Sir John Houghton interview
Last Updated: 10:53 GMT 20/09/2007
Sir John Houghton CBE FRS was co-chairman of the Scientific Assessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 1988-2002. He was previously chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (’92-’98), chief executive of the Met Office (’83-’91) and Professor of Atmospheric Physics, Oxford (’76-83).
Still very much involved in helping world governments and organisations tackle climate change, Sir John agreed to meet GoCarbonFree at his home on the fringes of the Snowdonia National Park, Wales.
GoCarbonFree: Thank you very much Sir John for allowing us to interview you today. My first question is to ask you, as a weather scientist, what first alerted you to global warming? After all, the weather has always been unpredictable so what made you think ‘there is something different happening here’?
Sir John Houghton: The physics of global warming is not new and the ‘greenhouse effect’ has been known for a couple of hundred years. It’s actually quite simple, the presence of water vapour, CO2 and methane etc in the atmosphere acts as a blanket that absorbs the infra-red radiation emitted from the earth’s surface, thereby keeping the planet warmer than it would otherwise be. If these gases weren’t there the earth would become an ice pack and I guess we’d be talking in an igloo today!
However, if you artificially add to the amount of these gases in the atmosphere, especially CO2 (7,000 million tonnes a year of carbon, as carbon dioxide, is artificially put into the atmosphere), this will add considerably to the blanket and the earth will become warmer. CO2 concentrations are now almost 40 per cent higher due to man-made emissions.
Getting back to your question, I know a lot about unusual weather phenomenon. I was head of the Met Office in October 1987 when that famous storm hit Southern England and caught everyone by surprise because our forecasts weren’t as accurate as we’d have liked them to be. That was a very unusual storm and I remember it well because the press blamed me!
However, it’s very difficult to say if one single event is the result of human global warming because to do that, statistically, the event would have to fall outside the range of natural variability and very few events do. However, the one event that we can confidently say that about is the heatwave in Europe in 2003. This event was 5 standard deviations away from the average and 20,000 people died.
Whilst it’s difficult to say that single events are solely due to man-made global warming, the trends are unambiguous – more floods, more droughts, an increase in world average rainfall – these all fit in to our expectation of global warming. In 1990, when I wrote the first IPCC report we couldn’t really say we’d seen anything that was unequivocally global warming. But now, the trends are clear and far more obvious.
GoCarbonFree: In 2003 you famously said that climate change was a ‘weapon of mass destruction’. How difficult has it been to convince other people about the severity and threats of man-made global warming?
Sir John Houghton: Well, I wouldn’t have said it was a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ in 1990 because the examples simply weren’t there at that time. However, back in 1990 I had one very good ally and that was Margaret Thatcher. She gave a talk to the Royal Society in 1988 and - remember she was a scientist by background – she talked about global warming and the newspapers carried this as their headline the following day. That was the first time, in the UK at least, that global warming started to appear on the ‘map’.
Earlier in 1998, the Canadians put on their own global warming conference which raised political awareness in a very important way. 1988 was also the time when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had its first meeting and I was asked to be the chairman of its Science Assessment Panel. We had long debates, with hundreds of scientists worldwide, and we had a very interesting time determining what was happening on a global scale and what we could predict for the future.
In 1990 we had our final meeting in Windsor of this scientific group, agreeing the conclusions that would be put forward by the IPCC. Because the IPCC is an Intergovernmental Body, governments now started to take ownership of the assessments and many were accepting the findings. I subsequently presented the findings to the Thatcher Cabinet at Downing Street. It was the first time they’d ever used a projector in the Cabinet Room and famously Margaret Thatcher listened for twenty minutes without interrupting - an unusual occurrence apparently!
The scientific and political concensus that resulted meant that the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro saw all the nations of the world sign the framework convention on climate change. This included the USA and President Bush I.
GoCarbonFree: How have you felt about the United States since that time? Even last year President Bush II was querying the science behind man-made global warming….
