Keith Clayton, CBE: Climate change scientist and founding dean of environmental sciences at University of East Anglia

PUBLISHED: 15:40 20 February 2013 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2013

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Professor Keith Clayton <for feature by Colin Chinery - woodland feature>

Professor Keith Clayton

An internationally-acknowledged expert on global warming, Prof Keith Clayton, who has died aged 84, helped to shape government’s climate change strategies.

The founding dean of the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia in 1967, he also created the renowned Climate Research Unit four years later.

An adviser to government departments, he was invested with the order of Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by the Queen at Buckingham Palace in February 1984 for services to the University Grants Committee and the UEA.

He was also a local councillor, chairman of Broadland Housing Association and a member of the Broads Authority.

Prepared to court controversy, when necessary, in 1991 he argued that parts of the north Norfolk coast should be abandoned to the waves. He advocated a strategy of “soft engineering” or working with natural forces, wherever possible, rather than against. Instead of building expensive walls and groynes, it should be possible to maintain artificial beaches, which was the model on the other side of the North Sea. “I don’t court controversy in the sense that I say these things more than I have to,” he told the EDP in 1992, shortly before his retirement after about 25 years.

He had started to challenge the traditional assumptions of coastal defence and flood prevention in 1974 when government commissioned “ENV” to carry out research on the East Anglia coast. Then hard engineering solutions were the rule. Prof Clayton attacked the “engineer mafia. And engineers are in the business of building concrete.”

In January 1994, he warned Norfolk Agricultural Club that a second North Sea surge on the scale of 1953 flooding could drown 3,000. He told his farming audience that the government must pay compensation for the loss of land to the sea because that material would then protect other vulnerable areas of the region’s coastline.

Keith Martin Clayton was born on September 25, 1928. He went to Bedales School and the University of Sheffield and was awarded his PhD at the University of London. After leaving his post as reader in geography at the London School of Economics, he said that the decision of the UEA in 1962 to develop an interdisciplinary School of Environment Sciences, which opened its doors in 1968, was a far-sighted decision. He was also director of the Centre for East Anglian Studies for seven years until 1981.

In tributes yesterday, Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the UEA, said: “He laid the foundations for a school that soon became internationally renowned. In total, he served three terms as dean, the most recent in 1987-1993, whilst conducting leading research in quantitative geomorphology, the study of earth surface landforms, particularly utilising the newly emerging images of the earth’s surface as seen from satellites. He was hugely influential both in his field and in the university. It is a source of great regret to his many friends and colleagues at UEA that he will not be able to join in our 50th anniversary celebrations. However, his legacy lives on proudly in ‘ENV’ – the school that he did so much to build,” added Prof Acton.

And a former colleague, Prof Tim O’Riordan, who retired in 2005, said: “Keith Clayton was a pragmatic visionary. In establishing the path-breaking integrated ENV he set a trend which dozens of campuses are only now seeking to emulate.

“UEA broke the mould of single-minded science and opened up an era of coordinated and communicative science which embraced all manner of people throughout the world. Keith was hugely energetic and robustly combative in the best sense of leadership.

Prof O’Riordan added: “The science of maintaining the planet largely began in Norwich. More people than we realise owe a great debt to him, and I certainly was one of those.”

After retiring, he was elected as a Lib Dem to Broadland Council serving a four-year term until 1998. As he had regularly cycled the three miles from his home in Thorpe to the UEA, he urged fellow council members to encourage “greener” travel by paying a mileage allowance for bike riders.

A member of the Broads Authority until 1998, his thinking influenced Norfolk farmer Henry Cator, chairman of the Association of Drainage Authorities. “He said that we should change the way that we live and manage our landscapes. He was forthright always in his views and made a big impression on me as a young man,” he added.

As a trustee of the Norfolk Windmills Trust, he backed an initiative to restore about 15 windmills in the Broads to generate electricity. He was also awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Patron’s Medal in 1989, with the Queen’s approval. Other former recipients included the explorer David Livingstone.

A private funeral will be held.

Michael Pollitt

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