Sir John Houghton

World-renowned climate scientist Sir John Houghton talks to Friends of the Earth about scientific rigour, hope and denial.

Sir John Houghton has had a distinguished career as a scientist.

He was the chair of the Scientific Assessment Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for a number of years.

The IPCC is the world’s leading body on climate change, but in recent months it’s taken some criticism.

Why do you still keep involved in the debates about climate change, even in retirement?

I’m a scientist, and climate is a fascinating area of human knowledge. I’ve been very fortunate in the jobs I’ve done, privileged to have been involved in this remarkable explosion of our understanding of the climate system.

With global observations, and massive computer power enabling us to do global modelling, we’ve been able to put the whole thing together in an exciting way.

And I can’t just leave it, it’s a part of my life now. I recognise climate change as a global problem, and what’s needed is very good information out there. I have the knowledge, I’ve had the experience that few people have had, and so I feel it’s my responsibility to help. 

How robust are the IPCC reports?

There are a lot of people who are determined to discredit the IPCC. But the IPCC did a very thorough, scientific job.

To look at the world as a whole and not just one region of it was a very powerful way of finding out what all the data meant.

We had no preconceived notions about what we were going to say, except to believe in the basic science.

You could not have a tougher scrutiny of the material - it was a tremendously rigorous process.

Why is there such a strong desire to deny climate change?

It’s what people want to hear. They have the impression that they’ll have to change their lifestyle enormously to cope with climate change.

But that’s not true. What we have to do is get carbon-free energy as fast as we can. But that can be done.

Being more sustainable is a different issue. But in terms of fighting climate change, it’s not going to mean enormous changes of lifestyle. Lots of things can be done that won’t affect our basic living standards at all.

So you’re optimistic that we can address the problems soon enough to avoid the worst aspects of climate change?

I don’t see any reason at all why we can’t. We’ve just got to get on with it.

Though in this country, it does depend a great deal on the attitude of the Government.

It will help to solve the financial crisis, and we can do ourselves a lot of good in the process. We’ll have reduced pollution, better health, and more energy security. So the world will be a better place.

Sir John was speaking to Gordon James - Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru.

You can read the full version of the interview in the summer 2010 issue of their supporter magazine - Green Action.  This will be available shortly on the Friends of the Earth Cymru website.