RIP God’s Scientist: The faith and reason of climate change expert Sir John Houghton

The Christian who led the IPCC

“We know that God is the creator, and therefore we know that the science we do is God’s Science.”
— Sir John Houghton, (1931-2020)

This week, the only thing sadder than the death of Sir John Houghton – world-renowned climate scientist from Wales, and unabashed evangelical Christian – is the deathly silence by which the climate change community has farewelled this global hero.

Houghton, an atmospheric physicist and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientific assessment working group, died on Wednesday, apparently from Covid-19. He was 88 years old.

At the time of writing, three days after his passing, no Australian news publication has covered the loss of this giant of climate science and faith.

A Man of Science

Houghton’s brilliance and credentials in the world of science are many and vast. Such were his talents that at just 16 years of age, after topping Wales in physics, he won a scholarship to Oxford Universtiy. That’s where he started his journey to becoming a world leader in the emerging field of atmospheric and earth science.

Sputnik launched in 1957, and Houghton became an Oxford professor in 1958. Through the university he had unparalleled access to powerful new computers and satellite technology, which could circle Earth 14 times a day. This opened up new possibilities to measure atmospheric temperature and radiation emitted from earth. Houghton then used his skills in maths and physics to make computer programs to predict future trends.

Houghton, a committed Christian, was among the first people to notice that the heat-trapping gases released by burning fossil fuels warmed the globe.

He was quick to speak up about the problems of global warming. Hannah Malcolm, Houghton’s granddaughter, recalled, “When I was younger, my constant memory of him was warnings over the devastation waiting for us, if we didn’t act on climate change.”

Some scientists these days … [will] try to tell you God doesn’t exist and science is the only story. That, of course, is not true.

Houghton was worried that heatwaves, drought and rising sea levels would cost many human lives. He believed that the principle of Christian stewardship and care for God’s creation required swift and immediate action to reduce emissions.

In 1990, Houghton took the lead on the ambitious scientific collaboration which delivered the first IPCC climate change report to the United Nations. In 1991 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and has received many more honours, including accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the IPCC in 2007 and the Albert Einstein Award for Science in 2009.

A Man of Faith

Houghton was explicit that his desire to explore the secrets of the world and universe through math and science was fuelled by his Christian faith.

Despite all his worldly success, Houghton said the most important choice he ever made was to accept Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. His favourite book was the Bible, particularly the Gospels and Epistles.

He believed that rather than being in conflict, his faith in Jesus and love of science belonged together.

Houghton saw the truths of faith and reason as two sides of the same coin. In a 2010 speech, Houghton explained his humble approach to science as discovery of the truth at the heart of God’s creation:

Listen to some scientists these days and they’ll try to tell you God doesn’t exist and science is the only story. That, of course, is not true … Where do the laws of nature come from? What do we do when we do science? We discover what’s there. We haven’t invented it. Scientists aren’t that clever. Scientists aren’t the creators.

However, Houghton did not let anti-science Christians off the hook. In an interview with respected PBS broadcaster Bill Moyers, Houghton demonstrated again how his trademark humility unites his understanding of faith and reason:

I’ve recognised the areas of conflict. I’ve recognised the areas I can’t resolve. But then I also think that one of the most important statements you can make as a scientist is ‘I don’t know.’ One of the most important statements you should be prepared to make as a believer is ‘I don’t know.’

God’s Science Needs More Christian Leadership

Houghton spent much of his time calling on Christians to support action based on climate science, saying, “The Church should be seizing the opportunity, because the world is desperate for leadership.”

Like the message of Christ, Houghton says the need for climate action is universal: “It’s a global thing. It involves all countries, and all peoples.”

In an interview with Church Times, Houghton didn’t pull any punches on naming the problem, and the need to get a wriggle on with solutions.

“We need to cut carbon emissions that come from burning coal, oil and gas, and move to renewable sources of energy. We also have to become more efficient in our energy use, insulating homes, driving less powerful cars, and the like.”

“None of this is difficult. Also, the cost is not large.

“A lot of nonsense is talked by people who are pushed by the oil and coal lobby to say that it’s going to be expensive and difficult to get renewable energy, and that global warming isn’t happening.

“We really have to get on with it now. It’s very urgent.”

The question is — is the climate movement prepared to welcome with open arms people who are more of faith? Are non-Christian climate activists willing to get outside their own secular echo chambers and celebrate those who stand for Jesus and emissions reduction?

Are Christians who have been ignoring expert advice now ready to listen and act?

From my experience with the good-hearted people in both faith and climate communities, I believe the answer is yes.

Right now, a great step toward the unity of faith and reason would be for us all to publicly honour the profound contribution of Christian scientist and climate evangelist, Sir John Houghton.

Michael Bones is a climate activist based in the ACT.