On November 8th 1989, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave an inspiring speech to the UN General Assembly about the environment and climate change. Over the course of her half hour speech, she set out the problems we face and how we could resolve them. It was one of a number of inspiring climate change speeches by the then Prime Minister.
President: I have good pleasure in welcoming the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, High Excellency The Right Honorable Margaret Thatcher and I invite her to address the General Assembly.
Margaret Thatcher – British Prime Minister (1989)
Mr President, it gives me great pleasure to return to the Podium of this assembly. When I last spoke here four years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the United Nations, the message that I and others like me gave was one of encouragement to the organization to play the great role allotted to it.
Of all the challenges faced by the world community in those four years, one has grown clearer than any other in both urgency and importance — I refer to the threat to our global environment. I shall take the opportunity of addressing the General Assembly to speak on that subject alone.
During his historic voyage through the South Seas on the Beagle, Charles Darwin landed one November morning in 1835 on the shore of Western Tahiti.
After breakfast he climbed a nearby hill to find a vantage point to survey the surrounding Pacific. The sight seemed to him like “a framed engraving”, with blue sky, blue lagoon, and white breakers crashing against the encircling Coral Reef.
As he looked out from that hillside, he began to form his theory of the evolution of coral; 154 years after Darwin’s visit to Tahiti we have added little to what he discovered then.
What if Charles Darwin had been able, not just to climb a foothill, but to soar through the heavens in one of the orbiting space shuttles?
What would he have learned as he surveyed our planet from that altitude? From a moon’s eye view of that strange and beautiful anomaly in our solar system that is the earth?
Of course, we have learned much detail about our environment as we have looked back at it from space, but nothing has made a more profound impact on us than these two facts.
First, as the British scientist Fred Hoyle wrote long before space travel was a reality, he said “once a photograph of the earth, taken from the outside is available… a new idea as powerful as any other in history will be let loose”.
That powerful idea is the recognition of our shared inheritance on this planet. We know more clearly than ever before that we carry common burdens, face common problems, and must respond with common action.
And second, as we travel through space, as we pass one dead planet after another, we look back on our earth, a speck of life in an infinite void. It is life itself, incomparably precious, that distinguishes us from the other planets.
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.
For over 40 years, that has been the main task of this United Nations:
To bring peace where there was war.
Comfort where there was misery.
Life where there was death.
The struggle has not always been successful. There have been years of failure.
But recent events have brought the promise of a new dawn, of new hope. Relations between the Western nations and the Soviet Union and her allies, long frozen in suspicion and hostility, have begun to thaw.
In Europe, this year, freedom has been on the march.
In Southern Africa — Namibia and Angola — the United Nations has succeeded in holding out better prospects for an end to war and for the beginning of prosperity.
And in Southeast Asia, too, we can dare to hope for the restoration of peace after decades of fighting.
While the conventional, political dangers — the threat of global annihilation, the fact of regional war — appear to be receding, we have all recently become aware of another insidious danger.
It is as menacing in its way as those more accustomed perils with which international diplomacy has concerned itself for centuries.
It is the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to earth itself.
Of course, major changes in the earth’s climate and environment have taken place in earlier centuries when the world’s population was a fraction of its present size.
The causes are to be found in nature itself — changes in the earth’s orbit, changes in the amount of radiation given off by the sun, the consequential effects on the plankton in the ocean and in volcanic processes.
All these we can observe and some we may be able to predict. But we don’t have the power to prevent or control them.
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 — all this is new in the experience of the earth. 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. Indeed we may well conclude that it was the silting up of the River Euphrates which drove man out of the Garden of Eden.
We also have the example of the tragedy of Easter Island, where people arrived by boat to find a primeval forest. In time the population increased to over 9,000 souls and the demand placed upon the environment resulted in its eventual destruction as people cut down the trees. This in turn led to warfare over the scarce remaining resources and the population crashed to a few hundred people without even enough wood to make boats to escape.
The difference now is in the scale of the damage we are doing.
Vast Increase In Carbon Dioxide
We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere. The annual increase is 3 billion tons, and half the carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution still remains in the atmosphere.
At the same time as this is happening, we are seeing the destruction on a vast scale of tropical forests which are uniquely able to remove carbon dioxide from the air.
Every year an area of forest equal to the whole surface of the United Kingdom is destroyed. At present rates of clearance we shall, by the year 2000, have removed 65% of forests in the humid tropical zones.
