With Charles III’s coronation upon us, Seb Lowe looks into whether he could be the King the climate needs.
Before the phrase ‘global warming’ was even coined, King Charles III (then His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales) had been warning the world of the dangers of environmental pollution and emphasising the need for humans to live in harmony with their environment.
On Feb. 19, 1970, Prince Charles gave his first major speech on climate change, highlighting the “horrifying effects of pollution in all its cancerous forms”.
In explaining our relationship with nature, the then Prince of Wales spoke about how “conservation means being aware of the total environment that we live in… The word ecology implies the relationship of an organism to its environment and we are just as much an organism as any other animal that is often unfortunate enough to share this earth with us”. To be making these comments over 50 years ago shows astonishing foresight from the future king.
Today, he remains just as resolute in promoting sustainability and tackling climate change. At the 2020 meeting of the World Economic Forum, he said “global warming, climate change and the devastating loss of biodiversity are the greatest threats humanity has ever faced”; he later rallied the world for a “war-like footing” in true king-like fashion at COP26 in Glasgow to tackle the “existential threat” of climate change.
Walking the walk
Whilst it is all very well warning of the challenges our species faces from the privileged position of a Royal, the climate crisis is scaled by actions rather than words. The sovereign is all too aware of this, saying “but they just talk, the problem is to get action” in a critique of world-leaders’ inability to adequately address the problem.
As the IPCC have clearly warned, our world leaders are not doing enough to deal with the scale of the climate emergency. As king, Charles is constitutionally a politically neutral, ceremonial, head of state. He is unelected, and therefore has no mandate to legislate. Consequently, he is likely to reign back his public, politically charged, pro-climate proclamations in his new role.
In fact, he has previously caused controversy by lobbying politicians through his “black spider memos”, as Prince of Wales, although in 2018 when asked by the BBC whether he would meddle in political issues as the sovereign, he replied saying “I’m not that stupid”.
As King, however, Charles can continue to influence the narrative and set the agenda without being explicitly outspoken, through the charities he supports and the engagements he attends. He can, of course, also make a difference, as we all can, through individual action.
On an individual level he has altered his diet, as to not eat meat or fish on two days of the week, and to not eat dairy on one day of the week. In addition, he has installed solar panels on Clarence House and Highgrove.
One of the more unusual ways he has reduced his personal carbon footprint is by converting his 1960s Aston Martin to run on surplus English white wine and whey from the cheese-making process, or to be more precise, a fuel blend of 85% bioethanol and 15% unleaded petrol.
Despite these measures, the King does have a higher carbon footprint than most of the global population. In 2021, he took 20 private flights, including to and from the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. A recent study has shown that private jets are up to 14 times more polluting per passenger than commercial airlines, and 50 times more polluting than trains.
At a macro level, using the leverage of his position, the King has made a substantial impact in the 50+ years since his first major speech on the climate. In 2010 he co-authored a book as Prince of Wales with Tony Jupiter and Ian Skelly called Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World. The book offers a holistic appraisal on how the modern industrial era has skewed our perception of our place in the world and our interdependence with nature.
To offer a pragmatic solution to help decarbonise the modern era, which tends to be more concerned with growth and GDP than carbon emissions (something that Charles is critical of in his book), the Sustainable Markets Initiative was established by the former Prince of Wales in 2020 to “build a coordinated global effort to enable the private sector to accelerate the transition to a sustainable future”.
The guiding instrument of this initiative is the Terra Carta, whose name is derived from the Magna Carta. This mandate aims to give fundamental rights and value to nature, altering the perspective of the private sector in such a way that puts nature, people and planet at the heart of global value creation.
Some of the King’s larger scale projects, aimed at reducing the damage caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have had their own controversies. For example, a green energy company set up by King Charles was responsible for an unauthorised leak of over 1,000 tonnes of GHGs over a 38-day period in 2020.
Whilst some may argue that having a royal family who possess multiple palaces and charter hundreds of private flights each year is difficult to square with our climate obligations, there is another side of the monarch-embossed proverbial coin to consider.
One of the most fundamental challenges in dealing with the climate emergency is that our politics is inherently short sighted. To the average member of the average global electorate, the problems of not being able to afford to put food on the table, heat their homes or clothe their children today are of far greater personal significance than the potential challenges our species faces tomorrow.
An advantage of having a monarch as head of state, alongside the wider royal family working in the national interest, is that their permanence allows them to be more long sited than politicians elected for shorter fixed terms. This is advantageous in the politics of climate change.
Furthermore, having a monarch who cares for the climate is likely to bring the conversation to people who may otherwise take less of an interest. The climate conversation has typically been dominated by left-leaning media outlets and people. However, the royal family tend to appeal to more traditional and right-wing voters. There is a strong link between climate scepticism and support for right-wing political parties.
Having a sovereign who cares so deeply about our climate should bring the climate debate further up the political agenda and more towards the right-wing audience. This can only be good news in the build up to the next general election in 2024. If more people care more deeply about climate action, political parties will be unable to ignore it.
Love him or loathe him, to have a King who cares about the planet and is willing to use his platform to seriously address the climate conversation from time to time is better than having one who doesn’t. In an era of damaging demagogues, the world needs leaders who have the climate as the primary issue on their agenda, and here we have one. Surely that’s a good thing?