John Houghton, Who Sounded Alarm on Climate Change, Dies at 88

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

John Houghton, a climate scientist and influential figure in the United Nations panel that brought the threat of climate change to the world’s attention and received a Nobel Prize, died on April 15 in Dolgellau, Wales. He was 88.

Mr. Gore recalled Dr. Houghton in a statement as “a critical voice bringing the urgency of the climate crisis to the attention of policymakers.”

“He took seriously the responsibility of scientists to not only produce research,” Mr. Gore added, “but also to help ensure that the public world understood the implications of that research.”

Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, said in an email: “He understood earlier than most, and was willing to tell the politicians, that climate change was real and a threat not just to the richer countries, but especially to the poorer ones.”

John Theodore Houghton was born in Dyserth, Wales, on Dec. 30, 1931, to Sidney and Miriam (Yarwood) Houghton. His father was a history teacher, and his mother taught mathematics before becoming a homemaker. At 16, John received a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, in 1948.

“Not only was I 16,” he wrote in the autobiography, “but I was a rather young 16 from a strict Christian background, with very little experience of anything other than home.”

But he made his way, studying mathematics and physics. He graduated from Oxford with a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and a doctorate in atmospheric, oceanic and planetary physics in 1955. He began to teach at Oxford in 1958.

As a leader of the I.P.C.C., he had the skills of a statesman, said Jean-Pascal van Ypersele of the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. He recalled watching Dr. Houghton co-chair a meeting in 1995 in Madrid that led to a statement that the smoking gun of climate change had been found: The influence of human activities on climate was becoming discernible in observations of the present, not just in projections of the future.

“Fossil fuel companies and oil-dependent countries were intensely lobbying at that I.P.C.C. meeting to try to dilute the message,” Dr. van Ypersele said. But Dr. Houghton, he added, “had a deep understanding of the science,” and “he was also a British gentleman, able to listen patiently to the views of vested interests, and manage the meeting so that scientists would have the last word, as it should be.”

After a marathon session that was still going at 4 a.m., the tough language was approved.

Despite such efforts, however, effective global action to blunt the effects of a warming world has yet to happen. In a series of Twitter messages about her grandfather, Ms. Malcolm said: “When I was younger, my consistent memory of him was warnings over the devastation waiting us if we didn’t act on climate change. 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.”


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