Sir John Houghton Summarizes New U.N. Climate Report

Just last Friday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its 5th Assessment Report since 1990, and the related Summary for Policymakers. The report took six years to produce and is considered the most comprehensive review of the scientific evidence for man-made climate change available. 830 scientists from 85 countries contributed, reviewing 9,200 research studies on matters ranging from rising sea levels to ocean acidification, to the impact of volcanic activity, to name just a few.

Sir John Houghton

Sir John Houghton

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be reviewing the IPCC findings in some detail. But given the hundreds of pages involved, permit me to begin with a thumbnail sketch by Sir John Houghton, former Co-Chair of the IPCC, Oxford University professor, leading Christian author and thinker, and friend of the beloved pastor, John Stott. In a British website connecting the environment, science and Christianity, Houghton summarized the main findings of the report as follows:

1) That it is extremely likely (i.e. more than 95% probability) that human influence on climate caused most of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951- 2010.

2) That there is high confidence that this has led to warming of the ocean, melting of snow and ice, a rise in global mean sea level and to more climate extremes with increased intensity.

3) Further warming will result from continued emissions of greenhouse gases, causing changes in all parts of the climate system. Considerable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be required if climate change is to be limited.

4) Under almost all possible scenarios a rise of 1.5C is predicted by the end of this century relative to 1850 to 1900 temperatures, but in some scenarios the rise is greater than this. Most scenarios predict further warming beyond 2100.

Picture2In the face of a very vocal blogosphere claiming that global warming has slowed to a crawl, and politicians calling for continued inaction while we “wait and see” what happens next, Houghton offers these words:

The increase of surface temperature or the extent of more climate extremes, even dramatic ones, does not seem very threatening to the public at large, especially when doubt is so frequently cast on the truth of the climate story as spelled out by the scientific community. So it is said “why not tackle it relatively slowly and ‘Wait and See’ what happens; if it gets a lot worse we can begin to do more.” But ‘Wait and See’ is very far away from an adequate response.

What is not generally realized is that we are already committed to climate change far in excess of what we are yet experiencing. That is because of the long time it takes the oceans to warm and the very large thermal capacity they contain. Even if all greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere were stopped tomorrow, the earth’s surface and the upper layers of the oceans would continue to warm for many decades into the future. Sea level would continue to rise at increased rates and climate extremes such as heat waves, floods and probably droughts too would become much more frequent.

We owe it to our children and our grandchildren to ensure that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions as fast as we possibly can so that as much damage as possible is avoided. Further, detailed studies by the International Energy Agency, the intergovernmental body concerned with energy futures, demonstrate clearly that cutting emissions is both affordable and will bring many co-benefits.

Sir John is no doubt a brilliant scientist, and a devoted Christian. But we’re not asking you to take his word as gospel. We’ll be looking – page by page – at the IPCC report over the coming weeks. But for now, remember that confidence number: 95 percent. That’s the probability that humans have caused – and are continuing to cause – most of global warming, based on research that has been done to date. And it’s not the opinion of one man or woman, but the consensus position of the entire world’s climate science community.

If you’re still counting on “controversy” as a basis for inaction, maybe it’s time to reconsider the wisdom of betting our children’s – and the world’s – future on a 20-to-1 long shot.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Sir John Houghton is widely recognized as one of the world’s preeminent climatologists. He has become as well-known for his theories on the compatibility of science and religious faith as his scientific achievements.

A former professor of atmospheric physics at Oxford University, Houghton has argued that climate change kills more people than terrorism. He has held a number of important scientific and administrative posts, having served as Director General of the Britain’s Meteorological Office, as Chair of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, and as Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Scientific Assessment Committee.

As a committed evangelical Christian and the author of DOES GOD PLAY DICE?: A LOOK AT THE STORY OF THE UNIVERSE (1988) and THE SEARCH FOR GOD: CAN SCIENCE HELP? (1995), Houghton has often voiced the belief that science and religion, rather than being opposing forces, actually complement one another: “There is widespread suspicion of science, fostered by the feeling that science goes against the Bible,” Houghton has said. “This is very unfortunate; it takes a very small view of God, and a very inadequate view of science.”

