Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to United Nations General Assembly (Global Environment)

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: United Nations Building, New York
Source: Thatcher Archive
Editorial comments: Text as printed and released by the No.10 Press Office.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4051
Themes: Agriculture, Energy, Environment, Foreign policy - theory and process, Foreign policy (development, aid, etc), Foreign policy (International organizations), Science & technology, Transport

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 organisation 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 advantage 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 [end p1] 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 forty 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 South East 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 the [end p2] 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 do not 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.


We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere. The annual increase is three billion tonnes: 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 per cent of forests in the humid tropical zones. [end p3]

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 halons and chlorofluorocarbons. But at least we have recognised 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 Thatchergrandson 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.


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. [end p4]

Let me quote from a letter 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, “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 kilometres. 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 vapour, 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. [end p5]


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.

The United Kingdom has agreed to take on the task of co-ordinating such an assessment within the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, an assessment which will be available to everyone by the time of the Second World Climate Conference next year.

But that will take us only so far. The report will not be able to tell us where the hurricanes will be striking; who will be flooded; or how often and how severe the droughts will be. Yet we will need to know these things if we are to adapt to future climate change, and that [end p6] means we must expand our capacity to model and predict climate change. We can test our skills and methods by seeing whether they would have successfully predicted past climate change for which historical records exist.

Britain has some of the leading experts in this field and I am pleased to be able to tell you that the United Kingdom will be establishing a new centre for the prediction of climate change, which will lead the effort to improve our prophetic capacity.

It will also provide the advanced computing facilities that scientists need. And it will be open to experts from all over the world, especially from the developing countries, who can come to the United Kingdom and contribute to this vital work.

But as well as the science, we need to get the economics right. That means first 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.

And second, we must resist the simplistic tendency to blame modern multinational industry for the damage which is being done to the environment. Far from being the villains, it is on them that we rely to do the research and find the solutions.

It is industry which will develop safe alternative chemicals for refrigerators and air-conditioning. It is industry which will devise bio-degradable plastics. It is industry which will find the means to treat pollutants and make nuclear waste safe—and many companies as you know already have massive research programmes.

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 people's consciousness of environmental needs rises, they are turning increasingly to ozone-friendly and other environmentally safe products. The market itself acts as a corrective the new products sell and those which caused environmental damage are disappearing from the shelves.

And by making these new products widely available, industry will make it possible for developing countries to [end p7] avoid many of the mistakes which we older industrialised countries have made.

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.

On the basis then of sound science and sound economics, we need to build a strong framework for international action.

It is not new institutions that we need. Rather we need to strengthen and improve those which already exist: in particular the World Meteorological Organisation and the United Nations Environment Programme.

The United Kingdom has recently more than doubled its contribution to UNEP and we urge others, who have not done so and who can afford it, to do the same.

And the central organs of the United Nations, like this General Assembly, must also be seized of a problem which reaches into virtually all aspects of their work and will do so still more in the future.


The most pressing task which faces us at the international level is to negotiate a framework convention on climate change—a sort of good conduct guide for all nations.

Fortunately we have a model in the action already taken to protect the ozone layer. The Vienna Convention in 1985 and the Montreal Protocol in 1987 established landmarks in international law. They aim to prevent rather than just cure a global environmental problem.

I believe 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. That will be among the most important conferences the United Nations has ever held. I hope that we shall all accept a responsibility to meet this timetable.

The 1992 Conference is indeed already being discussed among many countries in many places. And I draw particular attention to the very valuable discussion which members of the Commonwealth had under the Mahathir bin MohamadPrime Minister of Malaysia's chairmanship at our recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kuala Lumpur. [end p8]

But a framework is not enough. 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 negotiation of some of these protocols will undoubtedly be difficult. And no issue will be more contentious than the need to control emissions of carbon dioxide, the major contributor—apart from water vapour—to the greenhouse effect.

We can't just do nothing. But the measures we take must be based on sound scientific analysis of the effect of the different gases and the ways in which these can be reduced. In the past there has been a tendency to solve one problem at the expense of making others worse.

The United Kingdom therefore proposes that we prolong the role of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change after it submits its report next year, so that it can provide an authoritative scientific base for the negotiation of this and other protocols.

We can then agree to targets to reduce the greenhouse gases, and how much individual countries should contribute to their achievement. We think it important that this should be done in a way which enables all our economies to continue to grow and develop.

The challenge for our negotiators on matters like this is as great as for any disarmament treaty. The Inter-governmental Panel's work must remain on target, and we must not allow ourselves to be diverted into fruitless and divisive argument. Time is too short for that.

