An Inconvenient Truth About Margaret Thatcher: She Was a Climate Hawk

Future Tense
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April 8 2013 3:28 PM

An Inconvenient Truth About Margaret Thatcher: She Was a Climate Hawk

Margaret Thatcher plants a tree
The Iron Lady had a green thumb—and a surprisingly green philosophy. Here shovels the earth during a tree-planting ceremony on Oct. 21, 1989 in Langkawi, Malaysia.

Photo by Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images

Thatcherites like to remember their heroine as a free-market absolutist. What most forget is how strongly she insisted that economic development not come at the cost of environmental destruction.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

A chemistry major at Oxford, Thatcher was never one of those conservatives who saw science as the enemy of progress. And in the last three years of her premiership, she became one of the first world leaders to call for action of global warming. Below are excerpts from four of her most stirring speeches on the subject.

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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. …
The Government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development. Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded. Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late Twentieth Century. …
It's we conservatives who are not merely friends of the Earth—we are its guardians and trustees for generations to come. (Clapping.) The core of Tory philosophy and for the case for protecting the environment are the same. No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full.

In an address to the United Nations on Nov. 8, 1989 (as published by the Guardian in 2005):

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? … 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. …
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.
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. Our ability to come together to stop or limit damage to the world's environment will be perhaps the greatest test of how far we can act as a world community. No-one should under-estimate the imagination that will be required, nor the scientific effort, nor the unprecedented co-operation we shall have to show. We shall need statesmanship of a rare order. It's because we know that, that we are here today.
But the need for more research should not be an excuse for delaying much needed action now.

Nor was she all talk. Thatcher backed the 1988 establishment of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which went on to lay the groundwork for the Kyoto Protocol. And she was instrumental in the 1990 founding of the Britain’s renowned climate research center, the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change.

Long after her premiership, Thatcher veered toward a more reactionary stance. In her last book, published in 2003, she decried “costly and economically damaging” schemes to limit carbon emissions and lamented that climate change “provides a marvelous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism.” Some cynics have also noted that her early embrace of climate science dovetailed conveniently with her antipathy toward coal miners.

Be that as it may, she never abandoned her faith in the scientific method, nor her conviction that true conservatism entailed leaving the Earth in livable condition for future generations. On the day of her death, let’s hope that message is not lost on her acolytes.

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