climate change politics

Margaret Thatcher on climate change

With the news yesterday that Margaret Thatcher has died, there will be a lot of ink spilled today in appraising her legacy. Her influence will be lauded and decried in equal measure. I don’t intend to add anything much, other than to offer a reminder of her work on climate change, as I suspect it will be overlooked among all the more famous things she did.

Thatcher was a chemist before she was a politician, so she was well placed to grasp the fundamentals of climate change. She helped to up the IPCC, and started the Hadley Centre to help advance climate research. Her speech to the UN in 1989 made her one of the first world leaders to call for action on climate change. 25 years later, we’re still waiting for the “vast international, co-operative effort” that she rightly said was needed.

From that speech, and a later one at the opening of the second World Climate Conference, here’s more on Thatcher’s view of environmental stewardship, in her own words:

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.

We have become more and more aware of the growing imbalance between our species and other species, between population and resources, between humankind and the natural order of which we are part.

In recent years, we have been playing with the conditions of the life we know on the surface of our planet. We have cared too little for our seas, our forests and our land. We have treated the air and the oceans like a dustbin. We have come to realise that man’s activities and numbers threaten to upset the biological balance which we have taken for granted and on which human life depends.

We must remember our duty to Nature before it is too late. That duty is constant. It is never completed. It lives on as we breathe. It endures as we eat and sleep, work and rest, as we are born and as we pass away. The duty to Nature will remain long after our own endeavours have brought peace to the Middle East. 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.

Darwin’s voyages were among the high-points of scientific discovery. They were undertaken at a time when men and women felt growing confidence that we could not only understand the natural world but we could master it, too.

Today, we have learned rather more humility and respect for the balance of nature. But another of the beliefs of Darwin’s era should help to see us through—the belief in reason and the scientific method.

Reason is humanity’s special gift. It allows us to understand the structure of the nucleus. It enables us to explore the heavens. It helps us to conquer disease. Now we must use our reason to find a way in which we can live with nature, and not dominate nature.


  1. Hi jeremy,

    Thought I’d let you know that after reading this I’ve tweeted a Thatcher-on-environment quote via the Travel Foundation account (@travelTF). Really sorry but I couldn’t find enough space to hat-tip you as the source which I know is bad form, but thought this email might help you forgive me!

    Hope all’s well in Luton and love to you and yours. Keep up the good work etc.


    Ben Lynam

    Head of Communications


    T. +44 (0) 117 9307176

    F. +44 (0) 117 9300076

    Follow us on twitter: @travelTF

    TF 10th Anniversary logo 700


    The CREATE Centre, Smeaton Road, Bristol, BS1 6XN. Registered Charity No 1065924. Registered in England No 3425954.

    Please think before you print!

    1. No worries. I realise using my full name as a twitter handle was rather shortsighted. I have followed the Travel Foundation and will be looking out for your updates.

  2. Very, Very good. Her opinion is different from what I thought it would be, which shows up the idea of making presumptions of others. Her speech is very good and very thoughtful. i really liked it. Thank you very much.

  3. “Now we must use our reason to find a way in which we can live with nature, and not dominate nature” –
    And to also live with one another without domination? I suspect the two must go together if we are to live as decent beings, and to prosper. We must be truly incapable if we cannot find the reason not to bite the hand that feedeth (our earth), but what will it require to live with one another without domination – love? More than reason?. I cannot help but think ‘Man cannot live by bread alone’. Being so reasonable, it seems to be another part of the best of reason. We surely cannot succeed if we respect one part and not the other?

    1. This is true, the way we treat each other is part of the whole. It would have been good if she had practiced more of a duty to each other as part of that ‘duty to nature’.

  4. I didn’t know her background was as a chemist before entering politics. I always admired her strength and now admire her for much more. I missed her speeches on the climate and thank you for sharing.

  5. It was an (unintended) consequence of her battle with the miners that Britain was able to more more quickly than would have been the case away from primarily coal fired power generation to gas, with the lower CO2 emissions that brought. Plus a lot of dirty industries that had been propped up beyond they natural lives finally shrank with in the 1980s.

    It was quite a good legacy on climate change grounds, even if it wasn’t the intention.

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