Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech opening Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Bracknell
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Editorial comments:

Between 1035 and 1100.

Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1823
Themes: Energy, Foreign policy (Asia), Environment, Science & technology

Dr. HoughtonMr. Chairman

Many of us have been worried for some time now about the accumulating evidence of damage to the global environment and the consequences for life on Earth and for future generations. I spoke about this to the Royal Society in 1988 and to the United Nations General Assembly in November last year. Today, with the publication of the Report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, we have an authoritative early warning system, an agreed assessment from some three hundred of the world's leading scientists on what is happening to the world's climate—all this under your distinguished chairmanship, Dr. Houghton. I congratulate you on getting three hundred distinguished scientists to agree on a single report—you must be quite a chairman! It is a triumph for you today, both the Report and the opening of the new Centre for which you have obviously been very eager.

Your Report confirms that greenhouse gases are increasing substantially as a result of Man's activities; that this will warm the Earth's surface, with serious consequences for us all, and that these consequences are capable of prediction. We want to predict them more accurately and that is why we are opening this Centre today. [end p1]

We have therefore a Report of historic significance. It is not something arcane or remote from everyday concerns. What it predicts will affect our daily lives. Governments and international organisations in every part of the world are going to have to sit up and take notice and respond.

Of course, there is a lot more that we still need to find out but if the Panel's predictions are broadly right, then the world could become hotter than at any time in the last 100,000 years and just to get our time perspectives right, can I remind you that Abraham was around only 5,000 years ago!

We know that there have been major changes in the world's climate and environment in the past. For instance, in this country, you could grow vines as far north as Edinburgh in Roman times and fossils and serpents have been found from even more ancient times. But the changes which we are talking about now will occur at a faster rate than anything our natural world has known in the past. One of the effects could be a great migration of animal and plant life and possibly the loss of some of them altogether. The calculation has been made that a one-degree rise in temperature would, over time, lead forests to move 100 kilometres further north and some ordinary farming crops may move as much as 200–300 kilometres. Just imagine the effects on farming, on the Common Agricultural Policy, on the sort of crops you can grow in particular areas and on nature reserves—they might find themselves in the wrong places if the flora and fauna which they are meant to protect migrate. [end p2]

Changes in the sea level, as the sea expands, could also affect our lives considerably. At a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting a year or two ago—it was the one in Vancouver, I remember—Maumoon Abdul Gayoomthe President of the Maldives reminded us that none of his country was more than six feet above sea level and the consequences of a significant overall rise in the sea level could be one less member of the Commonwealth. He told us he did not know what we could do about it at that time, but he wanted us to know that they were very concerned about it.

Other low-lying countries like Bangladesh will be badly affected and there would surely be a great migration of population away from areas of the world liable to flooding and from areas of declining rainfall and therefore of spreading deserts. Those people would be crying out not for oil wells but for water!

Of course, every detail of the forecasts may not be quite right—it rarely is when you are trying to predict the future. There is still a great deal of work for the scientists to do, particularly in trying to estimate the detailed distribution of the effects of global climate change which I have described. We want to know what is happening in the regions; more than that, you want to know what is going to happen in each country. [end p3]

As the Panel's Report itself makes clear, we should have a better understanding of many of these things in ten or fifteen years time, say, by about the year 2005. By then, we shall have benefitted from new measurements from satellites, from new and more powerful computers and the results of work now being done on ocean circulation, in which this country is playing a considerable part, but we can already draw some broad conclusions from the work which has been done:

First, the climate changes which we have witnessed in the past have been mainly the result of natural factors, changes in the Earth's orbit or in the amount of radiation given off by the Sun, for instance—Man's activities had only a small part to play. In the future, this can no longer be assumed. Man's activities are already adding greenhouse gases to the Earth at an unprecedented rate, with inevitable consequences for our future climate. The annual accumulation of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere is of the order of three billion tonnes and half of all the carbon dioxide emitted since the Industrial Revolution is still in the atmosphere—and all this while we are at the same time destroying tropical forests, which are a vital way of taking carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it. [end p4]

It stands to common sense that these figures are going to go up as the world's population increases, with greater consequent intensity of agriculture, more destruction of forests and woodlands and more use of fossil fuels. At the time when I was born, the world's population was some 2 billion people. Michael ThatcherMy grandson is going to grow up in a world of more than 6 billion people and the predictions are that we shall have 10 billion people by the middle of the next century. Whichever way you look at it, problems are bound to arise as a result of going from 2 billion to 10 billion in such a short time. The world has never known anything like it. Putting the problems right will be all the harder until we succeed in curbing that rate of population growth.

