Interview with Sir John Houghton

Dr Taba recounts:

The Forty-third IMO Prize was presented to Sir John Houghton in London on 5 February 1999. Mr Peter Ewins, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom with WMO, Prof. G.O.P. Obasi, Secretary-General of WMO, and Dr J.W. Zillman, President of WMO, attended the ceremony. John Houghton has dedicated more than 40 years of his life to the question of better understanding of atmospheric processes and phenomena for the benefit of mankind. He obtained a B.A. (Honours) in 1951 and a D.Phil. in 1955 from Oxford University. The year before, he was appointed research fellow at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and held this position until 1957, when he rejoined Oxford University as a lecturer in atmospheric physics. Four years later he was promoted to the position of reader and in 1976 to that of professor.


Sir John Houghton


Sir John Houghton

Other key positions he has held were Fellow, Jesus College, Oxford University (1960-1983) and deputy director of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory of the Science and Engineering Research Council (1979-1983). From 1970 to 1973 and from 1976 to 1981, he served on the Astronomy, Space and Radio Board of the Science and Engineering Research Council. From 1986 to 1991 he was a member of the Management Board of the British National Space Centre. At an early stage in his career, John Houghton was recognized both nationally and internationally as a scientific leader who exerted a strong and beneficial influence on the development of the science of meteorology and its applications. His pioneering work in the development of remote-sensing instrumentation for observation of the Earth’s atmosphere from spacecraft has contributed to our better understanding of the structure of the atmosphere, as well as of its radiative and dynamical processes.

Another important contribution by Houghton was the distinguished service he rendered for more than 25 years as educator, during which time he promoted the development of human resources and capacity building in meteorology and related geophysical science. Houghton was appointed to the position of Chief Executive of the United Kingdom Meteorological Office in 1983. From 1983 to 1991 he served as a member of the WMO Executive Council and, between 1987 and 1991, was a Vice-President of the Organization. In WMO meetings, he consistently demonstrated his gift for achieving consensus and was held in high regard as a chairman. He possessed a unique combination of scientific and technical knowledge and a profound appreciation of practical problems, which enabled him to exert a valuable influence on the development of WMO policies and programmes. His devotion and untiring efforts in climate research brought him into the forefront as chairman of several international scientific bodies and meetings.

In 1988, Houghton was appointed Chairman of the Scientific Assessment Working Group of the WMO/United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of which he is the current Co-chairman. Under his leadership, the Working Group has produced several major reports. This task required great sensitivity to the political aspects of climate change, combined with the necessary firmness to ensure that the reports remained faithful to the underlying science.

More recently, Houghton has, since 1994, been one of the five members of the British Government Panel on Sustainable Development. He became a member of the Royal Commission on Environment in 1991 and was its chairman from 1992 to 1998.




London, February 1999 — Presentation of the 43rd IMO Prize to Sir John Houghton, with Prof. G.O.P. Obasi, Secretary-General of WMO, and Dr J.W. Zillman, President of WMO

John Houghton has received many national and international awards. He was made Commander of the British Empire in 1983 and elevated to the rank of Knight Bachelor in 1991. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics and the Optical Society of America. He is an Honorary Member of the Royal Meteorological Society (of which he is a Past President) and of the American Meteorological Society and a Member of the Academia Europea. He has won the coveted Bakerian Lecture and Prize of the Royal Society, the Rank Prize for Opto-Electronics (with F.W. Taylor, C.D. Rogers and G.D. Peskett), as well as the Darton Prize, the Buchan Prize and the Symons Memorial Gold Medal of the Royal Meteorological Society. He also received the Charles Cree Medal and Prize and the Glozebrook Medal of the Institute of Physics, as well as the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. He has delivered distinguished lectures such as the Cherwell-Simon Memorial Lecture, the Halley Lecture and the Templeton Lectures at Oxford University. He has been awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the Universities of Wales, Stirling, East Anglia, Leeds, Heriot Watt and Greenwich.

It was against this background that WMO paid tribute to Sir John Houghton by awarding him the Forty-third International Meteorological Organization Prize, the Organization’s highest distinction.

This interview took place in London in July 1999.

H.T. — Please tell us where you were born and something about your parents and education.

J.T.H. — I was born in in Dyserth, a village in North Wales, between the sea and the mountains. My parents were both teachers. My father taught history at a nearby grammar school, which I attended. My secondary schooling began during World War II; I had excellent science and maths teachers who inspired my interest in science.

