I was saddened to learn yesterday of the death of Sir John Houghton, one of the greatest scientist-statesmen of our time, and a bit of a climate change father-figure for me. That’s because Sir John combined his immense scientific understanding with a deep and profound evangelical Christian faith.
I first became aware of Sir John in 1991 when I read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) first scientific assessment, published in 1990. Sir John was the Chair of that effort, meaning he was held in profound esteem by his colleagues as one of the best climate scientists in the world. Almost 10 years later in 2000 I got my first opportunity to work very briefly with Sir John when I organized an evangelical scientist statement on climate change to coincide with my first trip to the international climate negotiations, taking place at The Hague. Not knowing me from Adam, and working only through email, Sir John was very kind to be an initial signatory on the statement, which paved the way for getting many others. I could hardly believe one of the greatest scientists in the world had helped me! I finally got to meet him in 2002 when his organization, the John Ray Initiative, helped to organize a meeting on climate change in Oxford of American and British evangelicals. Behind the scenes, I worked to ensure that my colleague Rich Cizik, then with the National Association of Evangelicals, was invited. It was at this meeting that Rich had his “conversion experience” on climate change while talking with Sir John.
Rich’s experience led to working with me and David Neff of Christianity Today to organize a conference in 2004 of American evangelicals on climate change at Sandy Cove, MD. Who was our scientific expert? Sir John. The conference concluded with the drafting of the Sandy Cove Covenant, which called upon American evangelicals to issue a statement on climate change. As part of our outreach to evangelical leaders, we created a packet of materials to help educate and convince them. The science would be key. We flew Sir John over and I interviewed him not only about the science, and about the IPCC and his work chairing the meetings and the reports, but also about his Christian faith. I wanted evangelical leaders to understand that they could trust the IPCC’s science because they could trust Sir John, a fellow evangelical. The interviews were provided in a DVD (with Sir John’s picture on the cover) that was included in the packet. It was a crucial part of the success of our having 86 initial signatories to the Evangelical Climate Initiative statement, released in early 2006.
Our biggest name was Rick Warren. How did we get him? Again, Sir John was helpful. We knew that Warren was a great admirer of the British evangelical leader John Stott, who we found out was coming to Warren’s church. We only had a few days to work with. I asked Sir John if he could reach out to Stott, and he did. When Stott asked Warren if he would sign, he immediately said yes.
We flew Sir John over several more times for various efforts with evangelical leaders, and he also was a part of three meetings of American and British evangelicals at Windsor Castle. So I had the great fortune of working closely with Sir John, time I will treasure for the rest of my life.
I’ll close with a story about Sir John’s chairing of the IPCC meeting in 1995 that was the most crucial moment in the history of climate science, and therefore crucial to all subsequent efforts to overcome climate change. It was at this meeting where for the first time the IPCC said there was a “discernible human influence” on the global climate. Here’s how I described it in my book:
“As he chaired the key meetings, countries like Saudi Arabia, buttressed by the American Petroleum Institute and American coal companies, tried to weaken the report’s conclusions. Others, influenced by some of the more radical environmental organizations, tried to exaggerate the threat. During this crucial turning point in humanity’s willingness to face up to the truth of this challenge – where the major players knew the stakes but the rest of the world was oblivious – it was Sir John’s personal Christian commitment to the truth that guided him, and it was the presence of the LORD and the prayers of Christian colleagues that sustained him.”
This account is from interviews/conversations I had with Sir John over the years. One of the things that was most important to Sir John about this was that he was sustained by a small group of fellow Christians who prayed with him before the meetings. Sir John was always wanting us to pray more, because, again, he was a man of deep Christian faith.
Sir John is now with the Lord. Until we meet again, I will always have the memory of Sir John’s example to help guide and sustain me. He is a role model for us all.
Please join me in praying for Sir John’s family during this time.
Rev Dr Jim Ball
Formerly with the Evangelical Environmental Network, Jim is the author of ‘Global Warming and the Risen LORD: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change’
Picture: Jim Ball