Before leaving the area where international action is needed, I would make a plea for a further global convention, one to conserve the infinite variety of species—of plant and animal life—which inhabit our planet.

The tropical forests contain a half of the species in the world, so their disappearance is doubly damaging, and it is astonishing but true that our civilisation, whose imagination has reached the boundaries of the universe, does not know, to within a factor of ten, how many species the earth [end p9] supports.

What we do know is that we are losing them at a reckless rate—between three and fifty each day on some estimates—species which could perhaps be helping us to advance the frontiers of medical science. We should act together to conserve this precious heritage.


Every nation will need to make its contribution to the world effort, so I want to tell you how Britain intends to contribute, either by improving our own national performance in protecting the environment, or through the help that we give to others, and I shall tell you under four headings.

First, we shall be introducing over the coming months a comprehensive system of pollution control to deal with all kinds of industrial pollution whether to air, water or land.

We are encouraging British industry to develop new technologies to clean up the environment and minimise the amount of waste it produces—and we aim to recycle 50 per cent of our household waste by the end of the century.

Secondly, we will be drawing up over the coming year our own environmental agenda for the decade ahead. That will cover energy, transport, agriculture, industry—everything which affects the environment.

With regard to energy, we already have a £2 billion programme of improvements to reduce acid rain emissions from our power stations. We shall be looking more closely at the role of non-fossil fuel sources, including nuclear, in generating energy. And our latest legislation requires companies which supply electricity positively to promote energy efficiency.

On transport, we shall look for ways to strengthen controls over vehicle emissions and to develop the lean-burn engine, which offers a far better long-term solution than the three-way catalyst, in terms of carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect.

We have already reduced the tax on lead-free petrol to encourage its use. That is an example of using market-based incentives to promote good environmental practice and we shall see whether there are other areas where this same principle can be applied.

With regard to agriculture, we recognise that farmers not [end p10] only produce food—which they do with great efficiency—they need to conserve the beauty of the priceless heritage of our countryside. So we are therefore encouraging them to reduce the intensity of their methods and to conserve wild-life habitats.

We are planting new woods and forests—indeed there has been a 50 per cent increase in tree planting in Britain in the last ten years.

We also aim to reduce chemical inputs to the soil and we are bringing forward measures to deal with the complex problem of nitrates in water. All that is part of our own ten-year programme coming up to the end of the century.

Third, we are increasing our investment in research into global environmental problems. I have already mentioned the climate change centre that we are establishing.

In addition we are supporting our own scientists', and in particular the British Antarctic Survey's crucial contribution to the World Ocean Circulation Experiment, as well as the voyages of our aptly-named research ship, the ‘Charles Darwin’.

We have also provided more money for the Climate and Environment Satellite Monitoring Programmes of the European Space Agency.

Fourth, we help poorer countries to cope with their environmental problems through our Aid Programme.

We shall give special help to manage and preserve the tropical forests. We are already assisting in twenty countries and have recently signed agreements with India and Brazil.

And as a new pledge, I can announce today that we aim to commit a further £100 million bilaterally to tropical forestry activities over the next three years, mostly within the framework of the Tropical Forestry Action Plan. That is what we are doing in Britain under those four headings. All of those things.


Mr President, the environmental challenge which confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out. [end p11]

We should work through this great organisation and its agencies to secure world-wide 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 programme of action and an equally realistic timetable.

Each country has to contribute, and those countries who are industrialised must contribute more to help those who are not.

The work ahead will be long and exacting. We should embark on it hopeful of success, not fearful of failure.

I began with Charles Darwin and his work on the theory of evolution and the origin of species. Darwin 's voyages were among the high-points of scientific discovery. They were undertaken at a time when men and women felt growing confidence that we could not only understand the natural world but we could master it, too.

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

Reason is humanity's special gift. It allows us to understand the structure of the nucleus. It enables us to explore the heavens. It helps us to conquer disease. Now we must use our reason to find a way in which we can live with nature, and not dominate nature.

At the end of a book which has helped many young people to shape their own sense of stewardship for our planet, its American author quotes one of our greatest English poems, Milton 's “Paradise Lost” .

When Adam in that poem asks about the movements of the heavens, Raphael the Archangel refuses to answer. “Let it speak” , he says,

“The Maker's high magnificence, who built
So spacious, and his line stretcht out so far,
That Man may know he dwells not in his own; An edifice too large for him to fill,
Lodg'd in a small partition, and the rest
Ordain'd for uses to his Lord best known.”

We need our reason to teach us today that we are not, that [end p12] we must not try to be, the lords of all we survey.

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.

Thank you Mr President.