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Margaret Thatcher - UN General Assembly Climate Change Speech (1989)

Updated: Jan 16



"I have great pleasure in welcoming the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Excellency the Right Honourable Margaret Thatcher. I invite her to address the General Assembly.


"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 I and others delivered was one of encouragement for the organization to play the significant role allotted to it.


Of all the challenges faced by the world community in those four years, one has become clearer than any other in both urgency and importance: the threat to our global environment. I take this opportunity to address the General Assembly solely on this subject.


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, appearing to him like a framed engraving, consisted of 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 on the evolution of coral reefs.


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 Earth than these two facts: First, as 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 want to preserve. Destroying it is unthinkable. 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 hasn't 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, along with her allies, which were long frozen in suspicion and hostility, have begun to thaw. In Europe, this year, freedom has been on the march. In southern Africa, in Namibia and Angola, the United Nations has succeeded in holding out better prospects for an end to war and 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 what we are now doing to the world – degrading the land surfaces, polluting the waters, 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. And now, as we gaze down at our planet from the heavens, the message is clear: We must protect this precious gift of life itself, the dream that we must battle to preserve for future generations. This is a task for all of us, a task that must be undertaken with urgency and dedication by every nation and every individual.


As we stand here at the United Nations, we must commit ourselves anew to this vital mission. The future of our planet, and the legacy we leave for the generations to come, depends on the choices we make today. Let us choose wisely and act with the responsibility that this grave situation demands."


"We can find examples in the past, and indeed, we may well conclude that it was the silting up of the River Euphrates which drove mankind 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, 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. We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere, with an annual increase of 3 billion tons. Half of the carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution still remains in the atmosphere.


At the same time, we're seeing the destruction of tropical forests on a vast scale. These forests 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 the current rates of clearance, we shall have removed 65 percent of forests in the humid tropical zones by the year 2000.


The consequences of this become clearer when one remembers that tropical forests fix more than ten 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 halogens and chlorofluorocarbons. But, at least we have recognized that reducing and eventually stopping the emission of CFCs is one positive step we can take against 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 that go with them. When I was born, the world's population was some two billion people. My grandson will grow up in a world of more than six 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 mountainsides they lay bare, the fossil fuels they burn, the rivers and the seas they pollute.


The result is that change in the 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.


We are constantly learning more about these changes affecting our environment. 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, if not deeper than, the depletion in the worst year to date." He also reports on a significant thinning of the sea ice.

He continues, "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."


These are sobering indications of what may happen, leading my correspondent to propose the idea of a world polar watch, among other initiatives, to observe the world's climate system and understand how it works.


Furthermore, we have new scientific evidence about the role of 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. However, 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.

Mr. President, the evidence is there. The damage is being done. What do we, the international community, do about it? The action required is primarily for individual nations or groups of nations to take. However, it is also a collective responsibility of the international community to address these environmental challenges."


"I'm thinking, for example, of actions to address the pollution of rivers. Many of us now see fish returning to rivers from which they had previously disappeared. I'm considering actions to improve agricultural methods, like good husbandry, which nourishes the soil rather than the 'cut and burn' methods that have damaged and degraded much land in some parts of the world. And, I'm thinking of the use of nuclear power, which, despite the attitudes of so-called greens, is the most environmentally safe form of energy.


However, the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all, and action will only be effective if it's taken at the international level. It's not productive to squabble 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 must look forward, not backward, to truly succeed in addressing these problems through a vast international cooperative effort. Before we act, we need the best possible scientific assessment; otherwise, we risk exacerbating the issues. Science must guide our steps in the right direction. The United Kingdom has agreed to coordinate such an assessment within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which will be available to everyone by the time of the second World Climate Conference next year.


However, the report will not be able to predict specific occurrences, like where hurricanes will strike, who will be flooded, or the frequency and severity of droughts. Yet, we need to know these details to adapt to future climate changes. This means we must expand our capacity to model and predict climate change. Britain, with some of the leading experts in this field, is establishing a new center for the prediction of climate change to lead this effort.


In addition to science, we must also get the economics right. This means we must pursue economic growth that doesn't plunder the planet, leaving our children to face the consequences. We also must avoid simplistically blaming modern multinational industries for environmental damage. These industries are essential for developing solutions, like safe alternative chemicals for refrigerators and air conditioning, biodegradable plastics, and methods to treat pollutants and make nuclear waste safe.


As people become more environmentally conscious, they are turning increasingly to ozone-friendly and other environmentally safe products. The market acts as a corrective; environmentally damaging products are disappearing from our shelves. By making these new products widely available, industries enable developing countries to avoid many mistakes made by older industrialized countries.


We need to build a strong framework for international action. It is not new institutions that we need, but rather we need to strengthen and improve those that already exist. In particular, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme should be bolstered. The United Kingdom has recently more than doubled its contribution to UNEP, and we encourage others who can afford it to do the same.


Furthermore, the central organs of the United Nations, like this General Assembly, must be engaged with this problem, which reaches into virtually all aspects of their work and will continue to do so in the future. The most pressing task at the international level is to negotiate a Framework Convention on Climate Change, a sort of good conduct guide for all nations.


