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Scientists of Wales: John Houghton, F.R.S.

(March 01, 2014)


John Houghton, F.R.S.

John Houghton speaking at a climate change conference in High Wycombe, 2005-02-26. Copyright © Kaihsu TaiJohn Houghton speaking at a climate change conference in High Wycombe, 26 February, 2005
image © Kaihsu Tai


John Houghton, the subject of this article, is an eminent man of Wales, who has made huge contributions to the science of climate change. Ordinary conversation today, and for centuries past as far as I can guess, is often related to the weather of the day, the days recently gone and forecasts for days ahead. Of late, however, by which I mean the past five years, such conversations have changed from being comments about immediate and local features of weather, to concerns about global features of climate change. The change of vocabulary is significant.

Individual and community memory can readily recall cases of extraordinary weather in the UK; such as the winter snow of 1947 and 1962, the floods of 1953 in Lynmouth and the drought of 1976. On the whole, however, such instances remain in the memory because of their distinctive differences from the norm of British weather. We are all familiar with the general features of the four seasons and their constancy. Holidays and gardening activities were planned against this constancy. And, in any case, it was all out of our hands, because it was Mother Nature doing what she willed.

Today, however, the familiar seasonal constancy of our weather seems to be less assured and reliable. Extreme conditions are now almost expected, which is something of a contradiction in terms, but certainly not remarkable to us. The prominence of television, radio and other media communication, bringS to our attention, almost force it upon us, similar or worse extremes of weather in other parts of the world. On one hand is the memory of the ferocious, short-term tsunami of 2005, with its shocking devastation of property and human life. On the other is the quiet, but almost sinister, long-term alteration of the boundaries of the Arctic ice. Where does the melted ice go?

John Houghton was born in Diserth, Denbighshire, on 31 December, 1931. His primary education was received at Arcville College, a private school in Rhyl, north Wales and his secondary education at Rhyl High School. After a distinguished school career he went to Oxford University to read physics, with special attention to astro-physics.This led to research studies in the science of the weather and, during the 1970s, he was principal investigator for NASA, responsible for the instruments flown on the Nimbus satellites. He was appointed to the staff at Oxford University, as lecturer, reader and, from 1976 to 1983, Professor of Atmospheric Physics. During this time he was involved with research studies at the Meteorological Office and ultimately he became Director General of the Met. Office from 1983 to 1991.

On his retirement from the Civil Service he was appointed to be Chair of the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Between 1988 and 2002 he was Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2005 he gave evidence before a US senate committee on climate change.

Honorary degrees and many other awards have been showered on him, including: Fellowship of the Royal Society (1972); a knighthood (1991); the Japan Prize (2005), for his research on atmospheric structure and composition and for promotion of international assessments of climate change; and a share of a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, for his work on climate change at the IPCC.

His technical publications are legion, but perhaps more relevant for interested and concerned non-specialists is his book Global Warming – The Complete Briefing (Lion, 1994). In Chapter 8 – Why should we be concerned? – he shares his thoughts, related to his Christian convictions, about human responsibility for planetary climate change. He also considers possible courses of remedial action. The book was republished, with more recent data, in 2005. Both versions are well worth reading.

Among his memorable comments are:

"The impacts of global warming are such that I have no hesitation in describing it as a weapon of mass destruction … Like terrorism this weapon knows no boundaries …"

(Guardian, 28 July 2003)

"The world will not come to an end but the incidence of disasters will have a very big impact and in a way that we cannot predict; rises in sea levels will displace millions of people …"

(The Independent, 10 August 2003)

Since his retirement, John Houghton has lived in Aberdyfi, Gwynedd.

And now, never previously contemplated as possible, we are challenged to consider that the emerging trends of weather patterns are, in part at least, caused by human activity across our planet. Arguably, the acceptance of this realisation is more of a challenge to us, as individuals, local communities and national governments, than the acceptance of the rightness to arrange local and international aid in the context of specific disasters. It is a wholly new intellectual and moral challenge to contemplate that the bonfire in my garden is similar in kind, if not in degree, to the outpourings of a power station in the context of causing climate change. Does my failure to fill my domestic green bag really take its place alongside the wanton destruction of the Amazon rain forest? John Houghton has gone a long way in answering these questions.

Neville Evans, March 2014

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012

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