Margaret Thatcher’s climate leadership

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.”

This is where a lot can be learned from her narrative. She correctly reminded the global political community that we had a “Duty to Nature” and that sustainable development is a constant, never completed, which needs to be permanently nurtured: “It will weigh on our shoulders for as long as we wish to dwell on a living and thriving planet, and hand it on to our children and theirs.”

This type of narrative is rarely used today, perhaps because of its religious or spiritual undertones. But ultimately, the underlying message is universally true and crosses generations. We are not the owners of nature and “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.”

Moreover, her call to bring “carbon dioxide emissions back to this year's [1990] level by the year 2005” is quite astonishing, considering that 23 years later, this still has not been globally addressed or achieved.

And yet, this ambitious call was pragmatic, where she offered a plan and solutions to support this mitigation program. She knew that the solutions to tackle climate change already existed, and that “the problems which science created, science could solve,” proposing a strong push for more energy efficiency and cleaner fuels.

She also recognized that regardless whether we thought climate change was happening, it was sensible to change our industrial process: “It's sensible to improve energy efficiency and to develop alternative and sustainable sources of supply; it's sensible to replant the forests which we consume; it's sensible to re-examine industrial processes; it's sensible to tackle the problem of waste.” This paragraph probably single-handedly embodies sustainability as a whole.

The need for precautionary measures and policies also was encouraged, as she compared them to a premium on insurance against fire, flood and other disasters. Its careful assessment, “It may be cheaper or more cost-effective to take action now than to wait and find we have to pay much more later,” is most likely the thesis of Lord Stern’s seminal report on the economic risks of climate change.

However, unlike Stern, she recognized that this calamity was also a huge economic opportunity for future generations, and that the importance of economic growth was paramount to solving the climate challenge. “We have to recognise the importance of economic growth of a kind that benefits future as well as present generations everywhere. We need it not only to raise living standards but to generate the wealth required to pay for protection of the environment.”

In fact, she was probably the first global political leader to fully comprehend the complex "socio-economic-ecologic" nature of climate change and its intricate connections and global consequences.

It is somewhat ironic that the free-market economic policies which she so dearly espoused probably aggravated climate change. However, it’s impossible to tell how the world might look like now had she been prime minister in 1992, when the first Kyoto Protocol was signed. Perhaps her no-nonsense, die-hard reformer, "Iron Lady" leadership style would have galvanized the whole world to accept and implement a global treaty on curbing carbon pollution.

She understood that the world was undergoing a massive political and economic transition, and she used the remnants of the two-dimensional Cold War world to effectively drive a new global sustainable economic system that would incorporate climate change’s impact.

It may be harder now to get global consensus in our current multi-dimensional, economically globalized yet politically fragmented world, where more than 194 countries staunchly defend their own social and political interests. But it is precisely her type of language, narrative and leadership that is missing today to effectively drive global consensus and solve our climate crisis.

What we need is leadership driven by a deep understanding of the scientific causes of climate change; leadership that cuts across sectors and political divides; leadership that can bridge the social, economical and environmental complexities of the climate challenge; leadership that uses assertive, consensual and emotional language, while offering concrete and pragmatic solutions.

Indeed: “No one should underestimate 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.”

Photo credit: David Fowler, via Shutterstock

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