Thatcher told UN - markets must face limits to prevent climate change

Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her premiership when she took to the podium at the United Nations general assembly on the global environment held at the UN building in New York on 8 November 1989, writes BRENDAN MONTAGUE

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

Margaret Thatcher took to the stage at the United Nations and outlined her apparent mission to save the world.

“It is life itself - human life, the innumerable species of our planet - that we wantonly destroy. It is life itself that we must battle to preserve,” she told the world's political leaders.

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

The darling of the free market would directly address the apparent conflict between ecological conservation and economic growth: “We must have continued economic growth in order to generate the wealth required to pay for the protection of the environment. But it must be growth which does not plunder the planet today and leave our children to deal with the consequences tomorrow.”

Industry, she argued, has a positive role to play. “The multinationals have to take the long view,” she insisted. “There will be no profit or satisfaction for anyone if pollution continues to destroy our planet. The market itself acts as a corrective, the new products sell and those which caused environmental damage are disappearing from the shelves.”

Humility and Respect

She qualified this statement by adding: “We should always remember that free markets are a means to an end. They would defeat their object if by their output they did more damage to the quality of life through pollution than the well-being they achieve by the production of goods and services.”

Thatcher wanted action, not words. She demanded that both the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) - parent organisations to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - were strengthened.

Thatcher wanted to see a binding international framework convention on climate change in time for the World Conference on Environment and Development, which was due to be held in just over two years.

“But a framework is not enough,” she warned. “It will need to be filled out with specific undertakings, or protocols in diplomatic language, on the different aspects of climate change.

“These protocols must be binding and there must be effective regimes to supervise and monitor their application. Otherwise those nations which accept and abide by environmental agreements, thus adding to their industrial costs, will lose out competitively to those who do not.”

The IPCC must meet its targets: “We must not allow ourselves to be diverted into fruitless and divisive argument,” she continued. “Time is too short for that.”

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

Her conclusion could not have contrasted more starkly with economist Friedrich Hayek's attack on reason the previous year.

She argued: “Today, we have learned rather more humility and respect for the balance of nature. But another of the beliefs of Charles Darwin's era should help to see us through - the belief in reason and the scientific method.

“Reason is humanity's special gift…Now we must use our reason to find a way in which we can live with nature, and not dominate nature.”

She then ended on a religious note: “We are not the lords, we are the Lord's creatures, the trustees of this planet, charged today with preserving life itself–preserving life with all its mystery and all its wonder - may we all be equal to that task.”

Creative Solutions

The prime minister was as good as her word and on returning from the United Nations she established and secured funding for the Hadley Centre for Climate Protection and Research at the Met Office.

The IPCC submitted its first “assessment review” to to the UN general assembly in October 1990.

A framework convention on climate change was scheduled for the UN Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED), scheduled for Rio de Janeiro in June 1992.

The then US president George Bush confirmed that “the United States is strongly committed to the IPCC process of international co-operation on global climate change,” adding: “Well informed free markets yield the most creative solutions.”  

Towards the end of the year his Secretary of State James Baker resigned because he owned shares in oil companies.

The international campaign to muster the political will to save the world from catastrophic climate change was launched by the podium of the United Nations in November 1989.

It was launched by the champion of the free market, Margaret Thatcher. In the coming decade the market, and its most powerful constituents, the major oil companies, would respond with equal certainty and resolve.

Lawson Boom

She spoke again at the Second World Climate Conference held at the Palais des Nations, Geneva on 6 November 1990: “The need for more research should not be an excuse for delaying much needed action now,” she demanded. “There is already a clear case for precautionary action at an international level.”

Then 16 days later she would resign as prime minister.

Thatcher had been mortally wounded by her chancellor Nigel Lawson's resignation. The election results of June that year had been “an unmitigated disaster for the government”.

The drubbing at the ballot box was due mainly to the steep rise in interest rates Lawson had imposed at the end of his chancellorship in a desperate attempt to stem inflation and control what became known as the Lawson Boom.

The market appeared not only to be free but wildly and damagingly out of control.

The government was rocked by a series of disasters and scandals, culminating in the Poll Tax riots in Trafalgar Square and Geoffrey Howe resigning as deputy prime minister in November 1990.

He was the last remaining member of Thatcher's first cabinet and had been considered among her closest allies at the beginning of her political career.

His resignation made it impossible for the prime minister to continue. The member of the Mont Pelerin Society and close associate of the Institute of Economic Affairs had, in many ways, made Thatcher and now he chose to break her.

Thatcher announced her intention to resign after 11 years in power. The following week she was photographed leaving 10 Downing Street in a government Jaguar, attempting to suppress tears of fury and betrayal.

Years later she would mysteriously reverse her principled stance on climate change in what would be a vital and exhilarating coup for the sceptics.

This Author

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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