Climate Scientist and Founding IPCC Editor Sir John Houghton Dies at 88

April 17, 2020, 4:19 PM EDT

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Sir John Houghton, co-chairman of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), explains a diagram of global temperature Monday, Jan. 22, 2001 at a news conference held in conjunction with the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Sir John Houghton, an eminent British physicist and climate scientist who served as lead editor for the first three landmark reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), died on Wednesday. Houghton was 88.

The death was related to COVID-19, said his granddaughter, Hannah Malcolm, on Twitter.

A native of Wales, Houghton was prominent in meteorology and atmospheric science long before his work on human-caused climate change began. He was deputy director of the United Kingdom’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory from 1979 to 1983 and director general of the UK Meteorological Office from 1983 to 1991. In 1990, Houghton founded what is now known as the Met Office’s Hadley Center for Climate Science and Services, a world leader in climate research.

Houghton served as lead editor on the IPCC’s First Assessment Report (1990) and chaired the panel’s Working Group I, which focuses on assessing the available scientific information. Sponsored by the UN, the first IPCC assessment was the first comprehensive global report on the effects of human-produced greenhouse gases on Earth’s recent and future climate.

The first IPCC assessment also laid the groundwork for the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – the global agreement that has guided international policy on climate change ever since.

Houghton continued as lead editor and co-chair for the IPCC Working Group I’s second and third assessment reports in 1996 and 2001.

In 2007, on behalf of the panel, Houghton accepted the Nobel Peace Prize that was shared by the IPCC and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

“I've been privileged to be closely involved in the wonderful revolution of the past 50 years in atmospheric and earth science,” Houghton told Church Times in 2013. “It's been like surfing – if you get on the wave at the right time you come right into the shore.

“All this began to be possible after Sputnik in 1957, and the use of powerful computers to model the atmosphere and climate.”

Houghton is the author of “Global Warming: The Complete Briefing,” a lay-friendly summary of climate change first published in 1994 and now in its fifth edition. He also wrote a leading textbook on atmospheric physics. Houghton’s book “In the Eye of the Storm: The Autobiography of Sir John Houghton” was published in 2013.

A devout Christian, Houghton was outspoken about the nature of science and religion and the potential for them to coexist. He was among the founders of the International Society for Science and Religion, which includes members from a variety of faiths as well as atheists.

“Putting my science and faith alongside each other has always been important to me, because I believe they belong together,” he told Church Times.

“When I was younger, my consistent memory of him was warnings over the devastation waiting us if we didn't act on climate change,” recalled Malcolm, Houghton’s granddaughter, on Twitter. “And I remember thinking how glad I was that scientists like him were in charge. But of course it isn't the scientists in charge.

“He faced a lifetime of lobbyists and corporations trying to undermine his work, question his motives, and distract from evidence. But my other consistent memory will be his deep faith that he was doing work in service of the God he loved, and in service of the world he loved.”

Reflections from two colleagues

During my pre-WU tenure in the communications office at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (which operates the National Center for Atmospheric Research), I worked often with two eminent climate researchers: Kevin Trenberth (now based at the University of Auckland) and Gerald Meehl. Kevin and Jerry both interacted extensively with John Houghton during their participation in the first several IPCC reports. Kevin and Jerry shared these recollections of Houghton for Cat 6.

Jerry Meehl: "I can say I first met Sir John (as we all called him) during the first IPCC assessment process. In my view, he set the tone for all Working Group 1 chairs to follow with his amazing curiosity and interest in all areas of climate science, and his ability to somehow assimilate and have the entire assessment report in his head so he could see how all the parts connected and depended on each other. This served him well in the plenaries he chaired when government delegations would try to spin or change wording. He could see in his mind's eye how one change here would have a ripple effect there and to other interconnected parts of the report. He was truly an intellectual marvel, and subsequent chairs have aspired to that skill he had with varying degrees of success."

Kevin Trenberth: "I had many interactions with Sir John...He was an amazing diplomat and scored some real coups. He chaired most of the [Summary for Policymakers] intergovernmental meetings through the Second Assessment Report, and they went on forever. I marveled at the fact he seldom even took a bathroom break. He was excellent in bringing in the scientists, including me, to correct any tendency for the text to go astray from politicians. At one point I got up and strongly protested that the science was being distorted or the report was going astray, and I threatened to leave, and he took that and got the report back on track."

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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Bob Henson

Bob Henson is a meteorologist and writer at, where he co-produces the Category 6 news site at Weather Underground. He spent many years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and is the author of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” and “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology.”

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