Sir John Houghton, the world-famous climate scientist, committed evangelical Christian and Baptist lay preacher, died on April 15, 2020.
Sir John’s achievements were many, touching the lives of a large number of people.
Here I will briefly outline Sir John’s life, before concentrating on his work with the Christian environmental movement and the John Ray Initiative (JRI).
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, specializing 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 United Kingdom Meteorological Office from 1983 to 1991.
During that time (1988), he began working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and served as 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 honors, including a share in the Nobel Peace Prize (with the IPCC and Al Gore).
Sir John had always been interested in the dialogue between science and faith. Toward 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), which led to the founding of JRI; Sir John was the first chairman.
The new organization had a strong focus on education, producing publications, conferences and courses. Sir John was very much involved in all of these activities.
Six of our 41 briefing papers were written by Sir John. 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 many 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 was organized by JRI and the Au Sable Institute for Environmental Studies from the U.S.
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 U.S. and beyond.
This had a significant impact in the U.K. and on the Christian environmental movement in the U.S., where it led to a statement, “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action” in 2006.
Of course, there has been a significant move backward in the U.S. since those days, but many of the evangelical Christians who are still involved with environmental issues are those inspired by Sir John.
For more on Sir John’s role in convincing American evangelicals about climate change, see the appreciation from one of them, Jim Ball.
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 U.K. Tearfund and A Rocha UK joined JRI and SJI in forming a very powerful alliance.
Each of the four organizations put together a 15-minute presentation. For the JRI presentation on climate science, I collaborated with Sir John.
We knew the tour would be exhausting, and it was decided I would do the JRI presentations. In the end, I did a hundred of them for schools and Christian groups all over the U.K.
Sir John came to several presentations, including the one in Chester. Like many things JRI has done, we have no idea how much impact these tours had, but possibly quite a lot. We spoke to thousands of people.
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.
Sir John then took on the role of president of JRI. His 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 honor 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.
Author’s note: This is a modified and shortened version of the obituary on the JRI site.
An environmental scientist on the board of The John Ray Initiative, a UK-based charity connecting environment, science and Christianity. He recently published the 2nd edition of A Christian Guide to Environmental Issues and Green Reflections: Biblical Inspiration for Sustainable Living (both co-authored with his wife, Margot).