A Cambridge academic petitioned the Royal Society to encourage action on climate change in AugustLouis Ashworth for VARSITY

The President of the UK’s leading science organisation has told Cambridge students that he cannot “lobby” for action on climate change.

Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, was speaking at Selwyn College last week at an event about Artificial Intelligence.

A Cambridge academic called for the Society to condemn the culpability of fossil fuel companies in the climate crisis in an open letter sent in August.

When asked about the Royal Society’s own role in shaping climate consciousness, he stated that as an independent institution, the society “could not act as a lobby organisation to influence public opinion,” and was limited to providing the facts to the public.

Sir Adrian was questioned about the Society’s continued research funding of practices considered harmful to the environment including shale gas extraction and deep sea mining. He again emphasised that human happiness takes precedence over policy changes.

The August petition, led by Caius fellow Jason Scott-Warren, notched signatures from over 1,200 UK academics. Representatives have said a meeting between the letter’s signatories and representatives is being arranged.

Sir Adrian’s talk addressed existential challenges facing humanity, but avoided a concrete stance on these criticisms of the ties of British science to fossil fuels.

His remarks centred on dangers posed by artificial intelligence to the “values of the Enlightenment”, and made no mention of the threat posed by climate change .

The talk concentrated on the condition of humanity and its present challenges with Sir Adrian concerned that digital technology presents an “existential threat to human organisation”.

According to Sir Adrian, artificial intelligence is the core threat to democracies. He stressed the need for transparency and accountability in democracies to address the threat of AI, with a particular emphasis on the democratisation of knowledge.


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In light of this, Varsity asked the society President how the threat of artificial intelligence compares to the existential threat posed by climate change.

Sir Adrian acknowledged the impact of climate change, but also highlighted the complexities behind reforms due to the short-term interests of voters. For this reason, politicians “concerned with their careers [...] will not impose the appropriate sustainable measures,” he explained.

The society President gave the example of government regulations to prohibit gas usage, which he argues would see politicians fall out of favour with the electorate.

When asked about Scott-Warren’s open letter to the Royal Society, Sir Adrian had no comment.