Margaret Thatcher – the world’s first climate realist

by Christopher Monckton of Brenchley

Anthony Watts’ splendid wattsupwiththat blog has an interesting posting about Margaret Thatcher’s sceptical approach to the climate question. This prompted some comments asking whether I could add anything to the story, since I gave her advice on science as well as other policy from 1982-1986, two years before the IPCC was founded. So here goes.

First, what on Earth was a layman with a degree in classical languages and architecture doing giving advice on science to the British Prime Minister, who was herself a scientist and a Fellow of the Royal Society?

Truth is, British government is small (though still a lot bigger and more expensive than it need be). The Prime Minister’s policy unit had just six members, and, as a mathematician who was about to make a goodish fortune turning an obscure and hitherto-unnoticed wrinkle in the principles of probabilistic combinatorics into a pair of world best-selling puzzles, I was the only one who knew any science.

So, faute de mieux, it was I who – on the Prime Minister’s behalf – kept a weather eye on the official science advisors to the Government, from the Chief Scientific Advisor downward. On my first day in the job, I tottered into Downing Street dragging with me one of the world’s first portable computers, the 18-lb Osborne 1, with a 5” screen, floppy disks that were still truly floppy, and a Z80 8-bit chip which I had learned to program in machine language as well as BASIC.

This was the first computer they had ever seen in Downing Street. The head of security, a bluff military veteran, was deeply suspicious. “What do you want a computer for?” he asked. “Computing,” I replied.

I worked that weighty little box hard. It did everything: converting opinion-poll percentages to predictions of Parliamentary seats won and lost (we predicted the result of the 1983 General Election to within 1 seat); demonstrating a new type of index-linked home loan that removed the inflationary front-loading of interest payments and made it easier for working people to buy the State-owned houses they lived in (we sold a million, and turned cringing clients of the State into proud homeowners with a valuable stake in Britain); and calculating the optimum hull configuration for warships to prove that a government department had defrauded a lone inventor (he go $1 million in compensation).

The tiny computer back-engineered the Social Security Department’s model that showed the impact of changes in tax and benefit rates on different types of family; discounted Cabinet Ministers’ policies to present value to appraise their viability as investments; and worked out how much extra revenue the Government would get if it cut the top rate of income tax from 60 cents on the dollar to 40 cents.

On that one, I was right and the Treasury were wrong: as I had calculated, the rich ended up paying not only more tax but a higher percentage of total tax, even though the top tax rate they had previously paid was 50% higher than the new rate.

The only expenses I ever claimed for in four years at 10 Downing Street were £172 for soldering dry joints on that overworked computer, on which I also did the first elementary radiative-transfer calculations that indicated climate scientists were right to say some “global warming” would arise as CO2 concentration continued to climb.

I briefed my colleagues in the Policy Unit, and also the Prime Minister herself. My advice was straightforward: CO2 concentrations were rising, we were causing it, and it would cause some warming, but at that time no one knew how much (plus ca change), so we needed to find out.

The Prime Minister’s response was equally hard-headed: we were to keep an eye on the problem and come back to her again when action was necessary.

Did she even mention that “global warming” presented an opportunity to give nuclear power a push and, at the same time, to do down the coal-miners who had destroyed a previous Conservative government and had also tried to destroy hers?
Certainly not, for four compelling reasons.

First, nuclear power was politically dead at that time, following the monumentally stupid attempt by the Soviet operators of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor to shut it down without external power just because they were curious to see what would happen.

Secondly, by then the mineworkers, under their Communist leadership, had long been defeated, and we were making arrangements for the deep, dangerous, loss-making coal-mines that had killed so many brave pitmen to be shut down and replaced with safer, profitable, opencast mines.

Two mineworkers came to my farewell party at 10 Downing Street: the first miners ever to enter Downing Street during a Conservative administration.

Thirdly, Margaret Thatcher was never vindictive: it simply was not in her nature. If any of us ever suggested taking any action that would unfairly disadvantage any of her political opponents, she would give us the Gazillion-Gigawatt Glare and say, very firmly and quietly, “Prime Ministers don’t, dear!”

Fourthly, she had an unusual mind that effortlessly spanned CP Snow’s Two Cultures.

As a former food chemist, she possessed the ruthlessly honest logic of the true scientist. As a former barrister, she had the vigor and articulacy of the true practitioner of the forensic arts. Too many scientists today are in effect politicians: too many politicians pretend to be scientific.

Margaret Thatcher was genuinely both scientist and politician, and was able to take the best from both roles without confusing them. She would not have dreamed of doing anything that in any way undermined the integrity of science.

A little vignette will illustrate her scientific integrity. In the late 1970s, a year before she won the first of her three General Elections and became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, I had sent her a tiny piece of propaganda that I had designed, the Labour Pound.

The little slip of paper bore this simple message: “This is a Labour Pound. This is how small your banknote would be today if it had been shrunk to match the fall in its value under Labour. Vote Conservative!”

Margaret Thatcher noticed at once that the piece of paper was a little too small. Inflation had been bad under the Labour Government (at the time it was running at 27% a year), but not that bad. “Do it again and get it right and be fair,” she said. Humbled, I did as I was told – and tens of millions of Labour Pounds were distributed throughout Britain at the subsequent General Election, to satisfyingly devastating effect.

In 1988 it was my successor at No. 10, George Guise, who traveled one bitterly cold October weekend down to Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country house, and sat in front of a roaring fire writing the speech that would announce a government subsidy to the Royal Society to establish what would become the Hadley Centre for Forecasting.

George remembers how he and the Prime Minister chuckled at the irony of writing a speech about “global warming” on an evening so cold that he could hardly hold his pen.

But that’s October for you: a couple of years ago the scientific illiterates who now inhabit the House of Commons voted for the Climate Change and National Economic Hara-Kiri Bill by one of the largest majorities in Parliament’s history, with only three gallant MPs having the courage to defy the Whips and vote against – and this on the very night that the first October snow in 74 years fell in Parliament Square.

In due course, the scientific results began to arrive. It became as clear to Margaret Thatcher as it has to me that our original concern was no longer necessary. The warming effect of CO2 is simply too small to make much difference and, in any event, it is orders of magnitude cheaper and more cost-effective to adapt to any consequences of “global warming” than to wreck the economies of the West by trying to demonize CO2 and cut our emissions.

Margaret Thatcher was very conscious that the Left tries to taint every aspect of life by attempting to politicize it.

In her thinking, therefore, there is genuine outrage that the coalescence of financial and political vested-interest factions in the scientific and academic community that are driving the climate scare should be striving to bring the age of enlightenment and reason to an end by treating scientific debate as though every question were a political football to be kicked ever Leftward.

In the elegant words of my good friend Bob Ferguson of the Science and Public Policy Institute, she is interested not in “policy-based evidence-making” but in “evidence-based policy-making”. The present crop of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic could learn much from her honest, forthright, no-nonsense approach.