The death has been announced of Sir John Houghton CBE FRS FLSW, meteorologist, climate change expert and Honorary Fellow of Jesus College.
Sir John was a highly-valued member of our academic community. He came up to Oxford to read Physics from Rhyl in 1948 at the age of 16, having achieved the top Higher School Certificate result in Wales. Following his BA, Sir John remained at Jesus and earned his DPhil in Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics in 1951.The contribution he made to the academic reputation of the College is hugely significant, whilst his contribution to the global understanding of the impact of climate change stands as a testament to his formidable intellect, vision and generosity of spirit.
Sir John was eventually made Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Jesus and a Fellow of the Royal Society. However, his academic career began when he joined an Oxford group investigating atmospheric circulation. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 inspired scientists like Sir John to utilise satellites to deepen our understanding of how the planet’s atmosphere behaves. A collaboration with NASA and Desmond Smith’s group at Reading University led to his Oxford research group designing an instrument that could measure atmospheric temperature at different levels from radiation emitted from the Earth. The first instrument was launched via satellite in 1970 and the data collected from that, and later instruments began to expose evidence of global warming and predicted increasingly turbulent weather patterns.
He late became Director General of the UK Met Office, Mrs Thatcher's advisor on pollution and the first co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) scientific assessment working group. In 1990 He was responsible for setting up, jointly with the Met Office and the (now) UK Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. He went on to win numerous scientific prizes, including a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society (1995), the International Meteorological Organisation Prize (1999) and the Japan Prize (2006). In 2007, he received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the IPCC group, alongside the former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore. He also authored a number of notable books on subjects related to climate change.
Alongside his commitment to science was Sir John’s Christian faith and he strongly believed science and faith belonged together. In 1998 he founded the John Ray Initiative (JRI) with other leading scientists with the aim of mobilising the church on climate change. In 2002 he convened a landmark conference in Oxford that brought together leading scientists, policy makers and church leaders from Europe and the US, to put forward the urgency of climate change. He was also a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion.
Conscious of the critical need for suitable energy for developing countries, Sir John established the John Houghton Junior Research Fellowship, an initiative which highlights the value Sir John put in supporting young researchers. We are honoured that the time he spent as a student at Jesus College, and in subsequent research groups at the University of Oxford, enabled him to carry out pioneering research on so many important topics.
Sir John eventually moved back to Wales and spent his retirement in Aberdyfi. A commemorative steel sculpture of him stands next to the Pond y Ddraig Bridge in the town of his birth.
Revd Margot R Hodson, a friend, and colleague on the JRI and former Chaplain of Jesus College, remembers Sir John fondly; “It was personally a huge privilege to have known Sir John. In 2007 we co-led a live Radio 4 broadcast of the Sunday morning service from Jesus College Chapel to coincide with the IPCC Fourth Assessment report. I was overwhelmed with the positive response from letters following the broadcast. John was a huge encouragement and an inspiration in his very committed faith and his confidence that climate change could be tackled.”
Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt FRS FREng, Principal of Jesus College, says, “On behalf of all in the Jesus College community and the University of Oxford, we are deeply saddened to hear this news and send our heartfelt condolences to Sir John’s family. He was an inspirational figure in so many ways and to so many people – his work was and remains prescient and supremely important.”
Professor Tim Palmer, Royal Society Research Professor in Climate Physics, Co-Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Modelling and Predicting Climate and Professorial Fellow at Jesus College, says "John Houghton was an exceptional atmospheric and climate physicist. As Director General of the Met Office, at a time when pressures on the Office to be a commercially successful organisation were growing, his overriding objective was to ensure that the Met Office grew as a world-class scientific organisation; his establishment of the world leading Hadley Centre is testament to his belief in the primacy of science. Then, as one of the founding fathers of IPCC, he set the gold standard for all subsequent IPCC reports - as comprehensive politically neutral assessments of the state of climate science. Indeed, the integrity and influence of IPCC’s assessment reports are looked on with envy by those in many other disciplines. John’s interest in my own research was enormously motivational for me and I shall miss his towering intellectual presence."