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Sir David King: '2015 Is a Seminal Year for the Planet'

02/04/2015 08:28 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

Speaking before a packed auditorium at London's Imperial College last week, Sir David King, the UK's former head scientist, and current envoy for climate change, described 2015 as "a seminal year" for the planet.

Paraphrasing Mary Robinson, the former prime minister of Ireland, Kings says that: "This is the most important year in history since the United Nations was set up in 1945 in the wake of WWII."

His stark warning came one week after the symbolic doomsday clock inched two minutes closer to midnight.

Owing to the gathering storm of nuclear proliferation and global warming, scientists warn that humanity now faces its gravest threat since the height of the Cold War in the 1980's. The minute hand currently stands a mere three minutes to midnight.

"Quite frankly, we are faced with a war footing like we were in WWII," warns King.

His clarion call to action comes eleven months before heads of state gather in Paris for make or break UN climate talks. Five years ago, world leaders promised to limit the warming of our planet to two degrees celsius.

But, according to the United Nations, owing to the prolific burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, world temperatures are set to race past that mark within the next thirty years.

In order to stay under the agreed 2C target, governments from over 190 nations across the globe must commit to an ambitious deal to rein in carbon emissions by the time they gather in Paris this December:

"I don't think that we have another chance after this one. We are running out of time. Many people don't seem to realize that 2C is already going to be very challenging."

According to the head of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim, such a temperature rise will push millions of people into poverty as basic resources such as food and water slip out of reach. One need only remember the food riots of 2008 to imagine what lies in wait.

King's stark warning came one week after scientists confirmed that 2014 was the warmest year in history. That means 14 out of the 15 hottest years on record have all taken place this century.

King points to 2003 as a sign of things to come. Twelve years ago:

"We had a exceptionally hot summer: it was the hottest summer on record. Over 40,000 people died that summer from the heat, marking the biggest catastrophe in modern history. And, by 2045, the temperatures of that summer will become the world average."

And, unless we radically curb our global carbon emissions, the thermostat is only going to climb over four degrees celsius higher by the end of this century.

According to the UN, such a temperature rise will usher in changes not seen since the last Ice Age. And, King says that we should be preparing for an even steeper temperature rise:

"When I was chief scientific advisor, it was my responsibility to worry about a big outcome with a low probability. And, what I mean by low probability is 1%. So, when will look at a 1% probability now, we are running the risk of heading towards a 7 degrees celsius world. And, quite frankly, we ought to worry about that. We can't discount these low risk, high impact events."

It is unclear whether any life on earth would survive a 7 degrees celsius temperature rise.

Blaming our current demise on the population explosion coupled with the meteoric rise of the middle class, King says that our planet will no longer be able to sustain human life in its current form in the future. According to King, 5/8 of the world's populatuion will be middle class by mid century.

In spite of the current drop in oil prices which are languishing near a 6 year low, King says that our current demand for black gold outstrips supply by some 20 million barrels of oil per day.

This has forced the oil majors, funded by some 2 trillion dollars in government subsidies every year, to exploit unconventional, heavier forms of crude such as the Canadian tar sands which have been described as "the largest carbon bomb on the planet."

As Winston Churchill once said: "He who controls oil will win the next war." And, perhaps he was right, recounts King:

"Since OPEC announced in November that they would maintain the oil supply at 30 million barrels a day, the oil price has fallen. They could have certainly reduced it to 27 million barrels a day and kept the price double of what is it now. So, OPEC is driving the current oil price, and the important question is: who are they driving out of business."

Perhaps the oil cartel are lowering prices to stamp out the shale gas and renewable energy boom as both pose a threat to its bottom line. After all, both were cost competitive with oil before it began its 60% slide south to less than 60 dollars a barrel.

But, according to the International Energy Association, its long term trajectory is very much upwards: it says that the price of crude will soar to over $200 a barrel within the next twenty years.

According to King, research and development into alternative forms of energy is thus the only way out of our current conundrum:

"The future lies with technology that is yet to be developed. We need a global Apollo program to combat climate change. It will cost the same amount as Kennedy's program to land a man on the moon. And, although this may sound like a lot, we are looking for member countries to spend only 0.02% of GDP per year."

After all, "this is a far more important issue than putting a man on the moon. It should attract as much attention. Failure to solve this problem will affect every nation upon earth," writes King in the Financial Times :

"To defeat the axis powers, the allies developed the atom bomb. When threatened in the cold war, the US sent a man to the moon. When threatened by global warming, we surely need a similar effort to save the planet." Something that engages our "best minds", and something that is "international."

According to King, if all G20 nations committed to this new project, renewable energy could eclipse coal by 2025:

"Many people will say that our problems have arisen from science and technology. And, certainly our divorce from nature, can be attributed to that to a certain extent. But, there is no question in my mind that what we need now to solve these problems, is science and technology."