Influential diplomat credited with persuading Margaret Thatcher to address climate risks and laying the foundations for global climate treaties

Tributes have this week been paid to the diplomat and environmentalist, Sir Crispin Tickell, who has died at the age of 91.

Tickell was widely credited with convincing Margaret Thatcher to become one of the first world leaders to take climate change seriously, persuading her to deliver what would become a hugely influential address to the Royal Society in 1988 in which she warned that “we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet”.

“I think she regarded me as someone useful who could stir the pot for her, and perhaps challenge the orthodox wisdom, whatever it might be,” Tickell once said of his inclusion in Thatcher’s small band of trusted advisors.

He would go on to provide advice on climate issues to both John Major and Tony Blair, and offered guidance to the generation of climate diplomats that would ultimately deliver the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement through the UNFCCC negotiating process.

Writing on Twitter this week, Nick Mabey of the E3G think tank said it was a “real end of an era with Sir Crispin Tickell’s passing”, hailing him as “one of the true pioneers of environmental diplomacy and multilateralism”.  

“He was truly generous in sharing his insight and experience of how to make the ‘system’ change,” he added. “A role model in leadership for the community.”

Following his retirement from the diplomatic service in 1990, Tickell became warden of Green College, Oxford, and took up the presidency of the Royal Geographical Society. More recently he also sat on the advisory board to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) think tank.

Richard Black, senior associate at ECIU, said Tickell’s “influence on how the UK and indeed the world approaches climate change was far greater than his public profile”.

“In the 1980s he introduced the issue to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who, as a former scientist, concluded that climate change posed a serious global threat to which the UK should play a leading role in responding,” he said. “Her speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1989, which Sir Crispin had a central role in conceiving, elevated climate change, ozone depletion and other environmental issues in the international arena and helped usher in the UN climate convention in 1992. In the UK the continuing consensus on the need to cut carbon emissions and support climate science owes much to his vision.

“At ECIU we were honoured to include Sir Crispin on our Advisory Board from its launch until 2019, and benefited greatly from his wisdom, intelligence and experience, while also enjoying his dry sense of humour. He will be much missed.”

In an obituary this week, The Times reflected on Tickell’s diplomatic postings in Mexico, the Hague, Paris, and the UN, and his hugely influential and prescient 1977 book, Climatic Change and World Affairs, which argued that mandatory international pollution controls would eventually be necessary through a climate change treaty. It ended by quoting an interview Tickell gave in 1999 in which he said he was glad he was in “life’s departure lounge and not the arrival lounge”, adding that “the next generation is in for an awfully bumpy ride”.

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