Donald Trump is a great fan of Maggie Thatcher. We know this because he and former British prime minister Theresa May talked about their “shared admiration” for the Iron Lady, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990 and remains a conservative icon to this day, when they met at the White House three years ago.
What would Mrs. Thatcher (as she preferred to be called) have made of Mr. Trump’s performance at the World Economic Forum in Davos Tuesday?
She would have hated it, not because it was blatant electioneering – “America is thriving like never before,” he boasted – but because he also used it to dismiss climate activists as “the perennial prophets of doom” and to decry their “pessimism.” He might have been channelling Richard Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, who described critics of the administration as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” although Mr. Agnew did alliteration better.
Mrs. Thatcher would no doubt have sided with Greta Thunberg, who spoke at Davos before Mr. Trump and decried the failure of governments and industries to reduce the output of greenhouse gases. The Swedish teenager said “pretty much nothing has been done” – and she was right.
Mr. Trump probably does not realize that Mrs. Thatcher was a pioneering climate activist who was years, even decades, ahead of her time. Her climate campaign seems to have been forgotten among today’s conservatives, who maintain deep respect for her promotion of individual rights and liberties, her support for free markets and deregulation and her belief, shared with Ronald Reagan, that the state was incapable of taking care of society. In fact, she declared that “there’s no such thing as society."
Yet her passionate environmental speech before the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 was a cry for collective action to prevent the destruction of society through severe climate change. She said “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.”
Mrs. Thatcher made a lot of remarkable speeches, but this one was particularly startling because it seemed out of character. Yet it wasn’t, really. She studied chemistry at Oxford and was a research chemist before she became a politician. She believed in science and would have no use for the skeptics who believe anthropogenic climate change is a hoax.
What was equally remarkable about the speech was the timing, Nov. 8 – the day before the Berlin Wall came down. Just as Mr. Trump used Davos to promote his (alleged) economic accomplishments, Mrs. Thatcher could have used her UN appearance to declare victory in the Cold War – with a little help from Mr. Reagan and Pope John Paul II. But she didn’t, much to the apparent bewilderment of the audience.
Mrs. Thatcher’s speech was 33 minutes long and came three years before the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which begat the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was eloquent, lucid, simple, well-paced and devoid of clichés. She spoke in full sentences and peppered her talk with references to Charles Darwin, the Garden of Eden and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Above all, it was convincing. She calmly laid out the threat posed by environmental degradation and the dramatic rise in carbon dioxide emissions; went over the latest scientific research, including “significant thinning of the sea ice” in the Antarctic; made her plea for collective action; and called for a framework convention on climate change – “a sort of good conduct guide for all nations.”
“Put in its bluntest form: The main threat to our environment is more and more people and their activities. The land they cultivate more intensively. The forests they cut down and burn. The mountainsides they lay bare. The fossil fuels they burn. The rivers and seas they pollute,” she said. “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.”
She called for the use of biodegradable plastics, encouraged the use of nuclear energy and warned that environmental damage would be self-defeating for industry. “There will be no profit or satisfaction for anyone if pollution continues to destroy our planet,” she said.
Sadly, Mrs. Thatcher’s green phase did not last long. A year after her landmark UN speech, she was effectively ousted as Conservative Party leader. She did not attend the 1992 Earth Summit and barely spoke about the environment in her retirement years. She died in 2013.
But there is no doubt that she, for a brief, shining moment, put the environment high on the international agenda at a time when global leaders were not talking about climate change. Were she at Davos this week, she no doubt would have kept it high on the agenda, much to the alarm of Mr. Trump.