7 thoughts on “Sir John Houghton Summarizes New U.N. Climate Report

  1. Pingback: Momentary Delight | Want To Do Something About Climate Change? Take Someone Outdoors to Enjoy Nature

    1. John Elwood Post author

      Hello Darren/Momentary Delight. This is an excellent article, and I would commend it to our readers. But with some caveats, if I may say so. I believe Steven Bouma-Prediger sums up your perspective perfectly, when he writes: “We care for only what we love. We love only what we know. We truly know only what we experience,” in his wonderful book For the Beauty of the Earth. This hits the truth that our disregard for the climate crisis has its roots in our American retreat from direct involvement with the creation; video games and iPods may well be the chief enemy of creation stewardship. You make similar points accurately and persuasively, and they need to be heard.

      By contrast, Beloved Planet confronts evangelicals with the scientific and theological basis to offset the corrosive impact of the merchants of doubt, whose strategy is to assure that difficult choices remain unmade, in the timeframes necessary to avoid untold suffering. It’s not much fun, to tell the truth, telling and retelling what virtually everyone outside of ideologically blinded circles knows about the consequences of the carbon economy, yet what American Christians seem unwilling to think about. I’d much rather spend my time working on my own farm or walking the woods with my Audubon friends. I hope to launch a nature-care camp for kids next year (but I planned to do it this year too). In the long run, such activities might have a greater impact than advocacy and education.

      But there is another consideration as well. Time is not on our side at all. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly assured his co-workers that the ark of history was with them, and that with enough time, they would prevail. So will we, of course, and natural phenomena will make this inevitable, much more certainly than MLK could have known in respect to civil rights. But I also struggle with the question of what good it will be to have a nation of committed earth-keepers a generation from now, at a time when global climate disruptions have largely made the world unrecognizable to the world’s poor and to threatened species.

      So I struggle with these issues. The shrill prophetic voices don’t attract much of a following, for lots of reasons. The conservation-types (A Rocha is the perfect example) have a much more appealing message, and a wonderfully incarnational strategy to boot. But next year, the EPA’s carbon standards will come under severe attack, and there will have to be enough informed Christians out there to offset the carbon-funded advocacy groups. Congress will again attempt to de-fund the EPA’s climate work. CO2 concentrations will again rise another 3 ppm (and that will remain with us for centuries). Canada will again insist on sending their tar sands through the heart of our country. Sea levels will continue to encroach on the world’s threatened coastal communities.

      If only time didn’t matter…

      Do you share in this dilemma at all?

      Reply
      1. Darren Beem

        Dear John:
        Thank you. I appreciate the kind words. I firmly believe that the problem of climate change requires a few different approaches, and (please correct me if I’m wrong), I think this is what you’re also expressing. The conservation approach and the more scientific/apologetic approach are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

        When I read the comments of people who seemingly hate environmentalism, or who don’t want any part of a discussion on climate change, I’ve come to realize that this is not just about the science. This is not just about people who hate science, or who believe in unfettered free market capitalism. I think that part of what we are confronting is people who are disconnected from their choices and from the world around them. So, how do we reconnect them. That is the struggle I am wrestling with. Ideally, I would like to believe that simply having a relationship with Jesus can reconnect people to their neighbors and allow them to make better choices, but I’ve also come to realize that because of human brokenness this doesn’t just happen.

        Hopefully, through the combined effect of all of our words and actions, people can come to understand the depth of this problem and the importance for us to act.

        Blessings
        Darren

        Reply
        1. John Elwood Post author

          Darren, We agree entirely. Yesterday, I made sure to take my granddaughter to the woods to collect black walnuts. Yes, I like walnuts. But more important is for this little child to look at the little bugs that camouflage with the hornbeam bark, pull off the little sticker seeds that hitch a ride on passing humans, listen and respond to bird calls, and learn that trees provide food for many, including us. My friends at A Rocha know the value of this better than I, and I’m a huge fan of theirs.

          On the other hand, by the time she’s of voting age, we will have burned another trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, exceeding the 3.6 degree threshold, and maybe threatening her well being, or worse. So my subversive act of walking with her in the woods is important, if she’s to find connections to the creation, and every Christian should. But it’s possibly incomplete if I don’t sit down upon my return and write my congressman about climate policy, which I do every week, to protect her while she can’t act for herself.

          Reply
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