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From the archives: Interview: Sir John Houghton, meteorologist, climate-change expert

16 April 2020

Sir John Houghton, an atmospheric physicist and climate-change expert, died on Wednesday, aged 88, of suspected Covid-19. He was co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientific assessment working group. In 2007, he received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the IPCC group, alongside the former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore. This interview was first published in the Church Times on 22 November 2013

I’ve been privileged to be closely involved in the wonderful revolution of the past 50 years in atmospheric and earth science.

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 together.

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 universe.

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 change.

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 forward.

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 1970.

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 climate change.

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, £9.99.

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