Margaret Thatcher: The First Warmist

  • Date: 09/04/13
  • Rupert Darwall, The Age of Global Warming

Unlike the blanket TV coverage NASA climate scientist James Hansen generated at his 1988 appearance before Congress, there were no cameras when British prime minister Margaret Thatcher addressed the Royal Society on 27th September 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 Number 10 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 United Nations and informally was acting as Thatcher’s envoy on global warming, his position at the UN making him privy to gossip from other nations.

When Margaret Thatcher opened the Hadley Center  in May 1990 she said “… greenhouse gases are increasing substantially as a result of Man’s activities; … this will warm the Earth’s surface, with serious consequences for us all, and … these consequences are capable of prediction. We want to predict them more accurately and that is why we are opening this Centre today.”

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.

Ministers were called to Number 10 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 advisors.

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.

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 generalizations 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 Ein-stein’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.

Every “good” scientific theory is a prohibition. The more a theory forbids, the better it is. Scientists should therefore devise tests designed to yield evidence that the theory prohibits, rather than search for what the theory confirms. If we look for them, Popper argued, it is easy to find confirmations for nearly every theory. “Only a theory which asserts or implies that certain conceivable events will not, in fact, happen is testable,” Popper explained in a lecture in 1963. “The test consists in trying to bring about, with all the means we can muster, precisely these events which the theory tells us cannot occur.”

In 1988, proponents of global warming did not provide a similar black and white predictive test of the key proposition of global warming: the degree of warming with increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is therefore incapable of being falsified. The issue is not the capacity of carbon dioxide to absorb radiation in a test tube, which had first been demonstrated by John Tyndall in 1859, but the effect of increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases on the temperature of the atmosphere. An answer can only be derived from empirical observation.

Scientists Roger Revelle and Hans Suess’s characterization of mankind carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment, further illustrates global warming’s weakness as a scientific statement and its strength as a political idea. While prejudging the results of an experiment constitutes bad science, the proposition simultaneously generates powerful calls to halt the experiment before it is concluded. Yet questioning the science would inevitably be seen as weakening the political will to act. It created a symbiotic dependence between science and politics that marks 1988 as a turning point in the history of science and the start of a new chapter in the affairs of mankind.

Two years later, Mrs. Thatcher would address the UN: “We must have continued economic growth in order to generate the wealth required to pay for the protection of the environment,” she told the General Assembly, “But it must be growth which does not plunder the planet today and leave our children to deal with the consequences tomorrow.”

In the past growth happened. Now it had to be the right sort.

Excerpt from “The Age of Global Warming: A History,” published this month by Quartet Books, London.

Financial Post, 13 March 2013