In 1948, at the rather early age of 16, I won a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, to study mathematics and physics. I was fortunate to have very good tutors. Claude Hurst, was probably the best physics tutor in the University. I went to lectures on atmospheric physics by Gordon Dobson (the pioneer in ozone measurement and research) and Alan Brewer.

H.T. — When did you get your D.Phil. and what was the theme of your thesis?

J.T.H. — I started my D.Phil. in 1951 under the supervision of Alan Brewer, who had joined Dobson in Oxford a few years before after working in the Met. Offfice. Brewer had already made some fundamental contributions to the understanding of the stratosphere through his observations, for the first time, of the dry stratosphere, and his theory of the stratospheric circulation that he proposed in 1949 to satisfy ozone and water-vapour measurements. The project which Brewer suggested for me was to attempt to measure radiative fluxes in the atmosphere and their divergence, in particular to find out to what extent the lower stratosphere was being cooled radiatively. I built radiometers which were mounted on a Mosquito aircraft of the Met. Offfice Research Flight. It turned out not to be possible to make measurements sufficiently accurately to answer the questions we were asking. But I learned a great deal from the project, especially from Alan Brewer. He is a person with a remarkable grasp of meteorology, of what really happens physically and dynamically in the atmosphere, of what is important and what is not. He is an excellent experimenter with a wide knowledge of experimental practice and techniques. I was most fortunate that he was my mentor and I owe him a great deal.

H.T. — You then became Research Fellow at the Royal Aircraft Establishment. What did you do there?

J.T.H. — I was able to build on my knowledge of infra-red radiation and experimental techniques and was in charge of a project to mount a high-resolution infra-red spectrometer on a high-altitude aircraft to measure the distribution of some of the minor infra-red active constituents. I worked in the same group as Desmond Smith and John Seeley; with them I was later to collaborate in space research projects.

H.T. — Then you returned to Oxford?

J.T.H. — In 1958 I returned to Oxford as lecturer in atmospheric physics in the department under the direction of Alan Brewer, Gordon Dobson having retired. I began both experimentally and theoretically to pursue radiation studies and in particular to think about ways in which measurements might be made from the exciting new possibility of Earth-orbiting satellites. In 1962, Alan Brewer took the Chair of Meteorology at the University of Toronto and I succeeded him as head of the Department, which began to grow rapidly to support the new space research programme. During the 1960s, the development of our programme was greatly helped by a number of visitors to the Department: Walter Hitschfeld from McGill University, Montreal (with whom I carried out the first line-by-line computations of infra-red transfer in the atmosphere using Oxford’s first electronic computing facility); Lewis Kaplan from NASA (who made the first proposal for the use of infra-red spectroscopy of radiation from carbon dioxide to sound atmospheric temperature structure); John Shaw from Ohio State University (a pioneer in atmospheric infra-red spectroscopy); and John Hampson from Quebec (a pioneer in stratospheric chemistry). Later, in 1970, Paul Crutzen1 came for a year on a European Space Agency (ESA) fellowship and carried out his first investigations of the influence of nitrogen oxides on ozone for which he received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995. During these years I received a lot of help and encouragement in building up the space research programme from G.D. Robinson (Robby), who was then Director of Research at the Met. Offfice and from Peter Sheppard who was Professor of Meteorology at Imperial College. They were both in key positions in the grant-giving bodies from which I sought support.

During the 1960s, I was also a physics tutor at Jesus College. Teaching students, especially bright ones, is a marvellous way of learning and keeping abreast. The demands of the space research group, however, meant that I had to give up tutorial work in 1972. In 1976, I was elected by the University to a personal professorship—quite an honour in those days, when such promotions were rare.

H.T. — You have been involved in the studies related to remote-sensing of the Earth’s atmosphere for more than four decades. Could you expand on this?

J.T.H. — My first work in remote-sensing in the late 1950s was to mount an infra-red spectrometer to observe the solar spectrum from a high-altitude aircraft and hence infer atmospheric composition through the troposphere and into the lower stratosphere. The spectra were published and studies carried out of the distribution of methane, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and water vapour.