We have a model in the actions already taken to protect the ozone layer, such as the Vienna Convention in 1985 and the Montreal Protocol in 1987. These established landmarks in international law, aiming to prevent rather than just cure global environmental problems. We should aim to have a convention on global climate change ready by the time the World Conference on Environment and Development meets in 1992. This will be one of the most important conferences the United Nations has ever held.


I hope we shall all accept the responsibility to adhere to this timeline. The 1992 conference is already being discussed in many countries and places, and I particularly draw attention to the valuable discussions among members of the Commonwealth under the Prime Ministership of Malaysia at our recent meeting in Kuala Lumpur.


A framework alone isn't enough; it must be filled with specific undertakings or protocols on different aspects of climate change. These protocols must be binding, with effective regimes to supervise and monitor their application. The negotiation of these protocols, particularly those controlling emissions of carbon dioxide, will be challenging. We can't do nothing, but our measures must be based on sound scientific analysis.


In the past, there has been a tendency to solve one environmental problem at the expense of creating others. The United Kingdom proposes that the role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change be extended beyond its report next year, providing an authoritative scientific base for the negotiation of protocols. We can then set targets for reducing greenhouse gases and determine each country's contribution to achieving these targets.


In conclusion, the challenge for our negotiators is immense, comparable to any disarmament treaty. We must not allow ourselves to be diverted into fruitless and divisive arguments, as time is too short for that. We must act together, informed by sound science and economics, to protect our environment for future generations."


"I'm thinking, for example, of actions to address the pollution of rivers, where we now see fish returning to rivers from which they had disappeared. I'm considering actions to improve agricultural methods, such as good husbandry that nourishes the soil, rather than the 'cut and burn' approach that has damaged and degraded much land in some parts of the world. And, I'm thinking of the use of nuclear power, which, despite the attitudes of so-called 'greens,' is the most environmentally safe form of energy.


However, the problem of global climate change affects us all, and action will only be effective if it's taken at the international level. It's 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 patterns of rains and monsoons were to change due to the destruction of forests and the accumulation of greenhouse gases.


We must look forward, not backward, to truly succeed in dealing with these problems through international cooperative effort. Before we act, we need the best possible scientific assessment; otherwise, we risk making matters worse. The United Kingdom has agreed to take on the task of coordinating such an assessment within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to be available by the second World Climate Conference next year.


But this report will not be able to predict specific events like hurricanes or floods. Therefore, we must expand our capacity to model and predict climate change. The United Kingdom is establishing a new center for the prediction of climate change, which will be open to experts from all over the world, especially from developing countries.


In addition to science, we need to get the economics right. This means continued economic growth to generate the wealth required for environmental protection, but in a way that does not plunder the planet. We must resist the simplistic tendency to blame modern multinational industries for environmental damage. Instead, it is on these industries that we rely to develop the solutions we need. It's these industries that will develop safe alternative chemicals for refrigerators and air conditioning, devise biodegradable plastics, and find ways to treat pollutants and make nuclear waste safe. Many companies already have massive research programs.


The multinationals have to take the long view. There will be no profit or satisfaction for anyone if pollution continues to destroy our planet. As public consciousness of environmental needs rises, people are increasingly turning to ozone-friendly and other environmentally safe products. The market itself acts as a corrective; new, environmentally friendly products sell well, while those causing environmental damage are disappearing from shelves.


In terms of agriculture, we recognize that farmers not only produce food efficiently but also need to conserve the beauty and heritage of our countryside. We encourage them to reduce the intensity of their methods and to conserve wildlife habitats. We are planting new woods and forests, with a 50% increase in tree planting in Britain in the last 10 years. We also aim to reduce chemical inputs to the soil and are introducing measures to address the complex problem of nitrates in water.


Our environmental agenda for the coming decade will cover energy, transport, agriculture, and industry. With regard to energy, we have a program to reduce acid rain emissions from our power stations and are examining the role of non-fossil fuel sources, including nuclear power. For transport, we are seeking ways to control vehicle emissions and develop lean-burn engines.


We shall help poorer countries cope with their environmental problems through our aid program, giving special help to manage and preserve tropical forests. I can announce today that we aim to commit an additional 100 million pounds to tropical forestry activities over the next three years, mostly within the framework of the tropical forestry action plan.


The environmental challenge facing the world demands a response from every country, and no one can opt out. We must work through this great organization and its agencies to secure worldwide agreements on ways to cope with the effects of climate change, the thinning of the ozone layer, and the loss of precious species. We need a realistic program of action and a realistic timetable, with contributions from each country.


Finally, I would like to mention the belief in reason and the scientific method, crucial for understanding and mastering the natural world. This approach led to the high points of scientific discovery, such as Charles Darwin's voyages and his work on the theory of evolution. Today, we've learned to approach nature with more humility and respect for its balance. As we move forward, we must use our reason not to dominate nature, but to coexist with it responsibly. This stewardship is our duty as the trustees of this planet, charged with preserving life in all its mystery and wonder. Thank you, Mr. President."




This speech emphasizes the need for responsible stewardship of the environment, urging collective international action and scientific reasoning to address global environmental challenges. The speaker highlights the importance of multinational industries in finding environmental solutions and calls for global cooperation to preserve the planet's biodiversity and natural resources.




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