Business Day (Johannesburg)

12 September 2007

South Africa: 'No Threat More Serious' Than Climate Change

Cape Town — Climate change poses a greater threat to our future wellbeing than global terrorism, says the British government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King.

"It is the biggest challenge human civilisation has ever had to face up to collectively," says King.

He has been in SA talking to cabinet ministers, big business, academics and school pupils about the seriousness of the problem.

Africa is expected to be hardest hit by the consequences of global warming, even though it has emitted less greenhouse gases than other regions.

Many African countries depend on natural resources that are very sensitive to changes in climate, such as agriculture. In Western Cape, which is predicted to get hotter and drier, apple farmers are already struggling to cope with the drier summers that the region has begun to experience.

King argues that an international climate change agreement needs to be reached within the next two years if we are to mitigate the effect of global warming and minimise the catastrophic environmental changes to the planet that are envisaged.

"This is a crisis we can manage if we get our heads together -- but even one large country could wreck it," he says.

Climate change may well have the scientists and policy makers worried, but it is an issue that has yet to grab the attention of South Africans.

So does tackling global warming mean facing a future bereft of creature comforts such as strawberries in the depths of winter and long plane trips to exotic destinations in summer?

King says no, but a more considered use of the planet's finite resources and economic growth can go hand in hand.

"I don't see a hair-shirt future -- far from it. But taking into account our limited resources we need to adapt our thinking rather better to well-being rather than conspicuous consumption," he says.

Investing in non-nuclear, carbon-free technologies for the future will develop economic gains, he says.

With this idea in mind, the British government set up the Energy Technologies Institute last year to develop means of sustainable energy production that it could sell to the world, King says.

The institute is a public-private partnership that includes oil giants Shell and BP, Rolls Royce and Caterpillar, and state energy generating institutions from France, Germany, and Scotland.

In addition to his work on climate change, King has influenced enormously the way Britain has used science to tackle problems ranging from foot and mouth disease and avian flu, to retirement age.

For the past seven years he headed the UK government's Office of Science and Technology (OST), first under Tony Blair and now under Gordon Brown.

"One of my challenges to government was to say 'give me one aspect of your decision-making where science is not likely to play a role'. The challenge I was given immediately ... was pensions."

King conducted a demographic study that sent a clear message to the British government that its retirement thresholds -- 60 for women, and 65 for men -- made no sense for an aging population where life expectancy for women is 81 and for men is 79. As a result, the UK is raising its retirement age.

One of the OST's most important initiatives is the Foresight programme and its associated horizon-scanning project, which draw on science to offer government leaders advice on sticky issues, both current and future.

Foresight conducts a rolling programme of in-depth research projects that culminate in reports to the government. The shorter horizon-scanning projects canvass nonscientists for their ideas about future scenarios for the planet, and interrogate leading scientists about the cutting edge technologies they predict will soon be with us.

"In a global economy, investing in science and technology is key to remaining competitive," King says.

Despite his government duties, King still finds time to do some science of his own. A chemist by training, with a special interest in catalysis, he is research director in the chemistry department at the University of Cambridge and has a dozen doctoral students under his wing.

His contract with the British government comes to an end later this year. He will say little about any future plans he may have, but climate change is sure to be among his priorities.

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