Sir John Houghton: Straight after the Earth summit in 1992 the Exxon company and the coal companies in the US set up a massive misinformation campaign, telling people that the science was flawed and that the IPCC was a collection of untrustworthy green activists. They hired top lawyers to spread this message and put it out over the US media. They also lobbied members of Congress and tried to discredit the IPCC and its chairman in a very serious way. This is still happening. It’s the big problem in getting something done about climate change. The US is the biggest emitter of CO2 per head of population and the country’s emissions have increased by 20 per cent since 1990.
GoCarbonFree: Why do you think Al Gore, when he was in power as Vice President, did very little to tackle the problem?
Sir John Houghton: I’ve met Al Gore a number of times and I got to know him reasonably well during that time. In fact, one evening, I gave a talk at his house to a group of industrialists. He’s obviously been passionate about climate change for a considerable time and wrote the book ‘Earth in the Balance’ some fifteen years ago. However, I think he was very ambitious and wanted to make sure he won the Presidential election and he geared his policies towards that end.
GoCarbonFree: Of all the world leaders that you have met, who has impressed you most with regards to tackling climate change?
Sir John Houghton: Margaret Thatcher. She believed the science and often talked about it publicly. She also gave me a lot of help in setting up the Hadley Centre at the Met Office which has become the best climate research centre in the world. She certainly stands out.
I met Angela Merckel in Germany recently and she is a theoretical physicist by background. She also understands the climate change science and she’s passionate about it too.
GoCarbonFree: The Blair government professed it wanted to do something about climate change, yet its policies often seemed disconnected to the rhetoric. For example it cut the subsidies for household solar panels earlier this year whilst simultaneously announcing a cut in UK emissions by 60 per cent in 2050. What is your take on this?
Sir John Houghton: There is a lot of disconnect between what Prime Minister Blair said and the action that resulted. You’d have thought from what he said that the UK would be one of the best countries in Europe in terms of renewable energy and in cutting emissions. We’re not. In fact, we’re near the bottom of the league in Europe with regards to the action needed to tackle climate change.
GoCarbonFree: Do you think this will change under Gordon Brown?
Sir John Houghton: We wait to see, * laughs *, and I await developments with very great interest. I hope he will do something and that the energy policies which we need are really brought forward. We have a wind resource which is greater than any other country in Europe; we have a tidal and wave capacity and so on. In fact we could get 50% of our total electricity very easily from tidal and wave power.
GoCarbonFree: Would you like to see the Government really invest in this?
Sir John Houghton: Yes, but it needs some resolve and a lot of upfront money. Industry is not going to put in upfront money without serious incentives and the Government would need to provide a long term framework ensuring that investors would be able to sell that energy and see a return on investment.
GoCarbonFree: Do you think that the Government will simply opt for nuclear power as the most politically convenient solution?
Sir John Houghton: There is a lot of push in Government for nuclear power as it appears to be a single, known solution. However, if you take into account all the costs, nuclear power is expensive. There are also security issues involved with nuclear power - the possibility of terrorist action is not a trivial threat and the proliferation of nuclear material worldwide would be a concern.
Something else I want to add about nuclear power in the UK is that we have hundreds of tonnes of military plutonium, which is stored away. We could use this material in power stations and we’d get a lot of energy out of it. This would be a very good way of extending the life of existing power stations and would provide a lot of power in the medium term. Government doesn’t want to talk about it because it’s a sensitive subject, even the fact that they’ve got the material!
GoCarbonFree: What about bio-fuel? MIT released a report earlier this year saying that natural gas consumption in the production of corn-based ethanol (in fertiliser, farming and irrigation) consumes 66% of total ethanol production energy, not to mention the land taken away from food production and the implications for third world hunger.
Sir John Houghton: Ethanol from corn is not a good deal. Why it is being pushed by President Bush, I don’t know. It’s been disastrous for the price of corn and it’s not helping the CO2 budget significantly at all. The same can be said of diesel from oil-seed rape. There are other potential crops that could lead to bio-fuels, however, like elephant grass which doesn’t need much fertiliser, doesn’t need grade-one land, doesn’t need a lot of looking after and it has high yields – this is the sort of bio-crop we need to be growing for energy use.