During the 1960s at Oxford, my students and I developed ideas for the remote measurement of atmospheric temperature structure from instruments mounted on Earth-orbiting satellites. The first sputnik was launched by the Russians in 1957 and the first satellite for weather observation by the USA in 1960. The enormous potential of satellites for making global observations of the atmosphere set an enormous challenge. A great deal of information about atmospheric structure below a satellite is, in principle, available from the spectrum of the infra-red emission from atmospheric carbon dioxide. From a satellite-mounted instrument, the difficulties are to achieve adequate spectral resolution and to receive enough infra-red energy to make accurate measurements. In collaboration with Prof. Desmond Smith at Reading University, we exploited techniques of gas-correlation spectroscopy to solve these problems. A succession of instruments developed by our research group were flown on NASA’s Nimbus satellites in 1970s. I was privileged to have been involved in the early years of space observation of the Earth—a most exciting and rewarding time.

H.T. — Tell us about the instruments you developed.

J.T.H. — Desmond Smith and I, together with our collaborators and students, successfully built instruments called selective chopper radiometers (SCRs) and flew them on NASA’s Nimbus-4 satellite in 1970 and on Nimbus-5 in 1972. At Oxford, we developed further instruments, the pressure modulator radiometer (PMR), which flew on Nimbus-6 in 1976 and the stratospheric and mesospheric sounder (SAMS) on Nimbus-7 in 1978. The SCRs measured globally for the first time the temperature structure of the stratosphere from 10 to 50 km altitude, the region where most of the atmospheric ozone is present, and enabled detailed studies of phenomena such as “sudden warmings” to be pursued. The PMR, using a new technique (recognized by the award of the Rank Prize in Opto-electronics in 1988, in which I shared) extended these global temperature measurements to an altitude of about 90 km. The SAMS further extended the techniques to global measurements of stratospheric composition (especially water vapour, methane and nitrous oxide). During the 1980s, this work continued at Oxford University under Prof. Fred Taylor; an improved SAMS (ISAMS) instrument was included in the payload of the UARS satellite launched in 1991. Also, from the late 1970s, stratospheric sounding units (SSUs) based on the PMR technique were built by the Met. Offfice and flown on Tiros operational satellites to monitor stratospheric temperature, continuously and globally.

H.T. — What other important contributions to atmospheric science could your mention?

J.T.H. — Together with Walter Hitschfeld, in 1961, I carried out the first computer “line-by-line” calculations of radiative transfer applying them to atmospheric ozone and, between 1966 and 1970, by experiment and computation, investigated the effect of non-local-thermodynamic equilibrium on the infra-red absorption and emission by carbon dioxide in the mesosphere. In a paper on the stratosphere and mesosphere in 1978, using data from the SCRs and PMRs on Nimbus satellites, I elucidated aspects of the dynamics of the stratosphere and mesosphere which affect the transport of energy, momentum, ozone and other constituents in these regions of the atmosphere. In particular, I investigated the relation between eddy motions and mean flow in the stratosphere and the controlling effect of breaking gravity waves on the inter-hemispheric flow in the mesosphere.



With Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of the new building for the Royal Meteorological Society in Bracknell (1978). The Queen was presented with an automatic raingauge for her estate at Balmoral Castle, Scotland. Behind John Houghton is John Mason, then Director General, Meteorological Office.

H.T. — Please tell us something about your work with the Appleton Laboratory.

J.T.H. — In 1979, I became Director of the Appleton Laboratory under the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) in the United Kingdom and carried through its merger with the Rutherford Laboratory. The Appleton Laboratory had a distinguished history in research into radio propagation. Watson-Watt was its Director when he invented and developed radar in the 1930s and much of our knowledge of the ionosphere came from work there in the 1950s and 1960s. The SERC’s intention was that the laboratory should alter its programme so as to concentrate more on the support of space science. I therefore had the opportunity to set up within the combined laboratory a substantial programme of support activity for space observations of the Earth. In particular, the design and construction were initiated of the along-track scanning radiometer (ATSR) for accurate sea-surface temperature measurement, which was flown on ESA’s first Earth Remote Sensing satellite (ERS-1) in 1991. This instrument has provided substantially more accurate and reliable sea-surface temperatures than had previously been available from satellite instruments. Also supported by the Laboratory was work in universities in the United Kingdom on ISAMS and the microwave limb sounder, both for the Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite also launched in 1991. Further activity was concerned with the handling and interpretation of satellite remote-sending data.

H.T. — What about your work for ESA?

