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Iron Lady and eco-warrior? Margaret Thatcher’s commitment to green matters

Tom Bawden
thatcher 4 300x225 Iron Lady and eco warrior? Margaret Thatchers commitment to green matters

(Getty Images)

She may be better known for taking on the unions and transforming Britain through her dogged promotion of the free market – but it seems Margaret Thatcher was also something of an eco-warrior.

The Iron Lady’s dedication to green matters contradicts the popular perception that she – and the Conservative party in general – was more concerned with commerce than carbon emissions. But trawling through the speech archives following news of her death yesterday, her dedication to protecting the environment is clear.

As far back as the late 1980s, well before Al Gore’s 2006 Oscar-winning documentary brought climate change tentatively to the public consciousness, the Oxford chemistry graduate was campaigning against global warming.

She kicked off her campaign with a speech to the Royal Society in 1988, in which she shows a keen scientific and environmental interest in the subject.

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

She goes on to speak of a rise in greenhouse gases which, she says, “has led some to fear that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability”.

The following year, she returns to the subject, dedicating a key speech to the UN to global warming.

“We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere. The annual increase is 3 billion tonnes: and half the carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution still remains in the atmosphere.

“At the same time as this is happening, we are seeing the destruction on a vast scale of tropical forests which are uniquely able to remove carbon dioxide from the air.”

She went on to warn that the consequences of rising CO2 emissions were “likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto”.

And, in a stance that puts her at odds with George Osborne’s assertion last October that “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business,” Mrs Thatcher said: “We should always remember that free markets are a means to an end. They would defeat their object if by their output they did more damage to the quality of life through pollution than the well-being they achieve by the production of goods and services.”

In fact, far from seeing the environment as a burden to the economy, she once said that environmental and economic heath were “totally dependent on each other”.

She also put her money where her mouth was. In 1990 Mrs Thatcher set up the Met Office Hadley Centre for climate protection and research, a leading specialist in this field which informs climate change policy to this day. But that is not the end of the story. In later life, it seems that Mrs Thatcher increasingly questioned the claims of climate science.

In her 2002 book Statecraft, she devoted a whole chapter – Hot Air and Global Warming – to casting doubt over the subject she once championed, admitting that she was becoming “more sceptical about the arguments about global warming”. She referred to climate change as the “doomster’s favourite subject” and asserted that the science was “much less certain” than many experts claimed. She also warned of the dangers of “costly and economically damaging” schemes to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

But while this does suggest a considerable change of tack, it is not clear whether Mrs Thatcher was merely employing a healthy dose of scepticism or turning against the green agenda completely. Having admitted to increase in scepticism in Statecraft, in the very next sentence she emphasised that the arguments about global warming should nonetheless “be taken very seriously” – which suggests she was still sympathetic to the environmentalist cause on one level.

Either way, she was one of the first global leaders to highlight the dangers of climate change, making her a pioneer of green causes, as well as the free market.

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  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Thought? Now that’s something you could experiment with.


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