The Forgotten Legacy: Thatcher's deep conviction on Climate Change - RSA

The Forgotten Legacy: Thatcher's deep conviction on Climate Change

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  • Climate change
  • Social brain

“Remember our duty to nature before it is too late...That duty is constant. It is never completed. It lives on as we breathe.” Margaret Thatcher

Thatcher at the UN in 1990 (Image via

Whatever else you think of Margaret Thatcher, remember this. She 'got it' on Climate change in a way that few political leaders have before or since. Today's press will rightly focus on the impact of her economic policy and the memory of her singular political personality. In both cases we will read about how she enforced her will. However, there is one issue on which she didn't manage to carry the Cabinet, or the country with her: climate change.

I am grateful for James West at Grist for developing this case: Her 1990 speech to the UN laid out a simple Conservative argument for taking environmental action: “It may be cheaper or more cost-effective to take action now,” she said, “than to wait and find we have to pay much more later.” Global warming was, she argued, “real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.”

Thatcher's climate conviction appears to have been based on the mixture of personal dispositions that made her such a distinct leader; scientific understanding - she apparently rebuffed the counter-argument that climactic variation was caused by solar radiation rather than C02 emissions based on her own personal understanding - and domestic housekeeping- planning ahead to minimise future costs and the burden to future generations.

I am grateful to @adamjlent for mentioning that Thatcher's speech to The Royal Society in 1988 was one of the main reasons for the massive increase in support for the Green Party in the 1989 European Elections. If you had to guess which political leader said the following three paragraphs, extracted from that speech, it is unlikely Margaret Thatcher would come to mind:

"Engineering and scientific advance have given us transport by land and air, the capacity and need to exploit fossil fuels which had lain unused for millions of years. One result is a vast increase in carbon dioxide. And this has happened just when great tracts of forests which help to absorb it have been cut down.

For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world's systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.

Recently three changes in atmospheric chemistry have become familiar subjects of concern. The first is the increase in the greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons—which has led some to fear that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability. We are told that a warming effect of 1°C per decade would greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope. Such warming could cause accelerated melting of glacial ice and a consequent increase in the sea level of several feet over the next century. This was brought home to me at the Commonwealth Conference in Vancouver last year when the President of the Maldive Islands reminded us that the highest part of the Maldives is only six feet above sea level. The population is 177,000. It is noteworthy that the five warmest years in a century of records have all been in the 1980s—though we may not have seen much evidence in Britain!"

I grew up in a domestic atmosphere in Aberdeen where Margaret Thatcher was perceived to be the villain, and I vividly remember the intense anger against her during the marches against the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland, so praising her does not come naturally. However, it is important to find the best in people, and on the issue that I care most deeply about at the moment, it feels good to reflect on this little known part of her legacy.

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