J.T.H. — In 1982, I became the first chairman of the Earth Observation Advisory Committee (EOAC) of ESA at a time when ESA was initiating major missions in Earth observation, the first of which was to be directed at observation of the oceans. The EOAC, consisting of six senior scientists from different European countries, had the task of defining a payload with high scientific potential and was also innovative from the engineering and industrial points of view. The payload chosen for the ERS-1 satellite pioneered some important satellite observations of the ocean, ice and land surface of the Earth; it included a synthetic aperture radar, a wind and wave scatterometer for observations of the ocean surface, a radar altimeter for ocean surface topography, a microwave radiometer and the ATSR. The EOAC continued to provide scientific oversight of the mission, the instruments and the arrangements for data handling and analysis.

H.T. — Could we now talk about climate observations?

J.T.H. — During the 1980s, as concern about anthropogenic climate change rose on the world’s political agenda, and as climate research assumed a new impetus, it became increasingly clear that a major obstacle preventing more rapid progress in the understanding of climate was the inadequate provision of climate observations. In particular, many observations were characterized by inadequate coverage in space or time, inadequate quality and inadequate arrangements for the handling and dissemination of climate data, especially those obtained from space instruments.

Although many aspects of the atmosphere were well monitored through the World Weather Watch, the same was not true of the oceans, the ice or the land surface. Around the time of the Second World Climate Conference in 1990, I proposed that an international programme be set up to improve and expand the provision of observational data for climate research. In 1992, the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) was established jointly by four international bodies: WMO, IOC, ICSU and UNEP. I became the first chairman of its Joint Scientific and Technical Committee, which had the tasks of defining an effective and affordable system and showing how a long-term programme of operational observations for climate monitoring and research could be implemented. Good progress has been made towards defining what is required. Clear priorities have been set and a great deal of attention has been given to the definition and implementation of an effective and user-oriented data system. Much still remains to be done, however, to realize an adequate global system of climate observation.

H.T. — Let us talk about your involvement in the organization of climate research.

J.T.H. — During the 1970s, when I was deeply involved in space projects, I became concerned with the international organization of satellite observations for atmospheric and climate research. I was a member of the Working Group of the United Nations Committee on Space Research, which developed a plan for observations of the atmosphere from space in support of the Global Atmosphere Research Programme (GARP). In 1976, I became a member of the Joint Organizing Committee for the GARP and contributed to that Committee in the area of space observations.

I also became a member of the Joint Scientific Committee (JSC) of the World Climate and Research Programme (WCRP) on its formation and became its chairman in 1981. Soon after, Pierre Morel was appointed Director of the WCRP. Together with Morel, the Committee formulated new thrusts for the programme, particularly directed to increasing understanding in three areas: the physical basis of long-range weather forecasting; the inter-annual variations of climate associated with the El Niño/Southern Oscillation; and the long-term climate trends, especially those associated with human activities such as those that lead to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Associated with these thrusts, two major 10-year programmes were set up: the Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere experiment associated with the second thrust and the World Ocean Circulation Experiment associated with the third. These two experiments have been highly successful and have focused a great deal of climate research over the past decades. The Global Climate, a volume which I organized and edited, was published by Cambridge University Press in 1984, assisted in bringing the attention of many researchers to these issues and to the programmes of the WCRP.

H.T. — Why did you give up the chairmanship of the JSC?

J.T.H. — I gave up the chairmanship of the JSC in 1984 on my appointment as Director General of the United Kingdom Met. Offfice. Nevertheless, as a member of the WMO Executive Council and a Vice-President of WMO from 1987 to 1991, I continued to support strongly the WCRP and other international climate programmes. I also took initiatives to stimulate university activity, particularly through the setting-up of joint programmes with the Met. Offfice in atmospheric, oceanic and climate science.

In 1993, I was asked to take the chair at the Intergovernmental Meeting on the World Climate Programme held in Geneva, a meeting which set in train greater coordination between international programmes concerned with climate and led to an integrated formulation for the future called The Climate Agenda.

In the United Kingdom, I was responsible for setting up in 1990 the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research with about 100 scientific and support staff supported jointly by the Met. Offfice and the Department of the Environment. The main focus was on climate modelling, both as a means for understanding climate processes and as a tool for climate prediction. The Centre has set up cooperative research activities with other laboratories and institutes in the United Kingdom and throughout the world and has acted as host to many visiting scientists. It has fast become one of the leading climate modelling centres.

