Tribute to one of the world’s major climate change scientists: “his was the voice that always carried real authority”

A towering figure in tackling global heating, the UK climate science pioneer Sir John Houghton has died at 88, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic. Andrew Warren, director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy between 1981 and 2014and  now chair the British Energy Efficiency Federation, provides a personal tribute on the Climate News Network website.


Sir John Houghton: UK climate science pioneer

One of the many victims of the coronavirus pandemic has been the 88-year-old British climate change expert and meteorologist Sir John Houghton, who died on 15 April.

During the final quarter of the twentieth century he  was amongst the handful of key scientific figures who moved concern about the threat of climate change from being something dismissed as a cranky theory to its current political acceptance as one of the most important issues facing the world. Memorably, he was the scientist who persuaded the UK government to take climate change seriously.

Educated at Rhyl Grammar School, he won a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, where he held a fellowship between 1960 and 1983, the last seven of these as professor of atmospheric physics. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s national academy of sciences, in 1972, was appointed a CBE in 1983, and was given a knighthood by the then prime minister, John Major, in 1991.

He chaired the scientific committee of the World Climate Research Programme between 1981 and 1983 and the Earth Observation Advisory Committee from 1982, moving on to chair the initial scientific assessment panel of the newly formed Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 1988 to 2001 − still the foremost international science organisation concerned with climate change.

“Fundamentally a rather shy and diffident man, his obvious academic prowess and his probity meant that his was the voice that always carried real authority”

He was lead editor of the IPCC’s first three assessments of the science of global climate change; his books include Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, aimed at the non-scientific reader and now in its fifth edition.

In an unprecedented move, the IPCC has announced that the scientific section of its forthcoming Sixth Assessment Report, due in early 2022, is to be formally dedicated to Sir John’s memory.

He set up the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, published many outstanding papers on atmospherics, and became the most frequent scientific broadcaster and lecturer on climate change issues.

He had moved from academia to become the chief executive of the Met Office in Bracknell, near London, in 1983, where my stepfather, the late Michael Blackwell (holder of the Polar Medal), was a senior fellow-scientist. I recall being at my parents’ house just outside Bracknell that year, and first meeting John Houghton at a dinner party there.

Because I had recently launched the Association for the Conservation of Energy, he talked to me at length about his work on what was then called the Greenhouse Effect, and the impact that excessive consumption of fuels (they were practically all fossil-based then) was having upon average temperatures worldwide.

Stressing the benefits

In Sir John’s view, reducing unnecessary energy consumption was the most effective way to combat this threat. He urged me to campaign  stressing this beneficial aspect, rather more than the employment, health and economic arguments I had been pursuing,

He was influential in ensuring the House of Commons environment select committee, under the late (and also lamented) Sir Hugh Rossi MP, who died the day before him, on 14 April, became the first major UK institution to examine the potential of this policy solution for ameliorating the threat of climate change.

Later in that decade, in 1989, both privately and publicly he was key to persuading the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher (a former chemist) to make her seminal Royal Society speech on global warming, a speech that still provides the intellectual leitmotif for greening the Conservative Party.

Just after that speech Mrs Thatcher arranged for Sir John to organise a full day briefing for the entire Cabinet on the threat of climate change, an event recalled by Ken Clarke in his autobiography Kind of Blue as an occasion of distinctly confused ennui for almost all attendees (with the possible exceptions of two sympathetic senior Conservative MPs, Chris Patten and John Gummer): it was certainly very unfamiliar political territory then. Around that time he was appointed as scientific chair of the newly formed IPCC: the rest is history.

Providing moral support

Some 13 years after we first met I coincided with him in a broadcasting studio. To my surprise, he recalled well that first meeting, and congratulated me for being amongst those who really had listened in detail to what he had been saying.

I recall in 1999 (somewhat to my surprise) being invited myself to give a lecture at the Royal Society, always quintessentially his territory, and being very flattered to find he had popped into the back of the room when I started as he put it, to give me moral support.

A very devout Christian, his overt sincerity has triumphed over the cynicism, lies and self-interest that the purveyors of pollution always employ, to try to colour the climate change debate. Fundamentally a rather shy and diffident man, his obvious academic prowess and his probity meant that his was the voice that always carried real authority.

Everyone concerned to combat the threat of climate change will always owe an unpayable debt to John Theodore Houghton.

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