The second conclusion that can already be drawn is that more than ever we are one world. The fact is that you cannot divide the atmosphere into segments and say: “All right! We will look after our bit and you look after yours!” We shall only be able to deal with the problems by a giant international effort in which we all cooperate and that leads on to the third conclusion:

We would be taking a great risk with future generations if, having received this early warning, we did nothing about it or just took the attitude: “Well! It will see me out!” [end p5]

I remember saying in my Royal Society speech that we had a full repairing lease on this Earth. With the work done by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, we can now say that we have the Surveyor's Report and it shows that there are faults and that the repair work needs to start without delay. The problems do not lie in the future—they are here and now—and it is our children and grandchildren, who are already growing up, who will be affected.

In some areas, as you know, we have already started. Britain was among the first to call for an International Convention on Climate we are giving generous help for forestry in developing countries; we have undertaken to phase out CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances by the end of the century, but that will only be effective if it extends to developing countries too and they will need help. We shall have to address this issue urgently at the London Ozone Conference next month.

We must also take action on carbon dioxide emission and that will mean significant adjustments to our economies: more efficient power stations, cars which use less fuel, better-insulated houses and better management of energy in general.

All this is bound to take time. It is no good setting political targets for action which are just not realistic in practice. Any target would have to be part of a wide international effort with a fair distribution of the burden. There [end p6] would be no point in improving our performance if others just go on as before, for we are only responsible for about 3 per cent of the world's emissions, but provided others are ready to take their full share, Britain is prepared to set itself the very demanding target of a reduction of up to 30 per cent in presently-projected levels of carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2005. This would mean returning emissions to their 1990 levels by that date. All of this will be spelled out in our White Paper on the Environment which will be published in the autumn.

May I say that the private sector is constantly showing the way with its ingenuity and inventiveness. For instance, a few weeks ago I gave an award to ICI for what they had done in this respect. They have developed a new way of producing ammonia which reduces nitrogen oxide emissions by 87 per cent, sulphur dioxide by 95 per cent and carbon dioxide by 60 per cent—and it uses less resources. The net result is significantly lower production costs and very substantial environmental benefits. Indeed, if that particular process of producing ammonia were to be adopted worldwide, the saving in terms of pollution would be equivalent to taking five million cars off the road! It shows what can be done by people struggling to remain competitive and by doing all the necessary research for that and having an excellent by-product in environmental benefits. [end p7]

This is where the work of this Centre which we are opening today comes in—with its advanced computing facilities and the superb skills of its scientists, it will help us look into the future and to predict more precisely the changes in our climate. This is the Centre which, in November 1989, I promised the United Nations would be set up in the United Kingdom and as you said, Mr. Chairman, its task is not to predict the weather for a few weeks ahead, but to predict it for a century ahead.

Previously, we could get some idea of future climates by observing and analysing the patterns of the past but the changes we can expect in the future will be so much greater than anything we have hitherto experienced, that these methods will not be adequate and we shall need to rely much more on computer models which take in the full complexity of the climate system. It will be on the basis of this work that we shall be able to establish a realistic international programme of action and an equally realistic time-table.

Discharges of carbon dioxide and CFCs, if unabated, will go on accumulating in the atmosphere and could not easily be reversed. Even the most urgent measures now cannot fully repair the damage of the past but action now will prevent the problem from becoming acute and give us time to improve our predictions and enlarge our understanding. The Panel's Report will present us with a very full agenda for the next fifteen years up to 2005 and we should start on that without delay. [end p8]

May I wish the Hadley Centre and all who work here under the Director, Dr. Carson, every success. Your task is no less than to help us safeguard the future of our planet and I hope we will all be equal to that task.

Mr. Chairman, that completes the formal part of the speech. Now, we can all relax and I can have a good look round and see what is going on and wish you well in a much more informal way! (applause)