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Obituary: Sir John Houghton

08 May 2020

Andy Atkins writes:

SIR JOHN HOUGHTON, eminent climate scientist and influential advocate of care for the environment, died on 15 April, aged 88.

John was born in 1931 in Dyserth, in north Wales, to devout Baptist parents. He was exceptionally gifted, and won a place at Jesus College, Oxford, to study physics when he was only 16. He went on to have a distinguished academic career there, eventually becoming professor of atmospheric physics and Fellow of the Royal Society.

John found a strong personal faith of his own as an undergraduate, and his concern for people made him passionate about applying science to solving real-world problems and led to several influential posts. He was appointed Chief Executive of the UK Meteorological Office in 1983; then, in 1988, when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established, he was asked to chair arguably its most mission-critical panel, the scientific assessment working group. He held this post until 2002. He also chaired the UK’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution from 1992 to 1998.

John won many awards and honours. He was knighted in 1991, and his contribution to the scientific understanding of, and international collaboration on, climate change led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 on behalf of the IPCC, shared jointly with former US Vice-President Al Gore.

John was at home working in both academic and highly complex intergovernmental processes. But he was anything other than a dry scientist or international bureaucrat. He was quietly passionate about science and his faith, able to explain both clearly and engagingly to diverse audiences. He described his beloved physics as simply “learning how God’s world works”.

John was also convinced that Christians and the Church must re-find what he regarded as their biblical mandate to care for the earth, and, as retirement approached, he in effect started a new career to try to bring that about by his own efforts and supporting others. In the late 1990s, working with other senior scientists, such as Sam (R. J.) Berry, the eminent geneticist from University College London, he founded the John Ray Initiative (JRI), an organisation that seeks to connect science, environment, and the Christian faith for sustainability and action. John was the first Chair of JRI and continued to be its president until his death.

John was generous with his time and encouragement to a new generation of environmentalists. When I and my young policy and campaigns team at Tearfund initiated the climate and development programme in 1999, John was delighted to see Tearfund tackling the issue, and offered to be our adviser — an extraordinary privilege for us and assurance for the CEO. On one occasion, I was invited to a private pre-launch screening of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth; so I asked John to come with me to give me an immediate assessment of the robustness of the science. He came up to London from Wales for the evening and took me out to dinner after the film where he plied me with questions and offered helpful tips about Tearfund’s climate work, as well as giving me his expert opinion on the film. He thought the science accurate but that Al Gore had pulled his punches in not suggesting much bolder action at the end.

Perhaps one of Sir John’s boldest initiatives was working with Bishop James Jones of Liverpool diocese, JRI, and Tearfund, on a series of private meetings and public conferences in the United States to try to engage leading US Evangelical church leaders with the reality of climate change. The penny dropped for several prominent figures, and one result was the publication in 2006 of “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action”. I was privileged to accompany Sir John and Bishop James to a conference in Washington, DC, as part of this initiative, and saw him at work.

In debating with the most irrational and often aggressive of climate sceptics, John was politely forthright, calmly drawing his detractors back to the evidence of the science and the biblical mandate to care for creation.

John’s life and career were not without pain and upset. He was Director of the Meteorological Office at the time of the 1987 hurricane, when the weather forecaster Michael Fish notoriously announced that there would be no hurricane. The Sun called for their dismissal. From this experience, John drew the title of his 2013 autobiography In the Eye of the Storm. His first wife, Dr Margaret Houghton (née Broughton), died prematurely. In recent years, he suffered from dementia, and he died from Covid-19.

John leaves an important international legacy from his academic work, his post as first chair of the IPCC’s scientific panel, the ongoing work of JRI, and his private influencing work with US Evangelical leaders. He was also an inspiration and fatherly friend to younger generations of UK Christians seeking to address climate change in their own lives, Churches, and wider society.

John is survived by his widow, Lady (Sheila) Houghton, his brother, Paul Houghton, and his two children, Dr Janet Malcolm and Peter Houghton, from his marriage to Dr Margaret Houghton, and seven grandchildren.

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