Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama- Lessons in Chemistry

Lesson In Chemistry

Roll back, fast backward-exactly 23 years.  27th June of year 1990, I was in the audience listening to then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) headquarters located on the banks of river Thames in London.

 Ms. Thatcher was delivering an opening speech on the first day of the second Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer. I was impressed with steady and rising tempo of her speech that was streaming like flow of Thames and her convictions about ozone science were as formidable as the Albert Embankment that contained the massive water of Thames. Her persuasive words sounded more convincing to my chemical engineering logic. One of the probable reasons was that they were coming from a Prime Minster who was a chemist by qualification.

She was dressed in her branded ‘power dressing’ suits with two layer pearl necklace. But more than that I vividly recall her ‘power words’. She warned government representatives of nearly 100 countries sitting in conference center of IMO that destruction of the earth’s ozone layer was proceeding even faster than scientists had feared. Quoting her last conversation in meeting with Joseph Farman of the British Antarctic Survey she said with her alert and experiment-based-chemistry aptitude that the process of ozone depletion was accelerating as there was evidence of surprising ozone losses , not only in Antarctica but even in the heavily populated northern latitudes during winter.

I was aware that Ms. Thatcher at that time was descending in equally accelerated speed from her political career having achieved pinnacle. She was already known as Iron lady, Baroness,Reformer of governance and unwanted in her won party. To her critics, she was uncompromising and ruthless.  Her political companions were already contemplating quitting and in abandoning mood. But here she was on podium, full of Thatcherian courage, sitting along with equally firm and resolute UNEP Executive Director Mustafa Tolba, speaking with Elizabethan charm and emitting clear  ‘make-no-mistake’ kind of warnings to the governments of the world. She did not lose an opportunity to signal global warming threats from that Ozone platform of United Nations. That was two years before the Rio summit where UNFCCC took birth.

It was clear to me that media and number of her own government representatives did not trust the words she exuded and thought that this ‘sudden green concern’ was yet another Thatcherian attempt on her part to gain grounds on global issues and divert the attention from domestic political upheaval.  But I was blown away by her speech , particularly by the force by her determined delivery and its convincing content.

Ms. Thatcher, a graduate in chemistry from Oxford University had not only personally investigated the Chemistry and status of science and that of ozone layer from the key scientists like Joe Farman but also had carried out her own strategic experiments in her ‘political laboratory’ before making that 27th June speech. Not many knew that as chemist she also worked with one of the ozone depleting chemicals-Methyl Chloroform as solvent.

15 months earlier, in March 1989, she convened a global meet, “Saving the Ozone Layer”, in London and invited President Moi of Kenya to garner African and developing country support to jump-start action. The catalyst for the speedy action that she deployed in that meeting was the hint at the financial support for the developing countries to phase out CFCs and other Ozone depleting chemicals.  That catalytic reaction, supported by the nods from USA and other European countries became driving force for establishing the Multilateral Fund dedicated to Ozone Protection and the Montreal Protocol. Such financial assistance along with technology transfer had become pre-condition for India, China and all other developing countries to join the Montreal Protocol. As a chemist Ms. Thatcher knew that when the reactions are slow, or when they do not happen, employing the catalysts does the job.

On 29th June 1990, 2 days after her speech and on the last day of the conference such financial assistance along with its interim secretariat and framework of operation the financial assistance was already announced.  I am convinced that the speed of arriving at that decision, never before seen in UN environmental meetings, was the result of catalytic reaction-mechanism set by chemist Ms. Thatcher at that time. To ensure that this reaction is sustained she even announced USD 9 million as its contribution to Interim Multilateral Fund, as if taking out of her famous handbag and putting on the table. She said it was duty of the industrialized countries to assist the developing countries to meet their extra cost to phase out CFCs.

When I praised her style and content, my British Industry friends (I was employed in the chemical industry at that time) made derisive smile. One of them said,‘ that’s it; she is successful in impressing outsiders. But not us in UK. Do you know Mr. Shende, that when in 1948 she applied for a job in ICI ( Imperial Chemical Industry) as chemist, the interviewer from personnel department rejected her by recording on the assessment sheet that the woman was headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated? ”. I listened with interest.

