like that because we’re not going to act on that, then you’re cooked.

I have always said, and I explained this very carefully to Tony Blair, I can only keep the trust of the public if I can keep the trust in myself and then I can keep the trust with you. I have to maintain my integrity. I would never lie in the public domain. Now sometimes that would make it difficult for me because the media picked up on the fact that I was always honest. So they would ask me quite difficult questions meant to embarrass me. And Blair and Brown fully understood that my reputation with the public was a big part of what they could deliver. So for me that would be the single most important quality you have. If you’re forced to be honest in the scientific domain you should remember that when you’re in the political domain.

[Associated image: Gov UK]