Thatcher: First to tackle climate change

Unlike the blanket TV coverage NASA climate scientist James Hansen generated at his 1988 appearance before the US Congress, there were no cameras when UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher addressed the Royal Society on September 27,1988.

(This article first appeared April 19, 2013 - Editor)

Unlike the blanket TV coverage NASA climate scientist James Hansen generated at his 1988 appearance before the US Congress, there were no cameras when UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher addressed the Royal Society on September 27,1988. Told that the prime minister’s speech was going to be on climate change, the BBC decided it wouldn’t make the TV news.

The speech had been a long time in the making. Flying back from visiting French President François Mitterrand in Paris in May 1984, Thatcher asked her officials if any of them had any new policy ideas for the forthcoming Group of Seven (G7) summit in London. Sir Crispin Tickell, then a deputy-undersecretary at the Foreign Office, suggested climate change and how it might figure in the G7 agenda.

The next day, Tickell was summoned to No 10 Downing St to brief the prime minister. The eventual result was to make environmental problems a specific item, and a statement in the London G7 communiqué duly referred to the international dimension of environmental problems and the role of environmental factors, including climate change. Environment ministers were instructed to report back to the G7 meeting at Bonn the following year, and duly did so.

Tickell’s interest in climate change dated from the mid 1970s. Influenced by reading Hubert Lamb’s book Climate History and the Modern World, Tickell took the opportunity of a one-year fellowship at Harvard to study the relationship between climate change and world affairs and wrote a book on the subject in 1977. By 1987, Tickell had been appointed Britain’s ambassador to the UN and informally was acting as Thatcher’s envoy on global warming, his position at the UN making him privy to gossip from other nations.

On two occasions, Thatcher recalled him from New York to brief her.

Tickell was always struck by her determined approach; in the world of politics, Thatcher was a woman in a man’s world and someone with scientific training in a non-scientific world. To meet the test, you had to know what you were talking about; if she challenged you, you needed to be sure of your ground; she could be remarkably vigorous, Tickell found. The prime minister wanted the government to grasp the importance of global warming.

The Royal Society - the perfect forum
Ministers were called to No10 for briefings by climate scientists. “You are to listen, not to speak,” the prime minister told them. Returning to England for his summer holiday in 1988, Tickell called on Thatcher and suggested she make a major speech on global warming. She thought the Royal Society would be the perfect forum for it. She spent two weekends working on the draft with George Guise, one of her policy advisers.

In the speech, Thatcher addressed the society as a scientist and a fellow who happened to be prime minister. Environment policy was her main subject. Action to cut power station emissions and reduce acid rain was being undertaken “at great and necessary expense,” she said, building up to her main theme. “The health of the economy and the health of the environment are totally dependent on each other,” implicitly rejecting the view of conventional economics of there being a trade-off between resources used for environmental protection which couldn’t be used to raise output or increase consumption.

It was also clear that the G7’s endorsement of sustainable development had not been an oversight or meant to be taken lightly, as far as she was concerned. “The government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development,” she stated, although the new policy had not been discussed collectively by ministers beforehand or with Nigel Lawson, the chancellor of the exchequer.

The eclipse that proved relativity
Thatcher concluded her speech by referring to one of the most famous events in the Royal Society’s history, when in 1919 Arthur Eddington displayed the photographic plates taken during the total eclipse of the sun earlier that year. The eclipse enabled Eddington to record whether light from distant stars was bent by the sun’s gravity and verify a prediction of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Cambridge philosopher Alfred Whitehead witnessed Eddington’s demonstration. The scene, tense as a Greek drama, he wrote, was played out beneath the portrait of Isaac Newton, the society’s 12th president, “to remind us that the greatest of scientific generalisations was now, after more than two centuries, to receive its first modification.”

In Vienna, reports of it thrilled the 17-year-old Karl Popper. What particularly impressed Popper was the risk implied by Einstein’s theory, that light from distant stars would be deflected by the sun’s mass, because it could be subjected to a definitive test: “If observation shows that the predicted effect is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted. The theory is incompatible with certain possible results of observation – in fact with results which everybody before Einstein would have expected.”

These considerations led Popper to argue that the criterion for assessing the scientific status of a theory should be its capacity to generate predictions that could, in principle, be refuted by empirical evidence, what Popper called its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.

Reprinted with permission from The Age of Global Warming: A History, published by Quartet Books, London

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