I've been privileged to be closely involved in
the wonderful revolution of the past 50 years in atmospheric and
It's been like surfing - if you get on the wave
at the right time you come right into the shore. All this began to
be possible after Sputnik in 1957, and the use of powerful
computers to model the atmosphere and climate.
The book In the Eye of the Storm became
possible because of Gill Tavner's request to be my
ghost-writer, which came completely out of the blue.
My prayer is that the book will be useful in making
people sit up and understand the truth. The whole world
needs to jump on to this surfboard, really.
Putting my science and faith alongside each other has
always been important to me, because I believe they belong
I hope it will arouse genuine concern about
human-induced climate change, and demonstrate the honest
commitment of the world scientific community involved in climate
research, especially through the work of the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was charged with producing
authoritative, thorough, and accurate science. My pioneering work
for the IPCC is what I'd hope to be remembered for.
My childhood ambitions, from as long as I
remember, were to explore the world and the universe in all
possible scientific ways. I was captivated by the wonder of the
I was further inspired by an excellent science teacher
at school. In Oxford, having become top in physics in my
year, I joined a small group who were investigating the atmosphere,
which eventually led to my strong interest in human-induced climate
My thinking was transformed when Sputnik went
up. I was interested in the atmospheric circulation, which
is global. We had measurements from aeroplanes and balloons, but
they were only in one place. If only we could put an instrument on
a satellite circling the earth about 14 times a day, and measure
atmospheric temperature at different levels by measuring radiation
emitted from the earth, that would be a tremendous step
NASA in the US were very helpful. I was at
Oxford at that time, and my research group worked with Desmond
Smith and his group at Reading University, building novel
instruments for NASA satellites. The first was launched in
That was a thrilling time, to be connected with
things buzzing round the whole earth. Today, the Met Office gets
information every day from lots of satellites put up by different
bodies round the world, and the data they get is enormous, on the
structure, composition and temperature of the atmosphere, and from
the oceans, too.
There is still a long way to go with detailed weather
forecasting, but it's been possible to gain a lot of
understanding about the world's climate, how and why it changes.
That's what makes us much more certain about what is happening with
We've just had an example of this in the typhoon that's
just hit the Philippines, and it's very frightening. In a
typhoon, water vapour from the warm ocean is sucked up into the
higher atmosphere, where it condenses into clouds, releasing lots
of latent heat. As the oceans get warmer, there is more energy in
the atmosphere's circulation, and hence the winds get stronger.
We don't expect there to be more hurricanes or typhoons
in tropical regions, but the strongest ones will tend to
be stronger. The other big problem is that as the oceans get
warmer, the water will expand: the sea level will likely rise by
the best part of a metre by the end of this century. Ten million
people in Bangladesh live below the one-metre contour, farming the
fertile mud there. Where are they to go? It's going to be a problem
for the world.
In our latitudes, we're also going to get more energy in
the atmospheric circulation, which will affect us, too;
we'll tend to have more intense rainfall and storms. Extremes will
be greater because energy in the system is greater.
To get our world through this, with its rapidly
increasing population, is going to be a big problem. People say:
"Let's wait and see if it really happens." That's not a good thing
to do at all, because even if we turned off all carbon emissions
tomorrow, the climate would continue to warm. We can't turn the
clocks back when we've found out we don't like it - we really have
to get on with it now. It's very urgent.
Remedial action must be taken if major damage is to be
avoided. It isn't difficult or costly to do what is
necessary. The latest report of the International Energy Agency
(IEA), set up by world governments to advise on energy matters,
states that the cost of achieving the target of keeping the rise in
global average temperature to less than two degrees Celsius above
its preindustrial level by 2050 could be more than met from savings
in the cost of fuel during the intervening period. It is a shame
that these reports are not more widely quoted.
We need to cut carbon emissions that come from
burning oil, coal and gas, and move to renewable sources of energy.
We also have to become more efficient in our energy use, insulating
homes, driving less powerful cars, etc. None of this is difficult.
Also, the cost is not large.
A lot of nonsense is talked by people who are
pushed by the oil and coal lobby to say that it's going to be
expensive and difficult to get renewable energy, and that global
warming isn't happening. Exon Mobil is the biggest company in the
world, and spends millions of dollars saying this sort of thing -
even though more than 95 per cent of climate scientists worldwide
agree about it.
It's amazing to see people collaborating over climate
change, even very distinguished scientists who are
prepared to debate and argue. We all felt a real responsibility to
tell the world the truth. We did not exaggerate.
The Government tells us it is taking the problem
seriously, but it's influenced too strongly by the
fossil-fuel lobby, or by those who deny climate-change is occurring
or that it matters. They need to take decisions to look after the
long term. They may seem unpopular, but they are necessary.
China is becoming very green now, trying to
lead the world in renewable energy, and the way they're getting on
with that is very good. People forget that 25 per cent of Chinese
emissions comes from exports to the US and the UK. They're blamed
for them, but we're not - so there's a lot of unfairness.
I've just installed a ground-source heat pump.
They're expensive, but will save money downstream. They've just
installed one in Manchester Cathedral.
Nuclear power is actually pretty expensive, but
it doesn't produce carbon emissions. I support nuclear power,
provided care is taken not to increase the probability of the
spread of nuclear weapons.
I have married twice. My first wife died of
breast cancer when she was 54. Both have been very supportive,
wonderful partners, and a great influence on me, and have worked to
keep me honest and humble.
I have two children and seven grandchildren.
I'm concerned about the problems their generation will inherit from
us unless we take the problems of sustainability, and especially
climate change, very seriously.
The most important choice I have made is to accept Jesus
as my Saviour and Lord. I was brought up that way, but
there was a point when I realised it was an important decision that
I had to make.
My favourite place is our home near Aberdovey in West
Wales - an old farmhouse we worked to restore, with a
panoramic view over the Dovey Estuary.
My favourite book, I am bound to say, is the
Bible. It becomes more precious as the years go by. I read
the Gospels most often, then the Epistles, then the rest.
I get angry with people who are influential and
eloquent - and use their skills to propagate things that
are not true.
I'm happiest when I'm with those I love, and
listening to my favourite music; but I've also been very fortunate
to enjoy my work, which I am still able to do, if more slowly.
I pray for God's kingdom to come - fast!
I'd choose to be locked in a church with someone with
whom I could freely pray, but who also could play
ecstatically a Bach Toccata and Fugue on the church organ.
Sir John Houghton was talking to Terence Handley
MacMath. The Eye of the Storm is published by LionHudson,