Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Mrs Thatcher and Global Warming

I didn't vote for Mrs Thatcher. This is not just the slogan that launched a million tee-shirts but, in my case, absolutely true, even though I was old enough to vote for her Conservative Party. But this short blog entry, written the day after she died, is neither an attempt to hurl abuse at her nor a recognition that some – but not all – of the things that she did (and which I may have opposed at the time) were probably necessary to move the UK out of its stupor in the 1970s. Instead this will focus on one facet that has gone almost unremarked in the obituaries today: Mrs Thatcher was the first major Western leader to "get" Climate Change.

Trained as a research chemist at Oxford, Mrs Thatcher was proud to undertake a dispassionate analysis of the facts placed before her; this sometimes led her to intellectually appealing but socially divisive (and ultimately foolish) policies. But when presented with the relatively immature findings on the science behind climate change (still then known as global warming) she understood that this was an existential threat – more dangerous for the UK, even, than the European Union!

As far back as September 1988 she said in a speech to the Royal Society:
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.

This was later emphasised when she told the party conference:
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.

And by 1990 she was confident enough to say:
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. … The need for more research should not be an excuse for delaying much needed action now.

This led to an early lead by the UK Government in taking measures to combat climate change and a broadly bipartisan attitude to the subject. Sadly the early lead has gone, and the UK is not doing much better than most of its peers in the move towards a lower carbon economy, and certainly behind that other great nation led by a right of centre female chemist – Germany under Angela Merkel. And many of Mrs Thatcher's successors in the Conservative Party would do well to heed those early words spoken almost 25 years ago – especially the UK's current Prime Minister who should note that her words were supported by action as national and international levels.

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