Talking point: A history lesson

Written by on 22 April 2013

“What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate.

“It is mankind and his activities which are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways.

“We can find examples in the past … the difference now is in the scale of the damage we are doing.” Words not from a modern-day climate activist, but spoken by Margaret Thatcher, in a speech to the United Nations.

The speech, made in 1989, and others like it were part of the late Prime Minister’s ‘green period’ where, convinced by the scientific research available, she was credited with putting the issue of the environment on the map.

In the days following her death at the age of 87, environmental journalists reminded us of Thatcher’s contribution to the debate.

Although she later distanced herself from her comments and said the issue had become a leftwing vehicle, it set the ball in motion for much of what was to come: the Earth Summit in Rio and both Scotland and the UK Climate Change Acts.

Indeed, at the Conservative Party conference last year, DECC minister Greg Barker, faced with a party that is split on issues like wind energy, and its coalition partners, the Lib Dems, who are keen to emphasise their environmental credentials, reminded his audience that it was the Tories that had started things.

Yet Thatcher’s speech is also a stark reminder that the warning bells being rung today have been ringing for some time.

The themes she covered are still made by environmentalists today: her warning then of the stresses and strains an increasing population would put on the world – pointing out that her grandson, Michael, would grow up in a world of more than 6 billion people – it is now past 7 billion; as well as the ever present problem of melting polar ice caps and concern about deforestation.

More than two decades on, though, the debate continues on much of what was discussed, with high-profile sceptics including her former chancellor, Lord Lawson, who chairs the Global Warming Policy Foundation, and a petition started in England for Education Secretary Michael Gove to reverse plans to scale back climate change education in schools south of the border.

In ‘89, Thatcher concluded her speech with the cautionary advice: “We need our reason to teach us today that we are not, that we must not, try to be the lords of all we survey. May we all be equal to the task.”

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