Looking back, I feel that to effectively and speedily tackle the global environmental challenges we indeed need headstrong leader. The success of the Multilateral Ozone Fund and the story of freeing the ozone layer from shackles of CFCs owes a lot to this transformative lady who also  freed United Kingdom from shackles of socialistic impending doctrines.

Now, fast forward by 23 years. 25th June 2013.  I heard President Barack Obama speaking from the steps of George Town University on the banks of Potomac river in Washington DC. I was not in audience directly in front of him, but was face to face on the digital media. He was speaking on safeguarding the climate system. His 6000-something powerful words were like free flowing Potomac. His convictions about unambiguous climate science and its evident impacts were more compelling and attention grabbing as the contours of Capital Crescent trail along the Potomac.It was refreshing speech, though most of the historical facts on climate change that he quoted were known before. The roots of action that he planted and the sprouts of the future for the posterity that he grew were inspiring.

He did refer to the chemistry when he said, ”So the question is not whether we need to act.  The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all that to rest………. So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late.” It was clearly the message of urgency, the way Ms. Thatcher signaled in 1990.

He derided the skeptics of climate-chemistry by giving the proven lessons of the Montreal Protocol, the most successful global environmental accord so far, “When we phased out CFCs — the gases that were depleting the ozone layer — it didn’t kill off refrigerators or air-conditioners or deodorant.  American chemists came up with better substitutes.”

He also referred to his chemistry with President Xi of China on the subject. “ Earlier this month, President Xi of China and I reached an important agreement to jointly phase down our production and consumption of dangerous hydrofluorocarbons, and we intend to take more steps together in the months to come.  It will make a difference.  It’s a significant step in the reduction of carbon emissions”.

Ms. Thatcher strategic speech in 1990 was followed by unprecedented development that led to the global actions on Protection of the Ozone Layer. President Obama’s speech though globally important, was more directed towards Americans. “As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act”, said President Obama.

The world community however, looks at him more as a global leader. Yes, the action has to be inclusive with all countries taking commitments. However the  incentives for speedy actions could be commonly inclusive but discreetly differentiated.  President Obama needs to use Thatcherian catalysts to speed up global chemistry to generate actions. END

by Rajendra Shende, Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and former Director, UNEP.

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2 Responses to “Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama- Lessons in Chemistry”

  1. si ahmed says:

    I attended the meeting in London “Save the Ozone Layer” as the head of the Algerian Delegation.
    That was indeed a remarkable milestone in addressing a global issue such as protecting the ozone layer.
    However I also would like to recall that during that meeting, Algeria suggested the establishment of a Fund to assist developing countries.
    That idea was rejected by many industrialized countries , in particular the UK.
    It was pointed out that protecting the ozone layer was the responsibility of all countries in the world.Developed countries only agreed to transfer any new technology free of charge.
    May be one has to say that the establishment of an interim Multilateral Fund was a result of a compromise with China and India to agree on a phase out schedule. This was a business driven approach as well as a politically motivated decision that I wanted to put on record.

  2. Rajendra Shende says:

    Dear Mani, Thank you very much for your comments. You may be right in stating that Algeria suggested establishment of funds. But I do recall that UK supported such call by the developing countries. The report of the Meeting of the Parties in London para 6 states that :

    ” 6. The controls in the Protocol could achieve successful results only if all/countries, including those from the third world, were signatories. But countries at any early stage of industrial development had understandable concerns about adverse effects on their economic growth. It was the duty of industrialized countries to help
    them with substitute technologies and with financing the additional costs involved. Britain supported the proposal for aninitial threeyear programme of action and was
    ready to contribute at least $9 million to it, rising to $15 million if other major consumers joined the Protocol. ”

    Mani, Ms. Thatcher , as my article said had planned to support such fund nearly 15 months before London meeting and she declared that in the conference called ‘ Saving Ozone Layer ‘ where she invited Kenyan President -Mr. Moily to Chair the conference.

    As you know the decision in that meeting was to establish interim Fund and then increase the Fund if other countries joined , including India and China. The Annex of that decision in 1990 said that :

    “An interim Multilateral Fund, of $160 million, which could be raised by up to $80 million during the threeyear period when more countries become Parties to the Protocol, hereinafter referred to as”the Multilateral Fund”, shall be established.”

    But you are right that there was lot of political compromise.

    Regards

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