UK’s ex-climate adviser Sir David King at CISL: ‘We must learn how to live with nature’
Sir David King, speaking at a pre-COP28 event at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), described “consumerism for its own sake” as one of the central challenges of the climate emergency.
Sir David, who was chief scientific adviser to the UK government under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was also the UK’s climate envoy, 2013-2017. The honorary fellow of Downing College addressed an audience alongside Eliot Whittington, chief systems change officer at CISL.
Speaking about fossil fuel use, he said: “I’m still worried about the power of the fossil fuel lobby, which has been blocking transitions over many many years. They became my big bete noir as a negotiator, red-lining everything through their influence on the United States’ presidential office. Hopefully that is now over.”
In July a database was published showing that 1,500 US lobbyists working for fossil-fuel firms while representing universities and green groups.
Cimate change being driven by consumerism, Sir David suggested: “As we increase consumerism in our own society, no longer faced with human wellbeing, it becomes just consumerism almost for its own sake – we are destroying the planet because we’re using all of its resources in that way. We have to have an economic system that advances beyond this and acknowledges the importance of something called the public good.
“And once you give the public good a voice you’re actually saying, yes, the health service is a public good, education is a public good – there’s a whole range of things that mustn’t be subjected to the free market capitalist system because the shareholders become the determiners of what happens to the public good.
“But the public good goes way beyond what I’ve just mentioned, it goes into our ecosystems, the biodiversity – it goes into everything that acknowledges that we’re a part of nature, and we’re destroying ourselves as we destroy nature.”
Late-stage capitalism is not up to the job of pulling us away from climate catastrophe, he added.
“The economic system that we have has been amazingly good at removing people from poverty around the world – it has been amazingly good and I think everyone would acknowledge that. China adopted it when Mao Tse-Tung died, and we put out a report on China, and in China since 2000 the estimate is that between 800 million and 850 million people have been taken out of poverty,” he said, adding: “But what that is creating is the most consumer-driven society you can see: if you go into Beijing or Shanghai today, you can see consumerism in excellence.
“It really is a consumer-driven society, nothing to do with human wellbeing as it extends beyond that, so I think we’ve all got to recognise this free-market system has run its course and we need to adapt to an economy that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.”
The finance to counter climate change is available, he argued.
“Let’s just take you back to the 2007-2008 global financial crisis which was driven through by banks making unwise loans. Who resolved that problem? The money came from governments around the world,” he said.
In the Q&A, Sir David was asked about the role played by the Earth’s indigenous communities.
“The question of indigenous people is a very good one,” he replied. “The indigenous people of the world know how to live with nature. They do see themselves as a part of nature.
“And whether you talk to the Sami or Inuit people up on the permafrost, or you talk to the people in the forests of the world, or the people on the Kalahari desert - perhaps the oldest indigenous population of all - all of these groups of people know that their livelihood, their lives, depend on their management of the resources around them - their natural resources.
“We have an awful lot to learn from them.”
Eliot Whittington said: “It was a pleasure to host Sir David King at CISL for our event this week.”