I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in science. I liked physics because I was fascinated by how the world worked. When I took my higher school certificate, I achieved the best marks in Wales and won a scholarship to Oxford at the age of just 16.
After studying maths and physics at the University of Oxford, I began to look for research opportunities in physics. At the time, Oxford probably knew more about the stratosphere than any other institution in the world, so I joined Gordon Dobson and Alan Brewer, who were wizards at making equipment to measure the atmosphere.
I worked on measuring radiation to help understand atmospheric circulation. Generally, we used balloons or mounted equipment on planes and strapped ourselves into the cockpits with bungy cords to record the measurements. The world’s first satellite, Sputnik, launched by the Russians in 1957, changed everything.
Sputnik was making 14 orbits a day, which would allow instruments to see the whole Earth twice a day. I knew that to understand weather and climate we had to understand how the atmosphere moves because it moves as a whole and the big scales are important.
We wanted to measure the atmosphere from space to get the whole story. It was very exciting. The first weather satellite went up in 1960. And we put a radiometer on NASA’s Nimbus 4 in 1970.
The scientific world used computing on a significant scale from the early 1960s. Using data collected from satellites, computers enabled us to build models of atmospheric circulation, which are vital to meteorology and climate science. Oxford invested in its first computer in 1958. It took up almost an entire terraced house. We thought it was magnificent but today’s computers are billions of times faster, and they’re still not fast enough.
I gave my first lecture on the possibility of climate change in 1967. At the time, scientists taking measurements up a mountain in Hawaii had observed that carbon dioxide was increasing in the atmosphere at the same rate as fossil fuels were being burned. Temperatures had not gone up far at the time – much less than 1°C – so, although there was some concern and we thought it was something to keep an eye on, it wasn’t a huge part of my life at that point.
During the late ’60s, all of the world’s meteorologists set up the Global Atmospheric Research Program. The meteorology world had always been well connected, but because we could now see the whole world all the time, we wanted to collaborate more closely –to share our data, our methods, our computers and our models. I became the chairman of the World Climate Research Programme, which grew out of that, in 1980.
I attended the first IPCC meeting in 1988. The oil companies didn’t know it was going to be a big problem so they hadn’t got involved. But, by the second meeting in 1995, fossil-fuel corporations in the USA and the OPEC countries were working behind the scenes to discredit both the science and the IPCC itself.
In 1990, basic physics led us to believe that the presence of CO2 in the atmosphere would lead to climate warming but we couldn’t say we had seen it because there wasn’t any very strong observational evidence for it. But, in 1995, when the 200-plus IPCC scientists met for their final report, they agreed that there was now physical evidence for global warming and climate change.
It’s a complex message to convey because if people are looking for evidence against climate warming there’s plenty of it (and that’s what climate deniers say: What about this? And this? And this?), but these weather trends from all over the world are like noise, and you have to look beyond it to see if the average temperature across the globe is increasing. And it is.
There are very few competent climate scientists who would take the denying side. Ninety seven per cent of papers written by proper scientists agree global warming is happening. But
the media want two sides so they put scientific evidence up against opinions unsupported by facts, and that isn’t fair.
1931 Born in Dyserth, North Wales
1941–48 Attended Rhyl Grammar School, North Wales
1948–51 Studied maths and physics at the University of Oxford
1951–57 Researched atmospheric radiation at Oxford and Farnborough
1958–83 Professor at Oxford studying the atmosphere from space
1983–91 Director general (later chief executive) of the Met Office
1988–2002 Chairman or co-chairman of the IPCC’s Scientific Assessment Working Group
1999–present Chairman and later president of the John Ray Initiative, a charity that connects scientific and Christian understandings of the environment
This story was published in the March 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine