How might history view the reign of King Charles III? Below we suggest that King Charles III has the opportunity to make his mark as the climate monarch, which would also radically differentiate him from the recently departed and much beloved Queen Elizabeth II. Building on his work as an outspoken environmental advocate, he could undertake subtle climate advocacy, while respecting the boundaries and duties of the monarchy.
King Charles III’s climate advocacy will be especially welcome because climate progress has stalled in recent months (excluding bright spots such as the Inflation Reduction Act). In response to rising energy prices and the cutbacks in Russian natural gas exports, countries are restarting coal plants and creating expensive new infrastructure to ship natural gas from the U.S. to Europe. Moreover, instead of allowing energy prices to rise (which carbon taxes are supposed to do), governments are announcing subsidies. Many U.S. states have suspended the gas tax. Britain has announced that annual household energy bills will be capped at £2,500. Germany and Austria have also promised support to households to cope with rising energy prices.
Charles III has an impressive 50-year record of working on environmental causes. Last year, at the Glasgow COP 26 summit, where he delivered the opening address, Charles (then the Prince of Wales) noted that “the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how devastating a global cross border threat can be. Climate change and biodiversity loss are no different. In fact, they pose an even greater existential threat to the extent that we have to put ourselves on what might be called a war like footing.”
One might wonder why a constitutional monarch with no real authority could influence climate policy. After all, he cannot punish or reward politicians (though previously, he has sent 44 “black spider” letters to Ministers for action on environmental issues). The answer is the power of the bully pulpit. Broadly, celebrities and influencers can focus public attention on specific issues and motivate policy action. When the British monarch speaks, people tend to listen, even outside Britain. There is an amazing level of fascination with the British royalty, no doubt aided by Buckingham Palace’s skillful media management and more recently, by popular TV shows such as The Crown.
British conservatives, many of whom oppose aggressive climate action, have enormous respect for the monarchy. As climate consultant, Nick Brooks notes: “King Charles III might sway some quite conservative folks with well-crafted general messaging … those most resistant to climate messaging tend to be those who most prefer hierarchical systems and you don’t get much more hierarchical than the monarchy.”
Balancing the Conflicting Message from the Downing Street
The proclamation of Charles III as the new monarch comes at an interesting time because UK’s newly installed Prime Minister Liz Truss seems to be putting a brake on climate policy. She wants to suspend green levies to subsidize renewable energy investment, lift the ban on shale drilling, and reexamine Britain’s net zero emission commitments. She has appointed climate skeptics to ministerial positions: Anne-Marie Trevelyan as the transportation secretary and Rees-Mogg as the business and energy secretary. The new trade secretary Kemi Badenoch has described net zero emission targets as “unilateral economic disarmament.”
So, what can King Charles III do?
On climate advocacy, Charles has not started off on a good note. In his first speech as the King, he did not mention climate change. Because this was a somber moment, it was perhaps inappropriate for him to talk about his personal agenda (as opposed to institutional duties).
But in due course King Charles III could launch two initiatives. First, he should switch the royal automobile fleet to EVs. Second, he should reduce the carbon footprint of Buckingham palace. After all, he made extensive changes in his previous residence at Highgrove: “Sustainability is a focus of the garden, which uses a rainwater irrigation system and solar panels. All waste materials are recycled and a specially designed reed bed sewage system manages the estate’s waste water. The gardens are maintained to ensure they thrive in complete harmony with nature…”. Perhaps Charles could do a Highgrove on Buckingham, and eventually other royal properties as well (though it seems that he refused to install wind turbines on Highgrove).
Critics might say that symbolic gestures do not solve structural issues that have caused the climate crisis. We agree that climate change has an important structural dimension that calls for vigorous policy action. But the climate crisis also requires that individuals pitch in any way they can, instead of claiming that they are powerless. The moto should be shared sacrifice, with the rich and powerful showing the way. Individuals endowed with institutional authority, in particular, have an obligation to lead by example.
In an interview at the 2020 World Economic Forum meeting, (then the Prince of Wales) Charles noted: “We can’t go on like this, with every month another record in temperatures being broken … Do we want to go down in history as the people who did nothing to bring the world back from the brink in time to restore the balance when we could have done? I don’t want to.” Perhaps, King Charles III should start thinking how he would like to go down in history. We suggest he has an excellent opportunity to distinguish himself as the climate monarch.