Sir John Houghton: 1931-2020
Influential scientist and committed evangelical Christian who worked with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
Sir John Houghton, the President of the John Ray Initiative, died on 15 April 2020, and it was later confirmed that this was due to complications from infection with Covid-19. Sir John’s achievements were many, and he touched the lives of a large number of people.
John Houghton was born in Dyserth, Wales, and went to Rhyl Grammar School. He was very bright and went up to Jesus College, Oxford, aged just 16. There he took a degree and a doctorate in physics, specialising in atmospheric physics. He went on to be professor of atmospheric physics at Oxford University and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1972. John then became the Chief Executive of the UK Meteorological Office from 1983 to 1991. During that time (1988) he began working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and he was Chairman or Co-Chairman of the Scientific Assessment Working Group up until 2002. John was knighted in 1991 and became Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in 1992, a post he held until 1998. Sir John had many awards and honours including a share in the Nobel Peace Prize (with the IPCC and Al Gore) and the Japan Prize.
Sir John was a very committed evangelical Christian all of his life. (Editor's note - Sir John was a member of Kidlington Baptist Church, Oxfordshire in the 1970s and 80s, and a speaker at the 2008 Baptist Assembly). He had always been interested in the dialogue between science and faith. Towards the end of his career, he saw a need for the church to engage more with environmental issues, and particularly with climate change. In 1997, he began to gather a group of leading scientists who were Christians (including Sam Berry, Colin Russell and John Sale). This led to the founding of the John Ray Initiative (JRI), and Sir John was the first Chairman. JRI had strong links with the University of Gloucestershire and had an office there for many years. The new organisation had a strong focus on education, producing publications, conferences and courses. Sir John was very much involved in all of these activities.
Six of the JRI's 41 briefing papers were written by Sir John: The Christian Challenge of Caring for the Earth; Global Pollution and Climate Change; Big Science, Big God; Joseph, Pharaoh, and a Climate Crisis; Copenhagen and the Climate Change Crisis; and Global Warming, Climate Change, and Sustainability: a Challenge to Scientists, Policy-makers, and Christians. The last of these went into four editions and was Sir John’s workhorse publication which he carried with him to the many talks he gave to Christian groups. But he did not just publish with JRI. His two most notable publications in recent years were his 2013 autobiography In the Eye of the Storm and Global Warming: The Complete Briefing (5th Edition) in 2015.
JRI has run many conferences over the last 20 years, and Sir John was involved with a lot of them. There is no doubt about the most significant conference though, Climate Forum 2002. This was held in St Anne’s College, Oxford in July 2002, and it was organised by JRI and the Au Sable Institute for Environmental Studies from the USA. Sir John found a great collaborator in Professor Cal DeWitt from Au Sable. The landmark conference in Oxford brought together leading scientists, policymakers and church leaders from Europe, the States and beyond. This had a significant impact in the UK and on the Christian environmental movement in the US where it led to a statement “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action” in 2006. Of course, there has been a significant move backwards in the States since those days, but many of the evangelical Christians who are still involved with environmental issues are those inspired by Sir John. They face a lot of opposition and need our prayers.
Smaller, but still highly significant, was the live BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship service in February 2007 that my wife, Margot, led with Sir John from Jesus College, Oxford, Chapel in February 2007. The theme was “Creation held together in Christ”, and it was timed to come out shortly after the 4th IPCC Assessment Report was released.
The biggest JRI project that Sir John inspired was the “Hope for Planet Earth” climate change tour which ran in 2008 and 2009. Sir John got together with the Methodist evangelist, Rob Frost, who led Share Jesus International (SJI), and they hatched a plan to tour the UK. Tearfund and A Rocha UK joined JRI and SJI in forming a very powerful alliance. Each of the four organisations put together a 15 minute presentation. For the JRI presentation on climate science, I collaborated with Sir John. He provided most of the material and I cut it down into a manageable size. We knew the tour would be exhausting, and it was decided that I would do the JRI presentations. In the end, I did a hundred of them for schools and Christian groups all over the UK! Sir John came to several presentations including the one in Chester. We interviewed him on these occasions, and he was much appreciated. Like many things JRI has done we have no idea how much impact these tours had- but possibly quite a lot! We spoke to 1000’s of people.
Sir John was also very supportive of the distance learning course, Christian Rural and Environmental Studies (CRES) that we run jointly with A Rocha UK. He wrote the climate change section in the first edition of the Physical Environment module, and came to speak at a CRES day in Cuddesdon. Time went on and Sir John stepped down as Chair of the JRI board to be succeeded by Ian Arbon, Bob White, John Weaver and now Andrew Wright. He then took on the role of President of JRI. Sir John’s last presentation at a JRI conference was at Redcliffe College in 2015. I was really pleased to be asked by Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute to revise Sir John’s paper, “Why Care for the Environment?” for their new book “Has Science Killed God?” I was even more pleased (and relieved) when Sir John approved of my revisions! The book came out in November 2019, and the chapter was Sir John’s last publication.
And the above is only a small part of the story! It has been an honour to work for and with Sir John. He was a truly remarkable man whose influence spreads far and wide. Do pray for his wife, Sheila, and the whole Houghton family at this time.
Dr Martin Hodson, JRI Operations Director
This obituary first appeared on the JRI website and is republished with permission