Today, on the 50th anniversary of one of the globe’s largest protests, much of the human world is behind closed doors. Many are mourning loved ones killed by the coronavirus. On Earth Day 2020, creation—and certainly the world of “creation care,” as the community of Christian conservationists has been tagged—also sheds a tear at the loss of Sir John Houghton.
Houghton, the former head of the U.K. Meteorological Office and a key figure in founding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), died last week of COVID-19. He was 88 years old. During the twentieth century, Houghton was a giant in atmospheric science. He spent much of the twenty-first working to bridge the manmade divide between science and religion and seeking to rally fellow Christians to the cause of climate change preparation.
Houghton was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, who became a champion for climate science during her time as prime minister. Houghton’s most notable convert to the climate cause on this side of the Atlantic was Richard Cizik, although that road to Damascus moment came on the grounds of Oxford, where Houghton had studied and taught. Cizik was the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals. After his 2002 epiphany by the side of Houghton, Cizik emerged as an evangelist for Christian environmentalism. Cizik would become something of a media darling and then go on to make a number of mistakes in his advocacy, but listening to Sir John initially was not one of them. Houghton also helped his friend John Stott, the noted Anglican cleric, recruit megachurch pastor Rick Warren into the movement for a time.
Houghton also influenced others of much less renown, myself among them. I was a conservative with a bit of a green streak and newly arrived in D.C. around the time Cizik was having the scales fall from his eyes. Despite my conservationist leanings, I was generally agnostic on climate change. Christians could do much good for creation without engaging that sticky topic, I reasoned. Plus, there was that stumbling block of a mouthpiece. Having been in Austin on election night 2000 cheering George W. Bush’s victory (before Florida went back to being too close to call), I was generally of the opinion that if Al Gore was for it, then I was against it. But Sir John Houghton was no Al Gore.
Messengers matter. Gore was prone to hyperbole and misstatements. Houghton was measured and precise. Plus, he and I were both evangelicals, which gave me greater comfort in his trustworthiness. Houghton’s Climate Change: The Complete Briefing became an important text for me. It helped me get over the hump. I became comfortable speaking out on climate change, my new position rooted in my faith and in the conservative tradition. Later, I would meet Gore and press him about why he used “choose life” rhetoric on climate yet supported abortion. Still, one need not be right on everything to be right on some things, and I would eventually find myself presenting a few of Gore’s better slides to a group of conservative Christian leaders. At that event, I passed my copy of Houghton’s book to a skeptical Southern Baptist leader.
Though I never met him face to face, Houghton helped set me on a path that has been full of surprises. It even took me across the Pacific to teach environmental law in Korea. Being a Christian, conservative treehugger sometimes garnered a bit of attention (Politico once used my business card as a headline), and sometimes it got me called names (I was once the “useful idiot of the day” for Steve Milloy). Houghton certainly got called more names than me, but he soldiered on, calm under fire.
Cal DeWitt, who similarly possesses both sterling credentials in the scientific world and faith-based passion, partnered with Houghton to organize the Climate Forum at Oxford almost two decades ago, the event where Cizik joined the cause. DeWitt later said this of Houghton’s worthwhile autobiography: “Sir John presents a model of integrity that inspires all of us to persist in the pursuit of truth in all things.” That endorsement now serves as a fitting epitaph.
Perhaps Houghton’s death can serve as a final lesson. Early on, COVID-19 was called “climate change 2.0” by some on the right who saw it as just a flimsy excuse for government power grabs. An atmosphere and a pandemic play by very different rules, but there certainly have been parallels of psychology and politics. Both the coronavirus and climate change involve scary hockey stick graphs, disputed models, and scientists pleading that big lifestyle changes need to be made before the worst effects are clearly evident. “What about China!” is also a refrain we hear, with good reason, in both contexts.
Yet the deaths over only the past few months have now exceeded recent annual influenza fatality counts in America—a comparison that some used not long ago to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus. It is apparent that this is no hoax. One can debate which mitigation approach is the most appropriate and how to balance legitimate concerns about the side-effects of shutdowns, but it is now clear that this was something about which serious concern was warranted. It did not simply “disappear,” as Donald Trump once promised it would (and to his credit the president has changed his tune in the face of inconvenient facts). Such a shift reminds us of the importance of leadership and suggests that changes can happen on other fronts as well.
In his death, Sir John Houghton demonstrated that COVID-19 is deadly serious. Through his life, he sought to make the same case for climate change. May he rest in the sure hope of the resurrection.
John Murdock is an attorney who lives in Boise.