“For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes – population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels – concentrated in such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.”
Read out the passage above in polite society and you would, no doubt, receive a sage nodding of heads in reply. Declare in advance that the person who spoke these words was one Margaret Thatcher, in a speech in 1988, and the response may invite a little more scepticism.
It is now buried entirely beneath her legacy, but it was she who, in the late 1980s, first told the Conservative party that conservationism may have something to do with our mission. The clue is in the title. It prompted the founder of Friends of the Earth, Jonathan Porrit to declare not so long ago that she “did more than anyone in the last 60 years to put green issues on the national agenda”.
Scroll forward 30 years after Lady Thatcher’s speech in 1988, and it’s clear that the dangers to the environment identified by her then are more acute than ever.
It comes with the World Bank this week estimating that as many as 140 million people from the developing world will be forced to migrate over the next 30 years, due to climate change.
Many will be forced to head into crowded slums in Africa, south Asia and Latin America.
While richer nations will endeavour to find ways to insulate themselves from the effects of environmental degradation, the poorest will suffer the most.
And while issues like Brexit and Russian poisoning occupy our attention in the here and now, the impact of climate change is continuing to wreak devastating damage to the way we live.
So Mrs Thatcher’s 30-year old message from history should also act as a reminder to her successors – to those of us on the centre-right today – that the cause of environmentalism is as urgent as ever, and must be our cause too.
Too often, the political right has dismissed ‘green’ issues as something which need only concern those on the opposite side of the fence.
Partly this is due to the rise of Green parties which, together with their views the environment, often hold a left-wing stance anathema to those of us on the centre-right. It has led to too many centre-right politicians to dismiss the messenger, without examining parts of the message with which we have common cause.
Partly it is due to the fact that the environmental debate is too often hijacked by wider culture wars.
Whatever the reason, however, Conservatives must not allow the environmental cause to become ghettoised only by professional environmentalists. Our job is to make it a common cause for all.
We can do so in a number of ways.
Firstly, by respecting the science. Because the science is unequivocal. Human activity is leading to a warming of the atmosphere. Climate change is real. And with social media platforms fanning the flames of conspiracies and lies, it is all the more important to say it.
And secondly, Conservatives need to show a lead in tackling climate change and environmental damage at home.
At Westminster, Michael Gove has already taken action to ban cosmetic microbeads which damage our seas, to tackle plastic pollution which damages our marine life, and is proposing a post-Brexit ‘green revolution’ with EU standards set as a floor not a ceiling to our ambitions.
Announcing more funding for poorer nations to tackle climate change, the Prime Minister said late last year that there was a “clear moral imperative” for richer nations like ours to help. Meanwhile, in Scotland, we too want to act. Scottish Conservatives want to set up a new Environmental Court where people who feel their environmental rights have been damaged can take their case. If we succeed in getting into government, we would commit to a new target to ensure 50 per cent of Scotland’s energy comes from renewables by 2030; back 10 per cent of the capital budget – that’s a billion pounds in the next parliament – to be spent on energy efficiency; and support for the creation of 15,000 hectares of new quality woodland per year.
This is in addition to supporting our natural world too. The UK Government is now acting to ban ivory sales around the world. Later this year, it will host the London Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference with the aim of stamping out the illegal trade in endangered species across the world – one of the great environmental crimes of our age. And as well as ending crime, we want to do more to support greater biodiversity, restoring species back to our environment. That includes supporting the fantastic work being done by Edinburgh’s Zoological Society on species recovery, and the Highland National Park which, at the start of the year, hosted the first polar bear birth in the UK for 25 years.
There is, whisper it, plenty of consensus among the parties at Holyrood on achieving greater environmental justice and awareness in Scotland – even between Tory and Green, on many issues. Despite the fractious nature of our politics in Scotland, I hope this is one area where real progress can be made.
“The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world,” declared Mrs Thatcher before the UN in 1989.
“Every country will be affected and no-one can opt out. Those countries who are industrialised must contribute more to help those who are not.”
Powerful words – and 30 years on, they offer a challenge to those of us on the centre-right of politics more than ever.