Margaret Thatcher’s Climate Change Legacy: A Tail of Two Halves

Margaret Thatcher leaves a mixed legacy on climate change. As an original climate hawk, she was instrumental in helping to launch the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) back in 1988 and also in promoting the U.K.’s climate change research capabilities though the foundation of the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change in 1990. You can get a taste of her early stance in this short video here:

In her later writings, however, she recanted and became a hero to the climate skeptic cause.

Thatcher’s original engagement came via the career diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell. In 1975, Tickell took a sabbatical at Harvard University during which he first became acquainted with the science of climate change (although as an undergraduate he studied Modern History at Oxford). His interest in the subject culminated in the publication of a book called “Climate Change and World Affairs”. This is now out of print, but you can find an article summarising his ideas in the April 1986 edition of the scholarly publication Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union here. Even today, the article appears quite fresh; for example read the conclusion:

The measures proposed may seem puny in relation to the problems that we face. Even such measures present major difficulties, and agreement on them may not be feasible until the need becomes more manifest. Yet the hazards of inaction are very real. The pleas­antly warm moment that we now enjoy will not last for ever. The world itself is changing, partly through our own actions, and we face intimidating responsibilities as a result. We have no option but to meet them.

Tickell was asked by Thatcher to become Permanent Secretary in the Overseas Development Administration in the early 1980s. Subsequently, he caught Thatcher’s attention during a flight to Paris in 1984. She had asked whether the assembled officials around her had any agenda ideas for the next G7 meeting to be held in London. Tickell proposed climate change and as a result was invited the next day to Downing Street to brief Thatcher on his ideas. From then on, he advised Thatcher on various environmental issues on an informal basis. In an interview given as part of Churchill College’s British Diplomatic Oral History Programme (BDOHP), Tickell stressed how Thatcher was drawn to scientific topics given her background. (For an in-depth piece on how Thatcher’s scientific background influenced her policy making see this article for the Royal Society by Jon Agar here.)

Margaret Thatcher much prided herself on being the only scientist in her government. Anything that related to science she took a particular interest in, and almost felt that she owned it. Some of her views were radical and didn’t always fit the other views she heard from others. The main advice she got was, of course, from the civil service machine. I came back from New York to attend two meetings for her. I think she regarded me as someone useful who could stir the pot for her, and perhaps challenge the orthodox wisdom, whatever it might be.

Part of Tickell’s remit was to float various policy ideas that may be of interest to Thatcher and support her political profile. Out of such a pitch came the genesis of the grounding-breaking speech given by Thatcher at the Royal Society.

She was more receptive on some things than on others. The genesis of the 1988 speech to the Royal Society on climate change arose from a meeting when I went to see her when I was on holiday. I always tried to make a point of going into No.10 when I was on holiday. I then suggested three ideas to her which she might try. I didn’t know which, if any, of them she was going to follow. Then I heard about three weeks later that she was interested in the one about climate change, and we started toing and froing about what she might say and when she might say it. She’s always been very interested in science and felt that she had that particular contribution to make.

The speech (transcript can be found here) was ground-breaking in that is was the first in which a world leader had called attention to the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions:

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.

Recently three changes in atmospheric chemistry have become familiar subjects of concern. The first is the increase in the greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons—which has led some[fo 4] to fear that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability. We are told that a warming effect of 1°C per decade would greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope. Such warming could cause accelerated melting of glacial ice and a consequent increase in the sea level of several feet over the next century.

Spencer Weart, a leading scholar on the history of climate change and author of the modern classic “The Discovery of Global Warming” credits Thatcher as being the first world leader to call for the mitigation of green house gas emissions (here). Her unequivocal position can be seen in this address she gave to the United Nations General Assembly in November 1989 (here).

But the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level.

It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay. Whole areas of our planet could be subject to drought and starvation if the pattern of rains and monsoons were to change as a result of the destruction of forests and the accumulation of greenhouse gases.

We have to look forward not backward and we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort.

A second key shaper of Thatcher’s view on climate change was John Houghton. Houghton had been Chief Executive of the United Kingdom Meteorological Office from 1983 and also a senior figure on the World Meteorological Office (WMO). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was, in fact, born out of the WMO. Houghton worked well with Thatcher as can be seen in this interview Houghton gave for the WMO here.

However, back in 1990 I had one very good ally and that was Margaret Thatcher. She gave a talk to the Royal Society in 1988 and – remember she was a scientist by background – she talked about global warming and the newspapers carried this as their headline the following day. That was the first time, in the UK at least, that global warming started to appear on the ‘map’.

Earlier in 1988, the Canadians put on their own global warming conference which raised political awareness in a very important way. 1988 was also the time when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had its first meeting and I was asked to be the chairman of its Science Assessment Panel. We had long debates, with hundreds of scientists worldwide, and we had a very interesting time determining what was happening on a global scale and what we could predict for the future.

In 1990 we had our final meeting in Windsor of this scientific group, agreeing the conclusions that would be put forward by the IPCC. Because the IPCC is an Intergovernmental Body, governments now started to take ownership of the assessments and many were accepting the findings. I subsequently presented the findings to the Thatcher Cabinet at Downing Street. It was the first time they’d ever used a projector in the Cabinet Room and famously Margaret Thatcher listened for twenty minutes without interrupting – an unusual occurrence apparently!

The scientific and political concensus that resulted meant that the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro saw all the nations of the world sign the framework convention on climate change. This included the USA and President Bush I.

Houghton’s good relationship with Thatcher paid dividends in the establishment of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in 1990, an organisation which was supported jointly by both the Met. Offfice and the Department of the Environment and kept the U.K at the forefront of climate research. But on 22 November 1990 Thatcher quit the premiership after losing the support of her colleagues, and from that time on she contributed little to the climate change debate until the publication of her book Statecraft in 2002.

The book contained a chapter called “Hot Air and Global Warming” that could have been written by any true-believing climate skeptic. Moreover, as a result of this book, such high profile skeptics as Anthony Watts and Christopher Booker came to laud Thatcher as one of their own (for example here). Given that most of her information sources for the chapter came from libertarian think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation  (all of which she references), this is not really surprising.

Further, in the process of becoming a skeptic, Thatcher now viewed the IPCC as ‘alarmist’ and climate change science as a stalking horse for international socialism. From the book:

The new dogma about climate change has swept through the left-of-centre governing classes


provides a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism.

The switch was a triumph for the right-wing think tanks and other assorted merchants of doubt. Yet this outcome is certainly not a triumph for humanity, and nor, in reality, for the political right. Climate change will grind forward regardless of the pronouncements of the left and right. To pretend it doesn’t exist as part of a policy platform is stupid in the extreme. Many political pronouncements can never be refuted as they are normative statements—a question of personal ethics or beliefs. Climate change is not one of them: it will get hotter or it won’t. Someone has to be wrong.

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