Sir David A. King, Founder and Chairman of the Center for Climate Repair in Cambridge, England, received the 2022 David and Betty Hamburg Prize for Science Diplomacy from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
The award recognizes an individual or small group in the science and engineering or foreign affairs communities who have made outstanding contributions to the advancement of science diplomacy. In April 2021, the AAAS announced that the AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy had been renamed in honor of David and Betty Hamburg.
After meeting at Yale School of Medicine in 1948, the Hamburgs began their careers jointly studying human adaptive processes under severe stress – from physical stress to mental illness, severe depression, poverty and war. knowledge, understanding of human behavior and deep compassion in a unique humanistic vision that redefines 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 Security Science, Technology and Policy, which facilitated the development of public reports and policy recommendations, forged through active programs bringing together diverse communities, both national and national. internationally, in the areas of bioengagement, science and security, nuclear proliferation and space security issues. Today, this work continues through the Center for Science Diplomacy.
The award is made possible through philanthropic support, and AAAS warmly thanks Carnegie Corporation of New York for its generous contribution to launching the renowned award, as well as the individuals and foundations whose contributions have begun an endowment that will enable us to maintain it in perpetuity.
For the past five decades, King, a South African-born British chemist, has worked at the forefront of international action to tackle climate change. As the UK’s chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007, King elevated the role of climate change in the country’s foreign policy diplomacy. More recently, he helped establish the Center for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge.
King accepted an interview with AAAS where he reflected on his career and offered advice to other scientists engaged 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 addressed them? What are the big challenges in terms of communicating the urgency of this issue to the public and government?
A: Apart from my research in physical chemistry, my best attribute for the job I’ve accepted is that I’m pretty good at explaining things in simple but non-dumbing down terms. Tony Blair was really having fun, I know that because he said so when talking to me about science. He says I wish I had done a science degree. And when I brought other scientists to talk to him, he said that Dave never confuses me like you. I don’t want you to use those long terms. Okay, so I’m able to speak and communicate on very complex issues but without using very private terminology that most of us are used to using.
So I cut my teeth on an outbreak of foot and mouth disease here in the UK in 2001, so that was just the start of my appointment to work with Tony Blair. And I gathered a group of model makers. We modeled the outbreak and realized the government was handling it incorrectly. And we have defined a new way to manage this epidemic. And Tony Blair said to me, it’s true, frankly, I don’t quite understand, but I’m going to ask you to go on television and on the radio explaining to everyone what you plan to do. And I did that every day for about three months. So I was on TV and radio explaining what we were doing, how we mastered it. So I got a public voice that way. And I think it’s fair to say that I used that public voice, first of all, to persuade Tony Blair that climate change was the greatest challenge the world faces or has ever faced as a ‘humanity. And it’s almost like the sequel is history, in the sense that I won his ear. I saw him every day during that three month period. In the morning, a cup of coffee in hand, after finishing his breakfast, I was there to explain to him how things were going.
And the modeling we had done turned out better than we could have expected. Everything went as we had planned. I think it’s fair to say it was crucial because I think I produced a report on flood and coastal defenses for the UK. I had 120 people, experts who were writing this report for me and it took us all the way to 2018. This report was released in 2003. And what this report showed is that with climate change going on , large parts of Britain would be under water by 2018. And London would be seriously flooded, and so on. So the cost to the UK: we are an island nation surrounded by water, when there are storms at sea there are storms on land.
And we’ve defined all of that and we’ve also defined what we should be doing. I have never stated a problem without stating the solutions. And what we should be doing is reducing our admissions nationally. And then on the world stage lead the climate negotiations. Because if the rest of the world didn’t follow, then we were done anyway. It was a strategy I’m still honestly working on. We face, and I faced then, extreme skepticism, that answers your question a bit better, extreme skepticism in the United States than I ever anticipated. I was sent by Blair in April 2001 to the White House to explain to the President why action on climate change was needed. And I haven’t made much progress, have I? You would say it was a failed mission.
But what he did, on this mission, I met, for example, John Kerry at that time. And just being up there on Capitol Hill, I met a whole host of governors and senators and so on. Which was absolutely fascinating. This notion of climate skepticism, I had not encountered it before. And of course John Kerry was on the side of the angels and George Bush frankly was not. So it was hard. Tony Blair worked closely with George Bush, particularly after 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 in Scotland, I tried to get an agreement before the heads of government meeting. We agreed that climate change was the only item on the agenda, and we were in the chair. And that usually happens. The chiefs of staff meet to try to find an agreement. We could get a 7 out of 8 country deal, but in the US every deal came back on a red line. So anything that had real meaning was framed in red. So that’s really where I ran into the biggest problems.
In fact, at the AAAS winter meeting in Seattle, I was invited to speak. It was probably the largest audience I’ve ever spoken to in that big convention hall in Seattle. And at the time, I was saying what to do about climate change, George Bush disagreed with that. I don’t know what happened between George Bush and my Prime Minister Tony Blair, but what happened was that Tony Blair said no press briefings in Seattle. So I’m giving this lecture, wonderful massive crowd. I answered questions at the end of the conference, but as soon as I was surrounded by the media, I was not allowed to speak to them. Now, I believe Bush told Blair that he should never let me into the White House. Because that was the last time I was going to the White House until Bush was in his second term and was nearing the end when I think he was welcoming anyone.
Q: What advice do you have for scientists who engage in diplomacy in their communities in their countries about their issues. What things have you learned in your career that you would like to pass on to other scientists doing this work?
A: The most important thing is that as a scientist, your integrity is the most important quality you have. When you publish an article, you must be honest because if someone finds out that you have cheated in any way, your scientific career is over. Integrity in a scientist is essential. Because there are a whole bunch of other people trying to bring you down.
The same must be true for a scientist in the political field. Your integrity is your singularly most important property. That’s what sets a scientist apart, because all that training gets you to that position. Now I tell you that I know many chief scientific advisers in the United States and Great Britain who have not followed this rule. If your head of government, if your prime minister or your president says for God’s sake, don’t say such a thing to the public because we’re not going to act on it, then you’re done.
I’ve always said, and I explained it very carefully to Tony Blair, I can only keep the trust with the public if I can keep the trust in me and then I can keep the trust with you. I have to keep my integrity. I would never lie in the public domain. Now sometimes it made it harder for me because the media picked up on the fact that I was always honest. So they asked me quite difficult questions intended to embarrass me. And Blair and Brown fully understood that my reputation with the public was a big part of what they could offer. So, for me, that would be the most important quality you have. If you have to be honest in science, you have to remember that when you’re in politics.
[Associated image: Gov UK]