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Interview: John Houghton, scientist

04 December 2007

John Houghton, Scientist and former co-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

I am very proud indeed to be part of the IPCC delegation that receives the Nobel Peace Prize next week. I was co-chair between 1998 and 2002, and lead editor on its three reports on global warming. We will receive the Prize alongside the former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore.

I gave my first lecture on climate change in 1967. It is a topic that had always interested me, and there has been evidence of the greenhouse effect for 200 years. But it only became an important public and political issue in the 1980s. The IPCC was formed in 1988.

I remember being very excited by the Soviets’ launching of Sputnik I in 1957; it was just before I began lecturing at Oxford in atmospheric physics. Suddenly we could observe the earth twice a day from an orbiting satellite. It triggered off a lot of thinking, and revolutionised projects.

I have had different roles in the scientific world, but kept my connections with Oxford for many years — although, when I was director of the Appleton Laboratory (1979-83), I was what you might call a 20-per-cent professor. I then became director of the UK Met Office, and am currently chairman of the John Ray Initiative [JRI]. During these jobs, I have sat on different scientific panels and committees such as the IPCC.

It is too easy with the environment to think my bit won’t count: it will. We must all do something now, however small, at home, at work, wherever. The Church has got on board, but rather late. It has traditionally been wary of green issues, as they can seem a bit “New Agey”.

I have just recorded a CD for York Courses, Climate Change and Christian Faith. This is the Church doing something practical. The Bible clearly tells us to look after the Earth. It is our Christian duty to do this, and to look after the poor. We must stop climate change getting worse. If we don’t, the developing world will suffer the most.

The effects of climate change are quite simple: more rainfall and a rise in sea level will lead to more floods and make areas of the world uninhabitable. This will badly effect low-lying areas like Bangladesh and southern China. There will also be more extreme temperatures, which will lead to droughts. Where will these people go? How will they make a living?

People may laugh, but we need to boost our tourist industry. Holidaymakers will come flocking to Wales in 50 years’ time when the south of France is too hot. We must face the fact that we cannot stop global warming, but we can do a great deal to slow it down.

It is easy to view the threat of climate change as idle talk. But the current use of our natural resources is not sustainable. In the West, particularly, we are increasing consumers. We need to cut our emissions and use green suppliers, travel less and share car journeys, check that what we buy has not travelled thousands of miles, and even in the winter ensure we are not living in overheated homes.

I have always described myself as a convinced Christian. Many scientists are Christians: there is no incompatibility. Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion is careless, and contains very little analysis or real argument. I have atheist friends who say it makes them ashamed to be atheists. It is a rude book, and rude books sell.

This Christmas, I would challenge everyone to send a cow, or buy another ethical gift, rather than buying presents that no one really needs. I have become patron of the Send a Cow charity. There is so much we can do in the rich part of the world to help the poor; yet at the moment the net flow of money is from the poor to the rich. I think our Old Testament prophets, as well Jesus, would have a lot to say about this.

Naturally, I read a lot for my work, but also enjoy biographies. I have recently read two political ones about Roy Jenkins and Churchill. My own book Does God Play Dice? is just being republished, by JRI with York Courses.

We live in Wales, and have two children and seven grandchildren. One part of the family is in the US, and the other in the furthest parts of England; but we get together when we can.

As a child, I knew I wanted to be a scientist. At the age of about five or six, I discovered science books; I always used to make things. I remember on one particular occasion asking my father, who was a history teacher, to connect something I had made to the mains. There was a loud bang. I didn’t do that again.

There are very different choices one makes in life and, in mine, they have all been important. Being a scientist has hugely shaped my life, but so has my choice to follow Jesus. I grew up in a Christian household, but it was not until I went to Oxford when I was 16 and met some fellow Christians that I made the choice. I have had two lovely wives. My first wife died when she was 54. Both of them came from the north of England.

I would like to be remembered for having contributed certain things to the world of science. It has been a great privilege to work in such a world.

In my schooldays, there was a superb physics teacher at Rhyl Grammar. He who let me do all sorts of things that would not be allowed in the classroom now. At Oxford, I learnt a great deal about the atmosphere under the tutelage of Alan Brewer.

I can always remember going to a student conference and hearing an exposition of Philippians 3 about pressing forward. That sermon and passage have always been very important to me.

I hate injustice. I feel very sad about the increasing amount there is in the world.

If you asked my wife, she would say I am happiest when I am pursuing my science. This is partially true.

We are very fortunate to live on the west-Wales coast, where we have a sailing boat. This is a spiritual retreat in itself.

I would like to get locked in a church with my wife, as the person I love the most. But, failing that, with someone who can play the organ well.

Professor Sir John Houghton was talking to Rachel Harden.





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