Mark Twain may or may not have said, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." Sir John Houghton is trying to do something about it. As a result, the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan has awarded him the prestigious Japan Prize for 2006.
The 74-year-old physicist is recently retired from a long career in researching the physics of climate and weather. During that time, he has been a physics professor at Oxford University, the chief executive of the U.K.'s Meteorological ("Met") Office, and chair of the scientific assessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
He began to work on the effects of carbon dioxide emissions purely as an interesting physics problem. Eventually, he came to see it as his Christian duty to study the potential results of significant climate change. He has played a key role in gathering international groups of scientists, government representatives, and businesspeople to study the signs of global warming and to advocate for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to avert the worst effects of climate change.
How has your Christian faith energized your work?
I gave my first lecture on carbon dioxide increase in about 1967, because I happened to be interested in the physics of the problem. It wasn't until the '80s that it became clear that it was a potential problem for humankind. And it wasn't really until I began to work with the IPCC [formed in 1988] that I began to realize the importance of this from a Christian point of view.
We have a strong Christian responsibility to care for the earth and every part of creation. We also have a very strong Christian responsibility to care for each other in the world, our neighbors in other countries, especially those who are poor and who need a lot of help in order to get them out of poverty.
Why do you link care for creation with care for the poor?
People who are likely to be most disadvantaged because of climate change live in poorer countries. They haven't the infrastructure to cope with the problems of sea-level rise, floods, and droughts. Indeed, the incidence of such events will tend to be stronger in subtropical areassouthern Asia, South America, and the Caribbeanthan in the industrialized world of mid-latitudes.
Some parts of the industrialized world may actually be better off because of global warming, because carbon dioxide is a fertilizer, and if the rainfall and other things are right, it will help us to grow crops with a little more yield. So there will be a tendency for global warming to create an even bigger disparity between the rich world and the poor world.
That's really not a good situation from a Christian point of view or from any point of view. If you're only interested in world security, it's not a good scenario. But from a Christian standpoint, Jesus said a great deal about poor people and helping them. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke very strongly about justice. And justice should be near the top of all Christians' agendas. I've realized it all the more as I've gotten involved in this climate change problem.
Some Christian leaders claim that taking action on climate change means putting the non-human parts of creation ahead of human beings. How do you respond to that?
I don't think it's true. The impact of climate change that we're most concerned about is the impact on human communitiessea-level rise and floods and droughts. There's a conservative estimate of maybe 150 million environmental refugees by 2050. And those people will have to be looked after. So we are taking the needs of human communities, the need to love our neighbors as ourselves, and putting that very high on the agenda.
But we should also be concerned about the rest of creation. We were put in the Garden in Genesis 2 to care for creation and to look after it. That was the mandate God gave to the first humans. We need to look at the integrity, the stability, and the continuation of the rest of creation very seriously.
You were a student at Oxford along with other future Christian leaders, like theologian J. I. Packer and Regent College founder James Houston. How did that experience influence your life work?
At the end of the '40s, Oxford was full of people who had just come from the war. I was very green by comparison with the men who had been through the war years. The Christian Union actually grew to be quite strong and was well guided by some of these ex-service people with mature faith. It had a great influence in helping me mature as a Christian.
I've tried to relate my science to my faith. Many people feel they're opposed to each other, but they're not at all, because the science we do is God's science. In science, we're trying to find out just how the universe works, how God has made it.
Parallel to knowing God as Creator is knowing him also as Redeemer, as the one who sent his Son into the world to die for us and to rise again from the dead and to become our living Lord. And one day he will come back to earth to renew creation. There's a future for creation clearly taught in Scripturea transformed creation. In the meantime, we're meant to look after creation on his behalf, as stewards for the Lord who is at present away.
You've worked with scientists, governments, and business. Most people think business is the least willing to recognize global warming. Is that your experience?
Some of the very big businesses in the world recognize the problem. Take companies like British Petroleum and Shell, two big oil companies: They have no doubt it's happening. Lord John Browne, chief executive of bp, gives lectures on climate change a bit like I do. He also says that it can be tackled and that we have to tackle it urgently. Browne is trying to grasp the opportunities that come from that. Shell is doing something very similar. Both are working hard on solar energy and other things.
In the last five years, bp has been trading carbon dioxide emissions within the company [with some operations that need to produce carbon dioxide "buying" carbon credits from other parts that can adapt and emit less]. And just by doing this, they've saved over the first four years, I think, half a billion dollars. This demonstrates the possibility of real savings within an industry.
The great shame is that the United States government is failing to grasp the opportunity. And that is creating big problems for people around the world. It's creating problems for China and India, whom we need to help very much to get their energy from non-fossil fuel sources as far as possible. If people saw the United States really picking up this problem, we would benefit enormously both in this industry and in the view which people around the world take of the U.S. I think the U. S. would rise in people's estimation, and it would make the problem very much easier to solve.
A recent Washington Post story said the discussion has shifted away from whether there is massive climate change underway to whether we can really do anything to alter the course of climate change. Is that an accurate assessment?
