The United Kingdom now has a climate change king.
King Charles III, who ascended the throne when his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, died on Thursday at 96, has long been known as an environmentalist — talking and writing about nature and conservation decades before it became more mainstream, and giving speeches at U.N. climate meetings, urging the world to act.
He takes the throne at a turbulent moment. Britain’s burgeoning energy crisis has been met by a new Tory prime minister, Liz Truss, whose early steps have already given environmentalists pause. And while the new monarch’s climate bona fides are promising — and he has been criticized in the past for being more willing than most royals to wade into policy debates — King Charles will have very little influence on the U.K.’s climate and energy future.
“On the symbolic level, it is important if any public figure, including the new monarch, makes publicly strong commitments to environmental goals, such as decarbonization and protection of biodiversity,” said Sophia Hatzisavvidou, a senior lecturer at the University of Bath who studies environmental politics and rhetoric, in an email. “Nonetheless, it is difficult to overlook the fact that institutionally King Charles will have no real impact on how the new government will handle these (or other) matters.”
As prince of Wales and heir apparent for well over half a century, Charles has urged against the destruction of nature from a young age. He attended a conference on pollution in 1970, where his father, Prince Philip, spoke, and then gave his own speech on the issue a few days later, launching a lifelong effort.
More recently, he has traveled the world to urge action on climate change, meeting activist Greta Thunberg after a 2020 speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The next year, he spoke at a G-20 summit, telling world leaders: “You have many pressing issues of the day, but none is more pressing than the future health of our planet and of the people who inhabit it.”
At the COP26 U.N. climate meeting in 2021, he said the climate crisis will require mobilization of trillions of dollars: “The scale and scope of the threat we face call for a global systems-level solution based on radically transforming our current fossil fuel-based economy to one that is genuinely renewable and sustainable.”
And though he has made some public moves intended to demonstrate his personal commitment to a greener lifestyle — such as powering a vintage Aston Martin convertible on, literally, wine and cheese — Charles has faced plenty of criticism for continuing to live the rich and carbon-heavy life of a royal. At that U.N. climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, climate activists erected billboards citing his use of helicopters and private jets, as well as his several enormous estates and their massive energy needs.
Backsliding on energy?
King Charles now ascends the throne as the country heads into fall and winter staring down an energy crisis, with household bills slated to rise by thousands of pounds per year as the war in Ukraine sends natural gas prices spiraling upward.
And while Charles may have climate change at the top of his list of priorities, the new prime minister and her government are holding the strings. One of Truss’ first moves in office was to announce a cap on those ballooning energy bills, at £2,500 per year (about $2,900) for the next two years, which should save households an average of £1,000.
But she also said the U.K. will issue new leases for oil drilling in the North Sea, and that the country’s ban on fracking for natural gas, in place since 2019, is now lifted, moves designed to increase domestic supply that clearly work against climate goals. Labour Party leader Keir Starmer criticized the fracking move, saying it would “drive a coach and horses” through the country’s attempts to meet its climate aspirations.
The U.K. has a legally binding emissions target and has pledged to hit net zero by 2050 — a target it was not on track to meet even before Truss’ move on fracking, according to a report earlier this summer. But Truss herself has said she was “an environmentalist before it was fashionable” and has committed to meet that net-zero pledge.
“The new prime minister has already expressed her strong commitment for the U.K.’s statutory target of reducing its annual greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 and appears to understand the widespread support from all parts of British society for environmental policies,” Elizabeth Robinson, a professor and director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Grid.
The question then is whether there is enough power in the symbolism of the monarchy to drive any actual policy shifts from a conservative government. Would a speech at this year’s U.N. climate meeting in Egypt in November ring any different from King Charles than it did in Glasgow last year from Prince Charles?
“The convention is that the British monarch, as the head of state, does not intervene in domestic politics,” Robinson told Grid. “However, King Charles’ long-standing and deep concern for the environment is well-known and shared by the majority of the British public.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.