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.