I think the scientific debate is essentially over, but there has been a big misinformation campaign, particularly in the United States, to persuade people that what scientists are saying is not true or exaggerated. That started in 1992 after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. President Bush senior signed the Climate Convention for the United States; the U.S. Senate ratified it unanimously. And it was then that strong vested interests mounted a major campaign to prevent people from taking the science seriously.
They've tried very hard to bring an end to the IPCC. But we are an open body. The representatives from these lobby groups can come to our meetings and review all of our material long before it is published. They can also lobby government delegates, and they do this diligently.
But the whole thing has come to an end in the view of the science community, because last June the Academies of Science from the 11 largest countries in the worldthat is, the G8 countries plus India, China, and Brazilthose academies issued a joint statement, a completely unprecedented action on their part. For them to get together, feeling a real responsibility to tell the world about climate change, was remarkable because the academies don't usually get together in that way. They said that climate change is really happening and that we have to deal with it urgently.
You put out reports every few years1990, 1995, and 2001. Has your level of certainty gone up with each one of those reports?
Yes, as time has moved on, climate changes have become more clear. In 1990, we said we couldn't unequivocally say that climate change was happening, because climate is very variable. Nevertheless, we believed it was happening, because of the basic physics of the greenhouse effect. We knew that carbon dioxide was increasing, and when you add carbon dioxide, you add to the blanketing of the earth's atmosphere, and you add to the warming.
By 2001, we were able to say much more clearly that it was very likely that the warming we had seen since the 1970s was largely due to human activity. And since 2001, the science community has become much more concerned, because the evidence seems to be becoming much stronger.
I think the lobbying groups realize they can no longer pretend that the science is so uncertain. But they've moved their ground to make two statements. One is that there's no great urgency to do something: "Let's wait a bit longer to see what happens." The second thing they're saying is that it looks as though maybe we can't do anything about it anyway, because it's too big a thing to tackle. Neither of those [statements] can be supported by science, but they are ways of trying to pretend that it's not a problem that we've got to do anything about today.
What kind of window do you think we have for action?
We have been talking about a window of 20 or 30 years in which we really have to do a great deal. We can do something about it. We can turn around our emissions of carbon dioxide. We can cut them down quite rapidly if we get on with it. If it were wartime, we would turn things around overnight.
How could we do that?
We now are facing a situation where the opportunities for industry are very large. We're going to require a lot of innovation, a lot of development. The technology to do it is largely there. But we need political will as well as industrial will. And for that, people at large have to pick it up.
I keep coming back to the Christian theme. If Christians around the world really got behind action on issues of this kind, we could very strongly address the need to protect the poor and provide for them. And that could make an enormous difference.
I have recently thought a lot about sharing. We, as Christians, share. People by and large share things with their family very readily. They share things with people in their locality and try to help people who need things. We share things on a national basis quite well, because we have social programs in most of our countries that help people in need through government action.
But when it comes to the international scene, we're really very bad at it. Considering the enormous divide between the rich world and the poor world, the opportunities for sharing are very largenot just sharing things, but sharing expertise, sharing industrial competence, sharing how you build up businesses, and sharing how you build up viable and effective economic activity.
There are all sorts of ways in which we can help other countries in the world. The possibilities of doing things are indeed very large.
For detailed information on climate change, see the Hadley Centre website www.metoffice.com/research/hadleycentre.
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Earlier Christianity Today coverage of climate change includes:
Heat Stroke | The climate for addressing global warming is improving. A Christianity Today editorial (Sept. 16, 2004)
The New Climate Coalition | Evangelical leaders bolster the fight against global warming. (Feb. 8, 2006)
Environmental Wager | Why evangelicals arebut shouldn't becool toward global warming. By Andy Crouch (Aug. 4, 2005)
Climate Change Briefing Brings Together Christian Aid Groups | Rising temperatures will disproportionately affect the poor, say analysts. (Oct. 19, 2004)
Tending the Garden | Evangelicals and the environment. By John Wilson (Jul. 7, 2004)
Religious Leaders Rebuke Bush Administration Over Kyoto Protocol | Officials from the National Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, Disciples of Christ, and African Methodist Episcopal Church say U.S. must limit greenhouse gas emissions. (Apr. 6, 2001)
U.S. Churches Join Global Warming Debate | Environmental stewardship is an act of compassion toward the poor, say mainline Protestants and evangelicals, who are joining with other faith groups to reduce the effects of global warming. (October 5, 1998)
Earlier Christianity Today articles on other creation care issues include:
Why We Love the Earth | Our belief in a Creator, not crisis scenarios, drives our environmental concerns. A Christianity Today Editorial by Howard A. Snyder (May 15, 1995)
Bald Eagles and Babies | The case for compassionate conservationism. By John E. Silvius (June 27, 2001)
Eco-Myths | Don't believe everything you hear about the church and the environmental crisis. By David N. Livingstone, Calvin B. DeWitt, and Loren Wilkinson (June 27, 2001)
God's Green Acres | How Calvin DeWitt is helping Dunn, Wisconsin, reflect the glory of God's good creation. By Tim Stafford (June 15, 1998)
Greening of the Gospel? | Evangelical environmentalists press to add creation care to the church's mission. (Nov. 11, 1996)
Evangelical Environmentalism Comes of Age | a brief survey of leaders in evangelical environmental ministry (Nov. 11, 1996)
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