The late 1980s marked a key moment for environmental science, matching triumph with looming disaster. Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had been observed since the late 1950s, at the remote Pacific observatory of Mauna Loa, but it was only after three decades of further research that concern over what this rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases might mean reached the desks of the world’s leaders.
At the time, politicians appeared receptive to scientific warnings in a way they rarely have been since. In 1987, world governments concluded the Montreal protocol, which still stands today as probably the most successful environmental intervention, phasing out the use of the ozone-depleting chemicals that had threatened to destroy the planet’s protective atmospheric layer.
When scientists called for a parallel effort to understand the impact of rising CO2 emissions on the climate, it seemed likely their conclusions would have a similarly galvanising effect. In 1988, the UN and the World Meteorological Organization put together the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), a body of the world’s leading experts on atmospheric physics and chemistry, and the emerging science of climate change, to summarise human knowledge of the climate, and provide policymakers with an assessment of the risks and possible remedies.
Unfortunately, political leadership quickly ran aground on the shoals of the economic vested interests of the fossil fuel industries. But the warnings of that first IPCC report, published in 1990, laid the foundations for the study of what has since been recognised as one of the biggest threats ever to face humanity. One of the foremost scientists who propelled the IPCC, serving as co-chair and chairman of its scientific advisory group from its inception until 2002, was the British atmospheric physicist Sir John Houghton.
Houghton, who has died aged 88 of complications arising from Covid-19, had already enjoyed a distinguished public science career when he took on his IPCC role. Chief executive (formerly director general) of the Met Office since 1983, he won numerous prizes and accolades, including the Chree medal and prize in 1979 and election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1972. He served as president of the Royal Meteorological Society from 1976 to 1978.
While the IPCC’s warnings did not result in the swift remedial action that some hoped for, the body continued to refine and expand its knowledge, producing regular comprehensive assessments and forecasts of the climate crisis. In 2007, the IPCC shared the Nobel peace prize with the former US vice-president Al Gore, with Houghton among those accepting the award in Oslo on behalf of the hundreds of scientists involved.
Houghton remained as co-chair of the IPCC’s scientific assessment working group until 2002, and in that time also fostered a world-leading research effort at the Met Office and its Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. The UK still occupies a place at the top table of global climate science today, with the Hadley Centre operating as one of the world’s top climate research hubs. On 1 May, the IPCC announced it would dedicate a key part of its forthcoming report next year to Houghton’s memory.
Knighted in 1991, Houghton went on from the Met Office to chair, from 1992 to 1998, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, another landmark institution that had an influence on environmental science and policy before it was closed down in 2011 under the government’s austerity cuts.
Houghton discovered his interest in science at a young age, while studying at Rhyl grammar school in north Wales. He was born in Dyserth, Denbighshire, to strongly evangelical Christian parents, Vivien (nee Yarwood) and Sidney Houghton, the second of three sons of whom the eldest, David, became a meteorologist and the youngest, Paul, a lecturer in engineering. The family moved to nearby Rhyl when John was two, and a statue of him was erected in the town in 2013.
He went on to Jesus College in Oxford – sometimes known as the Welsh college for its strong links with Wales – and completed his BA in 1951 and DPhil in 1955. He soon became fascinated by Russia’s Sputnik missions, which he said “transformed” his thinking as they opened new vistas for atmospheric research through satellites. He developed these interests further as a professor of atmospheric physics at Oxford from 1972 to 1983 and deputy director of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory from 1981 to 1983.
Throughout his scientific career, Houghton remained true to his devout evangelical Christian upbringing, and worked on combining the two as president of the John Ray Initiative, which aims to connect the environment, science and Christianity, and as a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion. He said of his Christian faith: “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.”
As the UK takes on the presidency of the UN’s crunch climate conference this year, known as Cop26 and set to take place next spring in Glasgow, after being postponed owing to the coronavirus crisis, Britain’s climate science community will play a key role in providing world leaders with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions on rescuing the planet from climate breakdown – an effort that owes a lot to the work Houghton began more than three decades ago at the IPCC and Met Office.
Houghton married Margaret Broughton in 1962 and they had two children and seven grandchildren. Margaret died of breast cancer in 1986, after which he set up the Margaret Houghton memorial fund, a research unit on medical nursing. In 1988 he married Sheila Thompson. Houghton published his autobiography, In the Eye of the Storm, in 2013, and retired to Aberdovey in west Wales where his final years were clouded by dementia.
• John Theodore Houghton, atmospheric physicist, born 30 December 1931; died 15 April 2020