H.T. — What about the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP)?

J.T.H. — The RCEP was formed under royal warrant in 1970 “to advise on matters, both national and international, concerning the pollution of the environment; on the adequacy of research in this field; and the future possibilities of danger to the environment”. The 14 members of the Commission represent a wide range of expertise in the natural and social sciences; they work part-time for the Commission and are supported by a secretariat of scientists and support staff numbering about 12 in total. Since 1970, it has produced 20 in-depth reports on various aspects of pollution and pollution control which have been important both nationally and worldwide in influencing pollution-control policy. The reports are characterized by careful analyses of the issues being addressed, followed by a clear set of recommendations for action by government or other as appropriate.

During my time as chairman from 1992 until June 1998, I supervised the publication of five reports on the incineration of waste (1993), transport and the environment (1994), the sustainable use of soil (1996), transport and the environment developments since 1994 (1997) and setting environmental standards (1998). I was also responsible for the conduct of scientific debate at the meetings and the achievement of agreement there and had overall responsibility for the work of the secretariat.

H.T. — Was the question of the incineration of waste a difficult one?

J.T.H. — Our report emphasized the importance of a national strategy for waste management based on a four-stage decision procedure: (a) wherever possible, avoid creating waste; (b) where waste is unavoidable, recycle it, if possible; (c) where waste cannot be recycled in the form of materials, recover energy from it; and (d) where the foregoing options have been exhausted, utilize the best practicable environmental option to dispose of waste. The report went on to argue that incineration of certain waste could be an acceptable component of (c), provided that the incinerator was properly designed and operated so as to meet stringent pollution standards, ensuring that it produced no pollution hazard either to the air from the incineration process or to land or water as a result of disposal of residue. Under these conditions, the report concluded that incineration was likely in most cases to be a preferable disposal route to landfill.

H.T. — And the report on transport and the environment?

J.T.H. — This report was the largest and certainly the most controversial the Commission has produced. It included an analysis of the likely growth of transport and its effects on air pollution, climate change, land take, amenity and noise. It also included analyses of the links between transport and the economy and the environmental costs of transport. It suggested environmental objectives and targets, which, together with appropriate measures, could lead to a sustainable transport policy next century. Emphasis was placed on the needs for tougher regulation of car tailpipe emissions, technical innovation to provide for greater efficiency (including fuel efficiency) in the transport sector, stronger connections between planning and transport policy and appropriate integration of the network of public transport, including its links with private transport. Its influence on United Kingdom Government policy has been substantial and considerable interest has been shown from various developed countries.

H.T. — What about the reports on sustainable use of soil and setting environmental standards?

J.T.H. — The report on the sustainable use of soil, after summarizing some of the global issues concerned with the conservation of soil, addressed the influence of agricultural practice on soil quality, pollution problems concerned with the spreading of waste (e.g. sewage sludge, farm and industrial waste) on soil and the remediation of contaminated land. Some of its most important recommendations concerned measures to accelerate the re-use of contaminated sites.

The other report deals fundamentally with the need for environmental standards, including the value judgements which help set the criteria for standards in the general context of the principle of sustainable development. Different analyses (scientific, economic, risk, technological and social) which need to be included in the development of standards are described in the report, which deals particularly with the importance of a disciplined approach to the science-policy interface.

H.T. — Now we come to another important phase of your scientific activities, the IPCC.

J.T.H. — At the first meeting of the IPCC in November 1988, I was elected chairman of Working Group I (WGI), responsible for the assessment of the science of climate change. We realized that the task was not just to produce the best scientific assessment, but also, through the involvement of as many of the world’s scientists as possible, to achieve their ownership of, and support for, the assessment. The presentation of the science to governments in an accurate, relevant and clear manner was also important.

Because the IPCC is an intergovernmental body, the process for formal approval of the assessment made it possible to enlist the help of governments themselves in devising the best presentation of the science. Government scientists were involved in reviewing the background chapters and the Summary for Policy-makers (SPM). Ownership of the IPCC Assessment by governments was therefore also achieved.

H.T. — Was it difficult to perform this task?

