Margaret Thatcher, Climate Hawk

The late Margaret Thatcher is a beloved figure by many on the right side of the political spectrum here in the United States, principally for her forceful privatization of many state run industries in the UK.  But one wonders if many of the same people who venerate Lady Thatcher are aware that she was an early advocate of policies to combat climate change?

The blog Blue Virginia dug up a rather remarkable speech in which Thatcher challenges the world to invest in climate change research and take precautionary steps to halt carbon emissions...back in 1990.

The context for the speech is important. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was a brand new body and had just issued its first report, warning for the first time of the impending problem of climate change. World leaders were meeting in Geneva to for the Second World Climate Conference to figure out how to carve out an international political strategy to take on climate change. Eventually, this conference would lead to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which in turn lead to the Kyoto Protocols.

This conference set into motion that whole process, and dare I say Margaret Thatcher’s bold political commitment to combatting climate change was a strong boon to the cause. Some excerpts:

The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.


But the need for more research should not be an excuse for delaying much needed action now. There is already a clear case for precautionary action at an international level. The IPCC tells us that we can’t repair the effects of past behaviour on our atmosphere as quickly and as easily as we might cleanse a stream or river. It will take, for example, until the second half of the next century, until the old age of my [ Michael Thatcher] grandson, to repair the damage to the ozone layer above the Antarctic. And some of the gases we are adding to the global heat trap will endure in the Earth’s atmosphere for just as long.

The IPCC tells us that, on present trends, the earth will warm up faster than at any time since the last ice age. Weather patterns could change so that what is now wet would become dry, and what is now dry would become wet. Rising seas could threaten the livelihood of that substantial part of the world’s population which lives on or near coasts. The character and behaviour of plants would change, some for the better, some for worse. Some species of animals and plants would migrate to different zones or disappear for ever. Forests would die or move. And deserts would advance as green fields retreated.

Many of the precautionary actions that we need to take would be sensible in any event. It is sensible to improve energy efficiency and use energy prudently; it’s sensible to develop alternative and sustainable and sensible … it’s sensible to improve energy efficiency and to develop alternative and sustainable sources of supply; it’s sensible to replant the forests which we consume; it’s sensible to re-examine industrial processes; it’s sensible to tackle the problem of waste. I understand that the latest vogue is to call them ‘no regrets’ policies. Certainly we should have none in putting them into effect.

And our uncertainties about climate change are not all in one direction. The IPCC report is very honest about the margins of error. Climate change may be less than predicted. But equally it may occur more quickly than the present computer models suggest. Should this happen it would be doubly disastrous were we to shirk the challenge now. I see the adoption of these policies as a sort of premium on insurance against fire, flood or other disaster. It may be cheaper or more cost-effective to take action now than to wait and find we have to pay much more later.


These figures underline why a joint international effort to curb greenhouse gases in general and carbon dioxide in particular is so important. There is little point in action to reduce the amounts being put into the atmosphere in one part of the world, if they are promptly increased in another. Within this framework the United Kingdom is prepared, as part of an international effort including other leading countries, to set itself the demanding target of bringing carbon dioxide emissions back to this year’s level by the year 2005. That will mean reversing a rising trend before that date.

If more conservatives displayed this kind of foresight we may not be in the mess we are in today.

H/t Chris Hayes