Sir John Houghton, a co-chair of the IPCC scientific group and hero of the climate struggle, has died of COVID-19

I witnessed Sir John Houghton co-chair the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Scientific Working Group between 1988 and 2002. He was a man I admired enormously. His mission was difficult in the extreme: to find a way of capturing and conveying the strong global scientific consensus on dangerous climate change to governments in a way that would ensure they acted, and to do it in the face of immensely powerful fossil-fuel vested interests that sought to undermine and derail him and the honest scientists at all turns. It was high drama, and he was a leading man in every sense of that word.

I chronicle his heroics between 1990 and 2000 and in The Carbon War (Penguin, 2000). He also features in Half Gone (2005), and it is an extract from that book that I hope best captures the man I knew.

RIP Sir John. Job well done.

3 November 2004, Berlin

My mum, the royalist, is proud of me. The Queen is on a state visit to Germany. She has gone public and said she is very worried about global warming. She wants her experts to meet with their German counterparts in Berlin, while she is there. She wants them to tell her, her Prime Minister and the German Chancellor what they think is going on and what can be done about it. I have been invited.

I wend my way through tight security into the fortress-like British Embassy. Inside, coffee and croissants are being served as the two delegations await Her Majesty’s arrival. I mill around, greeting old acquaintances. One is Sir John Houghton, former Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Scientific Working Group. Sir John, now retired, used to head the British Meteorological Office. We met in 1990, when he chaired the negotiations on the wording of the First IPCC Scientific Assessment of 1990, the report that kicked off the fourteen years of climate negotiations since. He had stayed in that role for the  Second IPCC Assessment of 1995, which re-energized the negotiations with the urgency of its warning, and led ultimately to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Through it all he had had to marshal the considerable egos of several thousand of the world’s best climate scientists, from dozens of countries and cultures, not to mention handle the horde of fossil-fuel lobbyists and their diplomatic proxies who were trying every dirty trick in the schools of disinformation and obfuscation to shoot him and his process down. I am talking to a man to whom the world owes a debt.

“I bet you’re not really retired,” I venture. He smiles, and tells me his latest project. Sir John, a Christian, is trying to convert the American Evangelicals to the view that we affront God if we trash the planet, and that by fueling global warming we are doing just that. He describes a series of meetings he has had and how encouraged he is by the outcome. Many key Evangelical leaders have signed a covenant to do something about the problem, he says, eyes shining. This includes action in Congress. He is visibly excited, and so he should be. If American Evangelism is not a crucial constituency in turning things around I don’t know what is.[i]

There is something about Sir John’s manner now that I don’t remember from the 1990s. A greater sense of urgency. A whiff of passion, even. During his long service with the IPCC he was a scientific diplomat: a reserved and cautious man. In some of our first interactions, I had urged him to emphasize the worst-case analysis of global warming: a coalescence of amplifying feedbacks that would make the eventual warming even more terrifying than the horrible situation estimated by the climate models then in use by all the national research centres contributing to the IPCC. Such feedbacks might even generate a runaway effect, and the IPCC should say as much, I argued. No, was his response. The IPCC’s brief from the United Nations was to come up with a “best estimate”, no more, no less. Anything else was just scaremongering. Now, fourteen years on, with scientific assessments significantly more sophisticated and appreciably more scary, it is clear what should have been done in 1990. I have been arguing for more than a decade that it was a major mistake not to give policymakers the worst-case analysis, as happens routinely in the world of military threat assessment. But there is no point in an “I told you so” conversation with Sir John, not today, not any other time. I hold my decade-plus of frustrations within.

Instead I tell Sir John about my recent trip to a global-warming conference in Tuscany. I know he will be interested, and he is. “It was like time travel,” I say. Al Gore came to give a speech. Just like his speeches in the early 1990s, it was mostly about the climate science. He liked then to show off what he knew about the science, and little has changed it seems. A man who has spent eight years as vice president of the United States you might think would have a few interesting things to say about the challenges of global-warming policymaking. But he rushed through “what to do about it” in a few minutes at the end of his talk. Just incredible.