J.T.H. — I faced two main challenges. First: how could the diverse community of scientists in the field come to anything like a consensus on the content and conclusions of the assessment? Second: how, with the involvement of governments having different political agendas, could the absolute integrity of the science be maintained without any political compromise? These challenges were met in three ways: firstly, by harnessing the responsibility strongly felt by many scientists to communicate effectively what is known about likely anthropogenic climate change and where the main uncertainties lie; secondly, by making it clear to both scientists and politicians that, in the assessment, scientific accuracy and integrity are paramount; and, thirdly, by emphasizing the importance of effective presentation of scientific conclusions in a clear, understandable and relevant way and by involving both scientists and policy-makers in the details of the presentation, especially in the SPM.

Margaret Thatcher and John Houghton

John Houghton with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the opening of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, Meteorological Office, Bracknell, May 1990

We realized from the start that to accomplish an assessment with such wide involvement, a substantial technical support unit (TSU) would be necessary, which eventually formed the pattern for other IPCC Working Groups. A further important initiative was to ensure the wide availability and dissemination of the IPCC reports through arranging, with the agreement of WMO and UNEP, for their publication by Cambridge University Press.

H.T. — How many people were involved in this undertaking?

J.T.H. — The first comprehensive IPCC scientific assessment involved 170 scientists from 25 countries as contributors and a further 200 scientists in its peer review. During its preparation there were important advances in the development of fully coupled atmosphere-ocean general circulation models and the first comprehensive global integration of such a model with adequate resolution over a substantial period became available from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton, USA. The final meeting of about 60 scientists which prepared the IPCC assessment extensively debated the Princeton results which proved to be an important input. In particular, they demonstrated the slowing effect of the oceans on the rate of climate change and the ocean influence on the regional distribution of climate change.

group photo


John Houghton with United Kingdom Prime Minister John Major (centre) at the launch of the Government Panel on Sustainable Development (1994). Also in the picture (from right to left): Mr John Gunner, Secretary of State for Environment, Sir Crispin Tickell and Lord Selbourne

Completed in 1990, the IPCC first scientific assessment was widely acclaimed and provided a crucial scientific input to the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It has often been said that without such a clear and widely accepted statement of the science of climate change, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) could not have been agreed.

H.T. — What happened next?

J.T.H. — In 1992, the 1990 assessment was updated with a supplementary report covering most of the scientific areas, especially timed to be available for the Earth Summit in June 1992. In 1992, I was co-chairman of Working Group I, with Dr Luiz Gylvan Meira Filho from Brazil. A further assessment in 1994 again updated what was known about the sources and sinks of greenhouse gases and addressed the important question of how their atmospheric concentrations might be established, a question of particular interest to the FCCC, the first Conference of Parties of which took place in 1995.

At the end of 1995, a second comprehensive assessment report was completed; it involved over 400 contributors from 26 countries and over 500 reviewers from 40 countries. The most important scientific issue concerned the detection of climate change in the observed climate record; several careful studies were beginning to suggest that a signal due to anthropogenic climate change was beginning to emerge from the “noise” of climate variability. An important question was how to present this part of the science, with its associated uncertainty, clearly and accurately. Present at the meeting which agreed the 1995 SPM were 177 delegates from 96 countries, representatives from 14 non-governmental organizations and 28 scientists representing the lead authors of the 11 chapters making up the background scientific material.

H.T. — What was the theme of the main debate in that meeting?

J.T.H. — There was a long debate on the wording of the SPM and significant pressure from countries with particular political agendas. The SPM included the following key sentences on the detection issue:

Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability and because there are uncertainties in key factors. Nevertheless, the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.

Unanimous agreement on the SPM was reached, the science was in no way compromised and resulting from the debate was a better, clearer and more accurate document.

Work is now beginning on the Third Assessment Report for publication in 2001. I am still co-chairman of Working Group I (with Ding Yihui from China) which will again be responsible for the Scientific Assessment. The number of scientists and delegates taking part demonstrate how effectively both scientists and governments have been involved in the process and presentation of the IPCC scientific assessments. Their evolution, led to a substantial extent by WGI, has in many respects broken fresh ground in the interface between science and political decision-making. I feel privileged to have been part of the process and to have worked with so many excellent people towards its success.

H.T. — Please tell us about the period when you were the Director-General of the United Kingdom Met. Offfice.

J.T.H. — The Head of the United Kingdom Met. Offfice is a marvellous position. There are three particular challenges. Firstly, there is the need to continue to develop and improve the science underpinning weather forecasting, in particular the representation of all the relevant processes in the large and complex atmospheric general circulation models and the understanding of fundamental matters such as weather predictability. Secondly, there is the need to continue to apply the latest space and computing technology to observing the atmosphere and oceans and to model improvements. Thirdly, the products of the Office are assessed by over 100 million people every day—high exposure by any standards—so much effort has to go into the presentation and the marketing of information.