GoCarbonFree: Do you think that the US Government and oil companies favour bio-fuels because it consumes a lot of fossil-fuel energy to produce it?
Sir John Houghton: I don’t really know enough about that but it’s been put forward in terms of energy security as an alternative to getting oil from the Middle East.
GoCarbonFree: Do you think it will take some events on the scale of Hurricane Katrina for the world to really wake-up to global warming and for concerted action to take place?
Sir John Houghton: Well, certainly events like Katrina help to wake people up, but it’s uncertain how much of the blame for Katrina you can put on global warming per se. I was in New Orleans earlier this year – it’s a sad city and half the population has left. There are vast areas of housing which need repairing but nobody is doing it. The US Government actually took responsibility for the breach of the levees and put aside $1 billion for flood reconstruction and repair. However, whilst there have been 100,000 applications for grants from that fund, I was told that only 250 had been granted which is incredible.
GoCarbonFree: In 2005, The House of Lords Science and Economic Analysis and Report criticised the IPCC. Indeed, it said that ‘there are some significant doubts about some aspects of the IPCC’s emissions scenarios’ and that ‘there are some positive aspects to global warming that have been played down’. It even went so far as to say that the IPCC is influenced by ‘political considerations’ and that the Government should press the IPCC to change its approach. What do you say to these allegations?
Sir John Houghton: I gave evidence to The House of Lords Economic Committee and, I’d better not be too rude here, they didn’t want to listen to me describing the work of the IPCC. They preferred to listen to Professor Richard Lindzen of MIT and other sceptics whose science is much less robust and who have often said very rude things about the IPCC which just aren’t true. The House of Lords Committee decided to listen to them and that’s what appeared in their final report.
It was widely criticised as a report, not only for its lack of scientific objectivity but also for the way it was put together. Some members of that Committee, notably Lord Lawson, have consistently opposed the IPCC yet he’s not a scientist and can’t have read our reports. Despite this, he constantly appears in public criticising the IPCC and uses material from people who clearly have a different agenda, let’s say.
GoCarbonFree: Both the US and Australia haven’t signed up to the Kyoto agreement. What do you think it is going to take for these two countries to come into the international fold and be part of the general process?
Sir John Houghton: Some parts of the US are already taking real action to tackle global warming. The Governor of California has now set a demanding target for 2050, and many Eastern States have already set up local emissions targets. Of course, once these States have set a target they could in principle join the Kyoto Protocol, except there is a technical difficulty because they are not national sovereignties in their own right. Nevertheless, they’d like to join, not least because the trading arrangements in the Kyoto Protocol were very much generated by US scientists and industrialists themselves. So things are definitely progressing in some parts of the States but I guess until President Bush leaves office things are unlikely to move much further forward than they are now.
GoCarbonFree: Bush, Cheney et al are all oil-men aren’t they?
Sir John Houghton: Correct. It’s very much an oil administration. But not all oil companies are difficult about global warming. I have worked with both BP and Shell and I must add that the recently-resigned Chief Executive of BP, Lord Browne, gave lectures on climate change rather like I do – he really believed in it. He insisted all new BP buildings worldwide should be zero-energy buildings and, given that BP spend half a billion dollars a year on new buildings, that was a significant move.
GoCarbonFree: Do you think that the UK can achieve its 2050 emissions targets? Or will more radical legislation need to be taken?
Sir John Houghton: It’s some way off, of course, and we need some targets for earlier than that - fortunately the Climate Change Bill also includes a target for 2030 which is good news. The targets will probably need to be strengthened in due course, once the problem of climate change really becomes evident to both the public and politicians alike.
GoCarbonFree: Earlier this year, the-then Environment Minister, David Milliband has been quoted as saying that the Climate Change Bill has ‘enabling powers’ to allow the introduction of personal carbon allowances without any need for new legislation. i.e. carbon rationing is already enshrined in law if it needs to be implemented. Is Peak Oil also a factor in this?
