In 1990, Margaret Thatcher emerged as one of the first world leaders to champion climate science, issuing a call to action to fight manmade global warming at the Second World Climate Conference hosted at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
She lavished praise on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, then in its infancy, and laid out the conservatives' case for environmental stewardship in the face of climate change. "I see the adoption of these policies as a sort of premium on insurance against fire, flood or other disaster," she said. "It may be cheaper or more cost-effective to take action now than to wait and find we have to pay much more later."
She would later recant many of her positions, however, adopting an increasingly skeptical stance. Although some maintain that she was consistent in her advocacy for the environment, more than 10 years later, she publicly criticized the push to protect it.
Her speech in Geneva acknowledged the uncertainty of the science behind climate change, before vigorously affirming that "the need for more research should not be an excuse for delaying much needed action now ... there is already a clear case for precautionary action at an international level."
A year before, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York she urged the global community to take action.
"The evidence is there. The damage is being done. What do we, the international community, do about it? … It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay. We have to look forward not backward, and we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort."
She called for the United Nations to ratify a treaty by 1992. The New York Times covered it at the time with the headline: "Thatcher Urges Pact On Climate." Excerpts from some of her climate-change speeches are here.
But in 2003, she backtracked on her climate advocacy, calling climate activism a "marvelous excuse for supra-national socialism," and denouncing Al Gore's calls for international cooperation around climate change "apocalyptic hyperbole."
In her 2003 book Statecraft she wrote of "a new dogma about climate change has swept through the left-of-center governing classes," praised former President George W. Bush for rejecting the Kyoto Protocol and bemoaned the “costly and economically damaging” schemes to limit carbon emissions.
While it would appear Thatcher, who died on Monday at age 87, did a complete 180 on the issue, Iain Murray with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., has argued that she remained an environmentalist.
"Thatcher's environmentalism is founded on Edmund Burke's conservative view of our inheritance as being worth defending," he wrote. "Yet that view is tempered by her classical liberal belief that human wealth and progress are crucial. That is why Lady Thatcher can be described as a true free market environmentalist."
Will Oremus, writing for Slate, notes she never abandoned her faith in the scientific method, nor her belief that true conservatism entailed caring for the Earth so that future generations may thrive.