One of the first things I did was to appoint a Marketing Director. The Office’s commercial activities had started successfully in the 1970s but needed development and expansion. The attitudes of the commercial world needed to be imbedded in the culture of the Office and, because support from government sources was being reduced, we needed to earn a greater proportion of our finance from commercial activity if we were to maintain our range and excellence of services. In the process of achieving this, we also saw a substantial improvement of the quality of Met. Offfice products.

When I became Director-General, my terms of appointment put me in the rather bizarre situation of having control of the Office’s programmes but no responsibility for finance. With much tightening of control over spending, this made life increasingly difficult. So I welcomed the move to become an Executive Agency which we accomplished in 1990 after several years of tortuous discussion and debate. We were still part of government but with much more autonomy.

H.T. — And your colleagues?

J.T.H. — Much enjoyment stemmed from working with a fine body of dedicated staff. Sir John Mason2, my distinguished predecessor, had attracted, high-quality staff and morale is high. I cannot quote many names but I will just mention the senior Directors who served with me, Phil Goldsmith , David Axford3, Andrew Gilchrist, Keith Browning and Peter Ryder. At my retirement party, Peter Ryder paid me the wonderful compliment of saying that, despite all the problems and frustrations, working with me had been “fun”.

H.T. — Would you like to say something about your family?

J.T.H. — My first wife was a doctor who specialized in handicapped children; she died in 1986 after a long battle with cancer. My daughter is a doctor married to a doctor and has four—soon to be five—children. My son lives in the USA, is married with one son and manages luxury racing yachts. My second wife and I moved to Wales, where we have restored an old farmhouse in an idyllic location between the mountains and the sea in Snowdonia National Park. We also have a flat in central London, but it is marvellous to escape to the country where, thanks to electronic communications, I can pursue my writing and scientific work.

H.T. — What are you doing nowadays?

J.T.H. — The IPCC still keeps me occupied and I am also keeping up with book-writing, my current task being to prepare the third edition of my textbook The Physics of Atmospheres. One of my interests over the years has been the relationship between science and religious belief. I am a Christian and it has been important to me to build intellectual and practical bridges between my science and my faith. I have written a couple of books, Does God Play Dice? and The Search for God; Can Science Help? Recently, with some other scientists who share the same interests, we have formed an organization called the John Ray Initiative (after John Ray the distinguished naturalist of 300 years ago). Our purpose is to do some fundamental thinking about the religious, ethical and scientific basis of care for the environment and to generate increased awareness of the need for humans to take much more care of the Earth which, in a number of ways, is under real threat.

H.T. — What was the most memorable event of your career?

J.T.H. — This was the storm which hit London at 4 a.m. on 16 October 1987. Fifteen million trees were blown down and business disrupted because of the failure of telephones and power supplies. Although the Met. Offfice had given warning five days in advance of unusually stormy weather and forecasts a few hours in advance had provided necessary warnings, the forecasts during the previous day had not given much indication of the likely extent of the damage. The weather storm was therefore followed by a media storm. My head was on the block for a few days but I was rescued by the stock market crash on “Black Monday”, which diverted media attention away from the Met. Offfice and its forecasts! Careful study of the storm helped us greatly in improving our forecasting techniques; the publicity also helped us acquire a new computer. When the next storms came along in 1990, we forecasted them perfectly—but no-one commented!

H.T. — What message would you give to aspiring young meteorologists?

J.T.H. — Meteorology is a subject with tremendous scientific challenge—as great as can be found in physics, chemistry or biology. It contains enormous technical challenges, especially to harness space and computing technologies to provide the tools required for observations, for data analysis and for modelling. It is also highly relevant to the needs of human communities as they try to solve the problems of pollution and to care for their environment. Meteorology possesses all the components for an exciting and satisfying career—I can thoroughly recommend it!

H.T. — I very much enjoyed this interview, in particular your thoughts about the relationship between science and religious belief. Thank you.


  • 1 Interviewed WMO Bulletin 47 (2) [back]
  • 2 Interviewed WMO Bulletin 44 (4) [back]
  • 3 Deputy Secretary-General of WMO, 1989-1994 [back]



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