Margaret Thatcher’s climate leadership

Love her or hate her, there is no denial that Margaret Thatcher was one of the first global political leaders to raise the alarm on climate change, calling for immediate international action to mitigate this risk.

What is even more interesting is that, although domestically she was probably the most divisive political figure in modern British history, she had a completely opposite effect in the international climate arena, where she was more consensual, respected and listened to by her political peers.

In 1990, right in the middle of the Gulf War, she made a seminal speech at the second World Climate Conference about the threat of climate change, using the backdrop of the war as an example of how effective the United Nations could be in dealing with a global threat from a bellicose tyrant.

Many things can be learned from that speech: her use of logical yet emotional language and her balanced, proactive narrative and assertive leadership.

In it, she talks about the “insidious though less visible” threat of climate change, where 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.”

Her deep interest, understanding and passion for the environment did not emanate from her political inclination but from her scientific background. Indeed, as an Oxford graduate in chemistry and a longtime science researcher, she understood the importance of scientific research in human progress and development. More important, she also understood the difficulties of obtaining consensus from scientific bodies on a single matter or theory.

So when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its first report of the science, data and impact of climate change, her scientist’s intuition knew that this global consensus was an international warning to heed.

Crucially, this scientific expertise also was complemented with an appreciation of the careful equilibrium between human development and nature. Three decades ago, she understood that it was out of balance and that “for two centuries, since the Age of the Enlightenment, we assumed that whatever the advance of science, whatever the economic development, whatever the increase in human numbers, the world would go on much the same. That was progress. And that was what we wanted. Now we know that this is no longer true.”

Next page: Our "Duty to Nature"