April 17, 2020: “My granddad died yesterday from COVID-19. He was an atmospheric physicist and committed Christian who devoted his career to climate justice, including chairing the IPCC and changing the mind of a major U.S. evangelical lobbyist. I want to tell you a bit about his life’s work.”
John Houghton was born to strict Baptist parents in Dyserth North Wales and grew up in Rhyl, where his love for the sea and mountains began. There’s a sculpture of him in Rhyl alongside Don Spendlove and Mike Peters, and my sister once got him to take a picture with it:
He went to Rhyl Grammar School where his dad was a teacher. He LOVED physics – or as he put it, learning how the world worked. He loved it so much that he got the highest marks in Wales on his school certificate and got a scholarship to go to Oxford University at 16.
In his words: “I knew very little about Oxford really, because I’d had no contact with Oxford or Cambridge University. It seemed to me they were just universities, I didn’t know they were anything special about them, except, you know, they were a peg up somehow.”
He committed to his faith at university, becoming interested in how faith and science intersected: “Science was a voyage of discovery to the way the universe worked, and it was God’s universe, then it was studying the works of God, and that’s something that stuck with me.”
At Oxford he studied Maths and Physics, especially atmospheric physics. He became a professor at Oxford in 1958. In the late 60s the Global Atmospheric Research Programme was set up and he became chair of its successor – the World Climate Research Programme – in 1980.
He was Director General of the UK Meterological Office from 1983, and in 1987 he and Michael Fish were blamed for a failure to predict the big storm that hit the south of England. Readers of The Sun voted that he and Michael Fish should be sacked, which he remembered fondly.
In 1988, the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created. He was chair or co-chair of the IPCC’s scientific assessment working group until 2002 and lead editor of the first 3 IPCC reports.
In 2002, American evangelical lobbyist Richard Cizik heard him speak on the evidence for global warming. Cizik became convinced that environmentalism should become part of the evangelical agenda, leading to years of backlash from conservative American evangelicals.
In 2007, he collected the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the IPCC alongside Al Gore. Not bad for a boy from Rhyl.
When I was younger, my consistent memory of him was warnings over the devastation waiting us if we didn’t act on climate change. And I remember thinking how glad I was that scientists like him were in charge. But of course it isn’t the scientists in charge.
He faced a lifetime of lobbyists and corporations trying to undermine his work, question his motives, and distract from evidence. But my other consistent memory will be his deep faith that he was doing work in service of the God he loved, and in service of the world he loved.
He got to live his final years by the sea in Wales, which was perhaps the place (apart from dragging people up ‘shortcuts’ on Welsh mountains) that he loved most of all. He slowly lost a lot of memories and faculties to dementia, but the sea remained with him. A good life.