How Margaret Thatcher came to sound the climate alarm

Margaret Thatcher was the first world leader to put climate change at the top of the agenda. Lord Lawson, her chancellor then, is now a mouthpiece for climate denial. So how does he explain her political support for the scientific consensus? BRENDAN MONTAGUE investigates

I took her through the whole story of climate change, how it worked, the importance of greenhouse gases, and what the temperature of the planet would be without them.

Margaret Thatcher's contribution to the climate debate while British prime minister would cause her free market fellows considerable difficulty in the coming decades. They would spark speculation that the PM, in her prime, was 'taken in by environmentalists'. 

Lord Lawson, then her chancellor, preferred to believe that Thatcher was engaged in a Machiavellian deception of the British public in order to justify her use of newly discovered North Sea gas to shut down most of the country's mining industry, with the loss of 100,000 jobs. But can this be true?

Sir Crispin Tickell went to the same school as Lawson, and both men then went on to Oxford, with Tickell eventually becoming a career diplomat. He is widely acknowledged as the man who persuaded Thatcher to adopt the climate cause, and was responsible for drafting much of her speech to the Royal Society.  

The pioneering and brilliant Sir Crispin first heard of climate change during the Stockholm conference of scientists in 1972, and took a sabbatical from the civil service to study the subject at Harvard University.

He also happened to be among the advisors taken on an official visit to France with the Prime Minister shortly afterwards.

Washing dishes

During the short flight, one of Thatcher's aides indicated that she had a few spare minutes and would welcome any interesting suggestions for her contribution to the United Nations summit, to be held in London the following year.

Sir Crispin raised his hand and was taken to the front of the plane to brief the PM on his suggestion. Some weeks later, Sir Crispin found himself washing dishes with Thatcher after a meeting at the House of Commons.

“I took her through the whole story of climate change, how it worked, the importance of greenhouse gases, and what the temperature of the planet would be without them.” Thatcher said: “Alright, let's have a look into this.”

Sir Crispin told me: “She very much felt herself to be a scientist among non-scientists, and of course she certainly felt that, as a woman in a man-made world, she had to make her point.”

“People have attributed [her speech] to all kinds of manoeuvring to score advantage. But I think it was a much more genuine intellectual interest.”

Sir Crispin, who was 82 years old and as bright as a button when we met, remembered countering Lawson's scepticism even back then. The two men had known of each other since they both attended Westminster School as young boys.

“I remember an occasion with him and Jimmy Goldsmith; the three of us had a fight on the subject, but he was already dug in. The thing about Nigel is that he gets dug in on something and that means he can't get out again.” 

I took her through the whole story of climate change, how it worked, the importance of greenhouse gases, and what the temperature of the planet would be without them.

Ignored majestically

He added: “He gradually got out of touch, out of tune, out of sync with Thatcher on quite a lot of the days when he was battling it out with Margaret Thatcher, he was ignored by her majestically.”

Thatcher met with the independent scientist, James Lovelock, in May 1984. Two years earlier, Lovelock had published his seminal book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, which introduced his controversial Gaia hypothesis, suggesting the earth was a single living organism.

He warned that climate change would ultimately mean that “most of the surface of the globe will change into desert. The survivors will gather around the Arctic. But there won't be enough room for everybody, so there will be wars raging populations, warlords.” 

Lovelock later became patron of the Supporters of Nuclear Energy (SONE). The industry group was set up by Sir Bernard Ingham, Thatcher's friend and press secretary before becoming a lobbyist for British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL).

Lovelock's meeting would later resurface as evidence that she simply used climate change to promote her nuclear agenda.

Another significant influence on Thatcher's attitude towards the relationship between science and industry was Lord Rothschild, the one-time member of the MI5 anti-sabotage unit and then research director of Royal Dutch Shell Group.

Edward Health had hired him in February 1971 as part of the Central Policy Review Staff which was a think tank at the heart of government.

A financial motive

Prime Minister Heath had called the young Thatcher, then education minister, to his office at 10 Downing Street the following April to discuss the governmental funding of science.

Thatcher began the meeting defending the scientific community. “It was felt that the system was now working better than it had ever worked before”, an official noted her saying.

Her “main concern” was “to ensure that no change was made against the wishes of the scientists without having been consulted”. By the end of the meeting, the education secretary had reversed her position.

She agreed that funding would no longer support projects of general interest, but would be granted only when there was a demonstrable benefit to the industry.

This was a fundamental change in policy, agreed in private and without the consultation of scientists.

Jon Agar, publishing with the Royal Society, would state that: “Thatcher had changed her mind. She now embraced the relevance of the market in shaping key areas of government science, and had already moved into 'tactical' considerations of how to sell the conclusion. The lady had turned.” [PDF]

He added: “Science [was for Thatcher] even more of a test case for her developing views on economic liberalism. If markets could work for science policy, they could work anywhere.”

The man from Shell and MI5 had persuaded Thatcher that science, as with everything else, must have a financial motive.

But there is an even more curious and controversial version of events about Thatcher's road to Damascus…

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Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press)He tweets at @EcoMontague. This article first appeared at

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