Sir John Houghton: I’m not an expert on oil and am not qualified to comment on the science behind Peak Oil. However, there is still a lot of unconventional oil in the form of substances like oil shales but, again, there is still debate over whether the cost of extracting the oil is prohibitive in terms of the energy produced versus the cost of extracting it.
What is clear is that we certainly can’t rely or put our hopes on Peak Oil to save the climate because even if oil is peaking and disappearing, we still have enough coal to last many hundreds of years.
GoCarbonFree: The very fact that the UK Government has included a ‘carbon rationing’ clause within the Climate Change Bill implies that there is an awareness that carbon rationing could possibly happen. Do you think this is likely or would it be politically untenable?
Sir John Houghton: If the world is going to cut its emissions, there have to be targets. If these targets are going to be met, there has to be the means to reach these targets. This can be done either through taxation, a cap and trade or regulation. At the moment, the preferred mode is a cap and trade because it means Governments don’t have to tax.
Whilst I am not an economic or political expert, I have often thought the taxation route is the simplest method to reach emissions targets. However, perhaps we need more than one route forward and a combination of a cap and trade and taxation would be best.
GoCarbonFree: If you were Prime Minister, would you advocate carbon rationing?
Sir John Houghton: It would depend on what form the rationing took, and what other alternatives were available. Carbon rationing would be quite complicated because people’s needs are very different but I’m certainly in favour of creating financial incentives and other fiscal measures. I think you probably would have to find more indirect means other than carbon rationing.
GoCarbonFree: On the Internet there are thousands of pages dedicated to the worldwide phenomenon of Chemtrails which are like airplane contrails only much, much thicker. Wikipedia provides a good overview of the controversy and says: scientists working at Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, told Columbus Alive that they had been conducting two aerial spraying experiments: "one involved aluminum oxide spraying related to global warming”. In fact many commentators say it is a secret scheme to combat global warming. What is your view?
Sir John Houghton: I have never heard of chemtrails. I know about contrails from aircraft and know that if you have a lot of aircraft flights over a given territory, the average level of high cloud goes up. High cloud acts as a greenhouse gas and makes global warming greater. That’s the reason why people double the amount of CO2 emitted by an airplane in order to calculate its global warming potential.
I was in the Channel Islands recently and saw a lot of contrails from the flights between the US and the UK. Over the course of a day you could see the contrails gradually merge into each other. But I don’t know of anybody who is deliberately spraying things into our higher atmosphere and I would be very surprised if that was happening. If it was true, i.e. that it was a measure to combat global warming, it’s obviously not working!
GoCarbonFree: Many native peoples worldwide, the Hopi Indians, the Zulu Nation, the Peruvian Quero Indians etc see 2012 as a definitive date for some profound changes to happen to the planet. They see climate change as a part of these overall planetary changes. How does this fit in to your worldview as a Christian?
Sir John Houghton: Some Christians, particularly in the US, see climate change as a way of hastening the end of the world and the return of Jesus. I don’t see it in that light. It seems to me that global warming is a big challenge that humanity is being forced to face.
As a Christian I believe we have been put on the earth to care for it yet we’re not doing this. However, there is an enormous moral imperative for everybody, not just Christians, to face up to climate change.
In the West we have grown rich over the past two hundred years because we have had very cheap energy – coal, oil and gas. We realise now that this is causing enormous environmental damage particularly to the poor in the world, because they are, and are going to be, disproportionately hurt by climate change.
In saying that, the world’s developing countries want cheap energy to develop a reasonable standard of living. Are we going to deny them that cheap energy? Or are we going to reduce our own emissions and use our skills and wealth to help them develop sustainable energy? This is what we should be doing.
So I think we have to begin to change the way we think and the way we do things in order to have much more sharing in the world. Families are always sharing, local communities share, nations share internally through social programmes etc. But internationally we are very bad at it because we view other countries as competition. Aid happens but it is very limited. Indeed, the overwhelming flow of money is from the poor to the rich. The imperative for Christians is to do something about this situation. I am very pleased to be involved with aid organisations like Tear Fund to this end.
GoCarbonFree: Thank you very much Sir John for allowing us to interview you. We covered many points! Many thanks again from all of us at GoCarbonFree.
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