I then tell Sir John that the most problematic of the contrarians he had had to deal with in the IPCC, Richard Lindzen, was at the conference. More time travel. Lindzen, a professor of atmospheric physics at MIT, was the only world-class scientist among the half-dozen or so who had hogged the news with their naysaying while Sir John was pulling together years of IPCC assessments. These sceptics all had their pet theories about why the thousands of scientists involved in Sir John’s consensus reports were wrong, and how the proven heat-trapped character of the greenhouse gases pouring into the atmosphere from fossil-fuel burning would somehow be naturally counteracted. Lindzen’s theory had to be taken far more seriously than those of the other contrarians, because of his status. It involved cloud formation in a manner that would wring heat out of the atmosphere in a massive negative feedback. Lindzen, despite being in a  minority of one among the scientists active in the field, had made life difficult for Sir John, I knew. He had certainly been much used in the media by the fossil-fuel lobbyists of the Carbon Club. His performance in Tuscany had been just like those I had seen in the early 1990s, with a difference: this time he had compared his role in the climate-science debate to Galileo’s lone struggle with the church. This I know will send Sir John ballistic, but there is more. Tilting at the IPCC, Lindzen had actually quoted Goebbels: “There is little doubt that repetition makes people more likely to believe things for which there is no basis.”[ii]

Sir John tells me that Lindzen had recently been wheeled out in Moscow on the side of the Russians trying to stop the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. He is in full flow about the morals of hired-gun scientists as two gentlemen drift up to say hello to us. One is Lord Ron Oxburgh, Chairman of Shell and one of my old mentors at Oxford. Ron’s career and mine have had similar trajectories, his inside the mainstream and mine outside. While I was Chief Scientist at Greenpeace UK, in my first year with them, he was Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Defence. While I have been a leader in the solar industry, he has been a leader in the oil industry. I like and respect Ron. He is aghast about global warming, and desperate to do something about it, whatever I might think of his policy proposals. The other man, who I don’t know, Ron introduces as Kurt Dohmel, Chairman of Shell Germany.

“What is Shell doing about global warming?”, Sir John asks as soon as the introductions are over. I’m right about the change in him, I decide. He now has the air of a man driven by passion born of impatience. He has become radicalized by his decade of having to deal with foot-dragging Americans, oil-industry lobbyists, OPEC diplomats posing as scientists and the like. The Sir John Houghton of old would have been far more circumspect.

The two Shell men assure Sir John that renewable energy is becoming ever more important in their company. Dohmel tells him that they have a big solar photovoltaic manufacturing plant in Gelsenkirchen. It is sold out a year ahead. Demand is way ahead of supply.

“So why don’t you build a bigger one?” Sir John says, almost rudely.

I imagine Dohmel is about to tell him that they are in the process of doing so. Certainly every other PV manufacturer in the world is scaling up fast. But no.

“Because it takes four years and then they are out date.”

Sir John Houghton looks at me with an exasperation he does not bother to hide.


[i] Sir John Houghton was right. The Reverend Ted Haggard, president of the US National Association of Evangelicals, would say in June 2005: “You don’t need scientific research to understand how serious this problem is … It takes very manipulative people to look the other way … We do represent 30 million people, and we can mobilize them behind this, and we will, if we have to.” (“Evangelical leaders combat global warming”, Independent Press news service, March 2005 (no specific date).) The copy refers to the influence Sir John had.

[ii] There are interesting comparisons to be made between Richard Lindzen’s position in the 1990s and M. King Hubbert’s in the 1950s. Brilliant individuals can be proved right, and have been many times in the face of a robust peer-group consensus to the contrary. But there is a big difference between the position taken by lone-voice scientists such as Einstein, Galileo, or whoever, and Richard Lindzen’s position. It is that the fate of the planet didn’t necessarily hinge on their being right in the event that governments elected to side with them and not the consensus of the day. I confronted Lindzen with this in public debate as long ago as 1991 (see The Carbon War, quoted at note 10, pp. 39-41).  Thirteen years later there was still not a shred of humility in his presentation, much less recognition of the stakes involved if he were wrong.

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