The consequences of this become clearer when one remembers that tropical forests fix more than 10 times as much carbon as do forests in the temperate zones.
We now know, too, that great damage is being done to the Ozone Layer by the production of halons and chlorofluorocarbons. But at least we have recognized that reducing and eventually stopping the emission of CFCs is one positive thing we can do about the menacing accumulation of greenhouse gases.
It is of course true that none of us would be here but for the greenhouse effect. It gives us the moist atmosphere which sustains life on earth. We need the greenhouse effect — but only in the right proportions.
More than anything, our environment is threatened by the sheer numbers of people and the plants and animals which go with them. When I was born the world’s population was some 2 billion people. My [Michael Thatcher] grandson will grow up in a world of more than 6 billion people.
Put in its bluntest form: the main threat to our environment is more and more people, and their activities — the land they cultivate ever more intensively; the forests they cut down and burn; the mountain sides they lay bare; the fossil fuels they burn; the rivers and the seas they pollute.
The result is that change in future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto. Change to the sea around us, change to the atmosphere above, leading in turn to change in the world’s climate, which could alter the way we live in the most fundamental way of all.
That prospect is a new factor in human affairs. It is comparable in its implications to the discovery of how to split the atom. Indeed, its results could be even more far-reaching.
The Latest Scientific Evidence – 1989
We are constantly learning more about these changes affecting our environment, and scientists from the Polar Institute in Cambridge and The British Antarctic Survey have been at the leading edge of research in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, warning us of the greater dangers that lie ahead.
Let me quote from a letter that I received only two weeks ago, from a British scientist on-board a ship in the Antarctic Ocean. He wrote, “In the Polar Regions today, we are seeing what may be early signs of man-induced climatic change. Data coming in from Halley Bay and from instruments aboard the ship on which I am sailing show that we are entering a Spring Ozone depletion which is as deep as, if not deeper, than the depletion in the worst year to date. It completely reverses the recovery observed in 1988. The lowest recording aboard this ship is only 150 Dobson units for Ozone total content during September, compared with 300 for the same season in a normal year.” That of course is a very severe depletion.
He also reports on a significant thinning of the sea ice, and he writes that, in the Antarctic, he says “Our data confirm that the first-year ice, which forms the bulk of sea ice cover, is remarkably thin and so is probably unable to sustain significant atmospheric warming without melting. Sea ice, separates the ocean from the atmosphere over an area of more than 30 million square kilometers. It reflects most of the solar radiation falling on it, helping to cool the earth’s surface. If this area were reduced, the warming of earth would be accelerated due to the extra absorption of radiation by the ocean.”
“The lesson of these Polar processes,” he goes on, “is that an environmental or climatic change produced by man may take on a self-sustaining or ‘runaway’ quality … and may be irreversible.” That is from the scientists who are doing work on the ship that is presently considering these matters.
These are sobering indications of what may happen and they led my correspondent to put forward the interesting idea of a World Polar Watch, amongst other initiatives, which will observe the world’s climate system and allow us to understand how it works.
We also have new scientific evidence from an entirely different area, the Tropical Forests. Through their capacity to evaporate vast volumes of water vapor, and of gases and particles which assist the formation of clouds, the forests serve to keep their regions cool and moist by weaving a sunshade of white reflecting clouds and by bringing the rain that sustains them.
A recent study by our British Meteorological Office on the Amazon rainforest shows that large-scale deforestation may reduce rainfall and thus affect the climate directly. Past experience shows us that without trees there is no rain, and without rain there are no trees.
The Scope For International Action
Mr. President, the evidence is there. The damage is being done. What do we, the International Community, do about it?
In some areas, the action required is primarily for individual nations or groups of nations to take.
I am thinking for example of action to deal with pollution of rivers — and many of us now see the fish back in rivers from which they had disappeared.
I am thinking of action to improve agricultural methods — good husbandry which ploughs back nourishment into the soil rather than the cut-and-burn which has damaged and degraded so much land in some parts of the world.
And I am thinking of the use of nuclear power which — despite the attitude of so-called greens — is the most environmentally safe form of energy.
But the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level.
It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay. Whole areas of our planet could be subject to drought and starvation if the pattern of rains and monsoons were to change as a result of the destruction of forests and the accumulation of greenhouse gases.
We have to look forward not backward and we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort.
Before we act, we need the best possible scientific assessment: otherwise we risk making matters worse. We must use science to cast a light ahead, so that we can move step by step in the right direction.