Turtle Bay

Maggie the Green?

Who knew that Margaret Thatcher was such an environmentalist? For a start, several of my better informed Twitter followers. And U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The U.N. leader today singled out Thatcher’s early contribution to the debate on global warming, crediting the former prime minister as "one of the first world leaders to issue a ...

Who knew that Margaret Thatcher was such an environmentalist?

For a start, several of my better informed Twitter followers. And U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The U.N. leader today singled out Thatcher’s early contribution to the debate on global warming, crediting the former prime minister as "one of the first world leaders to issue a warning about its effects by calling for action at the U.N. General Assembly already in 1989."

In that November 1989 address, Thatcher issued a call for binding agreements to regulate the production of heat-trapping gases that cause global warming.

"The threat to our world comes not only from tyrants and their tanks. It can be more insidious though less visible," Thatcher said two years later, at a meeting of the Second World Climate Conference at the Palais des Nations. "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."

Thatcher’s concerns about the threat posed by climate change drew on her own background as a scientist. But in 1988, according to the BBC, she "shocked" the Royal Society with an unexpected and emotionally charged September speech, in which she appealed to the attendees to pay heed to the tell-tale signs of environmental doom.

"For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere stable," she told the society. "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."

Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s environmental analyst, wrote this morning that Thatcher "later recanted, voicing fears that climate had become a left-wing vehicle." Harrabin also recalled that two days before the U.N. speech, Britain had blocked a proposal at a climate conference in the Netherlands calling for a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2005. "But her earlier remarks had already changed the institutional landscape."

"Funny old world, innit?" the Independent‘s Michael McCarthy wrote this morning. "These days, if you’re a right-wing Conservative, or a right-wing commentator or blogger, it is virtually a badge of honor to proclaim that all this global warming stuff, and action taken to counter it, is a load of cobblers."

I guess you could say equally that it has been something of a badge of honor for left-wing Liberals to denounce Thatcher’s conservatism. But not, it seems, her views on the environment.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

(Thanks to @pandes4 @davidsteven @sunnysingh_nw3 @jossgarman @rowandavies for the helpful links on Thatcher’s environmental record.)

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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