A version of this obituary was previously published in Cambrian News. 

Sir John Houghton CBE FRS FLSW, atmospheric physicist and pioneering climate change expert, has died at the age of 88.

Born in Dyserth and brought up in Rhyl, Sir John Houghton developed an early passion for understanding the world around him through the sciences. His passion led him to achieve top marks in Wales in his A Level exams and he gained a scholarship to attend Oxford University at the age of 16. At Oxford he studied Maths and Physics, and after graduating at the top of his year he stayed on in Oxford to study for his doctorate in Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Planetary Physics. Following a short time working for the Royal Aircraft Establishment, he became a lecturer in at Jesus College, Oxford, and was later made Professor of Atmospheric Physics and a Fellow of the Royal Society. 

In the late 60s the Global Atmospheric Research Programme was set up and he became chair of its successor, the World Climate Research Programme, in 1980. His interest in the science of climate change continued to develop during his time as Director General of the Meteorological Office, a role he took on in 1983. When the first Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) met in 1988 he was appointed chair, and he held this position until 2002. He was lead editor of their first three reports. The impact of his work was felt all over the world: in 2002, American evangelical lobbyist Richard Cizik heard him speak on the evidence for global warming. Cizik became convinced that environmentalism should become part of the evangelical agenda, and he continues to encourage creation care amongst evangelical Christians. When the IPCC and Al Gore were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, Sir John accepted the prize on behalf of the committee. 

Throughout his engagement with climate change, Sir John maintained a deep concern for the impacts of climate change on the world’s most vulnerable and marginalised people. He established a Junior Research Fellowship at Jesus College, Oxford, with a focus on developing sustainable energy for the majority world. He was a friend of The Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, establishing the Sir John Houghton Bursary for postgraduate exploring climate solutions. He famously described climate change as a weapon of mass destruction’ and was a fierce advocate for a just transition to a sustainable future. He has been fondly remembered by his former colleagues as a man of great humility, generosity, and integrity, as well as man of great faith, who seamlessly wove together his passion for the sciences with his commitment as a disciple of Jesus Christ. His support for organisations bridging the perceived gap between faith and science was consistent, and particularly those with a focus on stewardship of the earth. He was a great friend to Christians in Science, Operation Noah, and Green Christian, to name a few, and felt particular urgency around encouraging churches to engage with the threat of climate change. He helped found the John Ray Initiative, an educational charity which brings together scientific and Christian understandings of the environment. He was also an elder at Aberdovey Presbyterian Church.


Following his retirement from the Met Office, he moved back to Wales with his wife Lady Sheila Houghton. They restored their beloved long farmhouse Brynhyfryd, just outside Aberdyfi, where they lived for 22 years, overlooking the ever-changing estuary. Three years ago Sir John and Lady Sheila moved to Bryn y Paderau (Hill of Prayers) in Tywyn as his health deteriorated. Throughout his whole life, Sir John deeply loved the Welsh mountains, sky, and sea, and right up until his final weeks he continued to walk the coastline. His children have fond memories of being taught the constellations and of many walks up into the mountains, an activity he also enjoyed with his grandchildren. He also shared his love of sailing with his children. He was a member of Dovey Yacht club for many years and is remembered for his reputation of going out to sea in all conditions.

He is survived by his wife Lady Sheila Houghton, his children Dr Janet Malcolm and Peter Houghton from his first marriage to Dr Margaret Houghton (deceased), his brother Paul Houghton, and his seven grandchildren. He will be buried with a small ceremony in Aberdyfi. His family will plan a memorial service once the current pandemic has lifted.