Remembering Sir John Houghton and his 2002 lecture

Sir John Houghton died this week (In mid April 2020). A Green Christian tribute to Sir John is given here He has influenced and helped many people in Green Christian and in many other organisations. In 2002 He gave the lecture at the conference of Green Christian – then called Christian Ecology Link. The report of his talk is printed here:-

Sir John Houghton
Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Scientific Assessment Working Group

‘Global Warming: a challenge to Christians’ lifestyles?’

Jo Rathbone (in 2002) recounts his talk using from the notes she took during the talk CEL’s conference Sat 6 July 2002.:

“The science of climate change was once thought to be a controversial issue, but it is no longer so in the scientific community. Even President Bush has accepted the scientific basis. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of which Sir John was Co Chair) produced 4 volumes of evidence, of 1000 pages each, involving thousands of scientists world wide (downloadable from

What is the situation?

The science shows that the world is warming up. On the best estimates of global temperatures, during the twentieth century there has been unprecedented warming. 1998 was the warmest year on record. Each of the first few months of that year was the warmest equivalent month on record. The projections to 2100 are for a rapid rise in the emissions of CO2 and methane, and global 

“A far greater change than has happened for the last 10,000 years.”

temperatures. The 21st century is likely to have and increase in global temperatures of between 2 and 6 degrees Centigrade (equivalent to the difference between average global temperature over the last 200 years, and average temperature in the middle of an ice age). So if the increase in global temperatures is 3°C (which is a conservative expectation) it equivalent to half an ice age. A far greater change than has happened for the last 10,000 years.

What will be the impact?

Sea levels are increasing at the rate of 0.5m per century (it takes 100 years to warm the seas by 1°C. This means that 10 million people will be affected in Bangladesh, as they live below a 1m contour around the coast. In fact half the world’s population lives near the coast, so the numbers affected are massive. In the rich countries we might be able to buy our way out of the crisis, but most of the world can’t do this.

Water available for domestic and industrial use will be affected. We have increased our water use by 10fold over the last 100 years. Many rivers are shared and many commentators have identified that in future wars will be fought over access to water.

A warmer world is a wetter world as the increase in evaporation from the seas increases rainfall, but that rainfall will be heavier, more frequent and more intense. And the lighter rainfall will get lighter, so average regions will get dryer. 

“The overall effect will be more floods and more droughts “

The overall effect will be more floods and more droughts, which will cause more deaths, economic loss and misery than any other sort of disaster. The major impact will be on those in sub tropical developing countries, the poorest, those who grow their own food.

There will consequently be a rise in the number of environmental refugees. Myers estimates that as a result of sea level increases, we will have 150 million refugees by 2050 (at a conservative estimate). Currently there are only 1% of that number who are refugees. The political barriers to movement will be greater as a consequence and there will therefore be an impact on world security.

What has to be done?

We can either
1. adapt or
2. mitigate

Whatever happens we can’t let it get even worse. We need to change carbon dioxide and methane emissions, otherwise there will be an even greater problem. The politicians have been talking and the Convention on Climate Change (the Kyoto Protocol) is the first binding action: to achieve stabilisation of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. CO2 lives for 100 years in the atmosphere, so if we put more in it increases the overall amount. The object of the convention is to stabilise the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It was signed by all countries (President Bush Snr) and the agreement was that rich countries have to bear the burden (‘Equity provisions’) as we produce most of the CO2. If we do nothing we will increase the number of tonnes of CO2 emitted from 7 billion to 20 billion, so to stabilise, we will have to decrease emissions. The big issue is the inequity of the share per capita of CO2 emissions:

US: 5.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions per capita
UK: 2.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions per capita
China: 0.7 tonnes of CO2 emissions per capita
India 0.3 tonnes of CO2 emissions per capita

The world average is 1 tonne of CO2 emissions per capita, so we have to contract our emissions.

(Web Editor’s Note: 1 tonne = 1000kg = .9842 long ton (UK) = 157.47 stone = about 15 10-stone-people
The website explains that the earth and sea can only absorb 0.4 tonnes per person per year. It also allows you to calculate how much carbon is used for flying different distances)

What can the UK Government do?

The Policy Innovation Unit civil servants produced an energy review assuming that the UK should aim at a 60% reduction in CO2 (on 1990 levels) by 2050. The argument is that we have to significantly reduce emissions by 2050, and then cut very substantially more. The PIU therefore came out with lots of possible technologies to be taken advantage of if we are to take the challenge of reducing CO2 emissions seriously.

There is a Christian imperative for this: to care for the earth (meaning to serve, and not to lord it over the earth) is spelled out in Genesis. Jesus’ view is that we should be servants both to the earth and to our fellow humans. But we have not been looking after the earth. This lack of will is a spiritual problem as described by St Paul (‘I know what I want to do but I don’t do it…). Even a recent meeting of (not all Christian) people about climate change on the island of Patmos declared that not to care for the earth is a SIN. But have we as Christians thought about repenting for our lack of care for the earth? Our essential attitudes should be

  • to enjoy and respect creation as part of God’s extravagance and generosity towards us
  • to be grateful for creation

Sir John spent the next part of his talk giving information about the specifics of how we use energy, and therefore what needs to be done to reduce our energy consumption.

There are three main areas of energy use:

  • Buildings account for about 35% of energy use
  • Transport accounts for about 30% of energy use
  • Industry accounts for about 35% of energy use

Energy use in buildings could be reduced by 50% through simple measures such as

  • better insulation
  • better control of heating
  • more efficient lighting
  • more efficient appliances

Even BP property managers are asked to build zero energy buildings now.


The transport distances are a rough guide only and depend very much on the particular details for any given case. They each relate to one quarter of a tonne of carbon as CO2 being emitted

one person walking 1 000 000 miles
one person cycling 500 000 miles
4 people in a small car (60mpg) travelling for 16 000 miles
travelling 10 000 miles on a bus
travelling 6 000 miles on a train
travelling 3 000 miles on a long haul air flight*
travelling 1500 miles on a short haul air flight*
one person travelling 4 000 miles in a small car (60 mpg)
one person travelling 1 500 miles in a large car (25mpg)

*aircraft numbers include some allowance for effects of aviation other than CO2 that lead to warming of climate. The original figures given at the conference of 5 000 and 3 000 miles respectively are the miles travelled for 1/4 ton CO2 produced. However the water vapour and nitrogen oxides and other chemicals produced at high altitude have a big global warming effect)

What can we do?
As consumers we can help to change the nature of industry through consumer pressure by:

  • buying green electricity (produced from sustainable sources)
  • buying green appliances (which use significantly less energy)
  • avoiding food miles (buying locally produced food rather than food flown in)
  • avoiding waste and recycling
  • making things last

We can also help developing countries make use of solar energy so that they do not become as dependent on fossil fuels as we have become. There are reasons for optimism:

  • the commitment of the scientific community to the facts of climate change
  • technology is being developed now which is based on reducing energy use
  • God’s commitment to his creation (he wants to help Governments and individuals to play our part)

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little“. Edmund Burke



Author: Editor 1 | Date: 2 April, 2020 | Category: Climate Change Uncategorized | Comments: 0

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