We Can All Share Thatcher’s Climate Vision
BBC political editor Nick Robinson characteristically signed off his report on the death of Margaret Thatcher today by trying to sum up the Iron Lady with one word.
I, perhaps simplistically, had expected him to say ‘Thatcherism’. But Nick has too much brainpower trapped inside his encyclopaedic-earthworm head to waste licence-fee payer’s money by stating the bleeding obvious.
He chose instead to encapsulate Thatcher with the word ‘belief’.
My only complaint with his selection was that he might have added a prefix – ‘self-belief’. Thatcher believed in her judgement, her rhetoric, herself. From that stemmed her unshakeable belief in the individual’s power of self-determination. If she could set herself on the right path to success, so could everyone else.
So it is surprising to some to hear that this cheerleader for the power of the individual took a contrasting approach on the ultimate communal problem – environmental degradation and climate change.
Faced with the enormity of the challenges facing the planet, Thatcher saw the value of communal action with clarity and determination.
A large chunk of Thatcher’s most famous speech on climate – to the UN in 1989 – is quoted below (it’s a generous helping, but I am probably not ever going to quote Thatcher again so I thought I would fill my boots).
The speech is an unrestrained plea to work together. Gone are beggar-my-neighbour, individualist policies. She casts off her power dress of self-interest, and jumps into the hemp shirt and sandals of global cooperation.
Along with the focus on our shared responsibility to protect the climate and her call for multilateralism, Thatcher also emphasised the importance of the scientific advice.
Her call for reason and logic is something that her former chancellor Nigel Lawson has tried to distort in recent years. But she understood the central proposition that excessive carbon dioxide emissions are causing the planet to warm with disastrous consequences.
I suppose we should expect no less, since the properties of carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect were probably quite elementary to a lady with a BSc in Chemistry. It is nonetheless refreshing to hear a senior politician rely on this point in a discussion that has since been clouded by quirky scientific interpretations and lobbyist spin.
In essence she was asking for the world community to react as one, and powerfully to the climate science rather than be divided by hyperbole and speculation. As one of the first world leaders to understand and respond to climate science appropriately, she should be heralded as no less than a pioneer of the climate movement.
So while many of Thatcher’s policies were divisive and controversial, her dual vision on climate – working together and being led by science – remains an approach that all citizens can embrace.
As we say goodbye to this extraordinary stateswoman, I hope that her environmental vision will be her most celebrated and long-lasting legacy.
Watch a snippet of Thatcher’s climate views here
Margaret Thatcher: Extract of Speech to the UN 8 April 1989:
“While the conventional, political dangers – the threat of global annihilation, the fact of regional war – appear to be receding, we have all recently become aware of another insidious danger. It is as menacing in its way as those more accustomed perils with which international diplomacy has concerned itself for centuries. It is the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to earth itself.
What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate – all this is new in the experience of the earth. It is mankind and his activities that are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways.
The result is that change in future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto. Change to the sea around us, change to the atmosphere above, leading in turn to change in the world’s climate, which could alter the way we live in the most fundamental way of all. That prospect is a new factor in human affairs. It is comparable in its implications to the discovery of how to split the atom. Indeed, its results could be even more far-reaching.
The evidence is there. The damage is being done. What do we, the international community, do about it?
In some areas, the action required is primarily for individual nations or groups of nations to take. But the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level. It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay. We have to look forward not backward, and we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort.
The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out. Those countries who are industrialised must contribute more to help those who are not.
The work ahead will be long and exacting. We should embark on it hopeful of success, not fearful of failure. Darwin’s voyages were among the high-points of scientific discovery. They were undertaken at a time when men and women felt growing confidence that we could not only understand the natural world but we could master it, too. Today, we have learned rather more humility and respect for the balance of nature. But another of the beliefs of Darwin’s era should help to see us through – the belief in reason and the scientific method.
Reason is humanity’s special gift. It allows us to understand the structure of the nucleus. It enables us to explore the heavens. It helps us to conquer disease. Now we must use our reason to find a way in which we can live with nature, and not dominate nature.
We need our reason to teach us today that we are not – that we must not try to be – the lords of all we survey.
We are not the lords, we are the Lord’s creatures, the trustees of this planet, charged today with preserving life itself – preserving life with all its mystery and all its wonder.
May we all be equal to that task.”