Dr. Houghton was among the most influential early leaders of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was set up in 1988 to advise policymakers on the science of global climate change. He was the chief editor of the IPCC’s first three reports and chaired or co-chaired the panel’s scientific assessment committee as well.
The first IPCC report, released in 1990, helped spur world leaders to convene the Rio Earth Summit two years later. At that landmark gathering, virtually all nations committed to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an ambitious treaty requiring countries to prevent “dangerous interference” with the global climate. Each round of annual U.N. climate negotiations since then has taken place under the auspices of the UNFCCC.
The second IPCC report in 1995 informed negotiators of the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement that forced developed nations to commit to binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions, while developing countries took other steps.
The third IPCC report, published in 2001, for the first time attributed “most of the observed warming over the last 50 years” to the human-caused buildup of greenhouse gases in the air. It also documented rising seas, melting glaciers and other signs of a rapidly warming planet.
In 2007, Dr. Houghton was among the IPCC scientists who collected the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on behalf of the organization, which shared the award that year with former vice president Al Gore “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”
Dr. Houghton was also the director general and chief executive of the U.K. Meteorological Office from 1983 to 1991 and established the organization’s Hadley Center for Climate Science and Services, which is now one of the world’s foremost research organizations on climate science.
His work on climate research began in the 1960s when the focus, amid the Cold War, was on studying potential changes in the atmosphere in the event of nuclear fallout. At the University of Oxford, he conducted research into the temperature structure and composition of the atmosphere using NASA’s Nimbus satellites.
By the 1980s, Dr. Houghton was in the vanguard of studying the alarming levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He joined the nascent IPCC and tried to convince policymakers of the existential threat of climate change. “In our first IPCC report,” he told the South Wales Echo, “it became very clear to us that there was some real danger ahead, without being able to spell it out as clearly as we can now.”
His argument was scientific, but he imbued it with the moral imperative and obligation of his Christian faith.
In particular, he expressed a deep concern for how the “grave and imminent danger” of the climate crisis would affect tens of millions of vulnerable people in developing nations. “As a Christian I feel we have a responsibility to love our neighbors,” he often said, “and that doesn’t just mean our neighbors next door. It means our poorer neighbors in the poorer parts of the world.”
“The climate is changing faster than it has changed for possibly 10,000 years,” he told the Irish News in 2007. “Adapting to that change is going to be difficult for us as humans. Sea levels are rising and this century will displace 10 million people in Bangladesh and 25 million in south China. Where are these people going to go?”
John Theodore Houghton was born in Dyserth, Wales, on Dec. 30, 1931. He won a scholarship at 16 to Oxford, where he studied physics at Jesus College. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and a doctorate in 1955, and went on to become a professor of atmospheric physics at Oxford.
In 1972, Dr. Houghton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest continuous scientific society. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991, won the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal in 1995 and was honored with the Japan Prize in 2006.
As the science on human-caused climate change became clearer over time, Dr. Houghton’s warnings about its consequences grew more urgent. In 2003 he wrote that climate change constituted “a weapon of mass destruction.”
His first wife, the former Margaret Broughton, died in 1986. Two years later, he married Sheila Thompson. In addition to his wife, survivors include two children from his first marriage and seven grandchildren.
Bob Watson, a former chairman of the IPCC and chief environmental science adviser to the British prime minister, said Dr. Houghton was a rare breed of scientist who had “incredible credibility within the science community and within the policy community.” His outreach to the religious community, Watson said in an interview, made him especially unusual.
In 1997, Dr. Houghton helped form the John Ray Initiative, an educational charity focused on the intersection of science, the environment and Christianity.
“I think it’s a very exciting thing to put scientific knowledge alongside religious beliefs,” he told the Western Mail in 2007. “The biggest thing that can ever happen to anybody is to get a relationship with the one who has created the universe. . . . In the great scientific awakening of 300 years ago with people like Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and Sir Christopher Wren and others who used to meet and talk about science in that great time — they were nearly all Christians.
“Why were they doing their science?” he continued. “They were doing their science to explore what God has done. They said quite openly, ‘We’re doing this for the glory of God.’ ”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly reported Dr. Houghton’s first wife’s maiden name as Portman. It was Broughton. The story has been revised.
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