For more than half a century, the late Queen’s son Prince Charles—now King Charles III—has beaten the environmental drum with increasing intensity. He gave a number of sage speeches about pollution in his twenties. He founded prominent sustainability initiatives in his later years. He issued his strongest call to government and business for climate change action in January at the age of 73. “The world is on the brink,” he wrote in an essay. “And we need the mobilizing urgency of a war-like footing if we are to win.”
These positions may put King Charles II at odds with his current government. Two days after Charles was crowned King, Liz Truss became the U.K.’s new Prime Minister. She is a member of the Conservative Party’s right-wing and was elected by her fellow Conservative Party members to succeed Boris Johnson. Truss has regularly expressed doubt about the U.K.’s renewable energy policies and pledged to ramp up fossil fuel investment. Most alarming for environmentalists: Truss has appointed an energy secretary, who has doubted whether climate change was caused by human activity, and whether further global warming should be prevented.
However, it is unlikely that there will be any public clashes between King and Prime Minister. The pair will meet weekly to discuss business in government, but the British monarch plays a primarily ceremonial role. It is expected that the King will remain neutral in politics and refrain from sharing his views. Queen Elizabeth II achieved this feat with remarkable success. She almost never let slip her views of global and national events throughout her 70-year tenure.
Prince Charle meets Mia Amor Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados. This is ahead of their bilateral encounter at the COP26 summit.
Jane Barlow —Getty Images
Many expect Charles, an unusually outspoken royal as Prince, to have a tougher time keeping silent—especially when it comes to the climate. Some believe he may find subtle ways, in the context of his royal duties, to help the environment or view the fate of our planet as something other than politics.
“We’re in a situation where the level of threat is far greater than it’s ever been due to the slow pace of the change,” says Ed Matthew, campaigns director at European climate think tank E3G. “As our sovereign it is surely part of his duty to help ensure that the U.K. is protected from future threats.”
A climate king
Environmentalism was the cornerstone of Charles’ public identity as Prince of Wales. Beginning in the 1970s, Charles gave speeches calling attention to air pollution and plastic waste. He also convened meetings of world leaders to discuss these threats. In 2004, he founded the Financial World Sustainability Charity. A second charity was established in 2010 to promote regenerative agriculture. In interviews, the Prince often touted his personal efforts to lead an eco-friendly life—including limiting his meat consumption and, famously, powering his Aston Martin with waste from wine and cheese-making. In Britain, such attitudes are often viewed as bizarre, even though they were pre-green issues. “I was considered rather dotty, to say the least,” he said in 2020 of his early campaigning.
Prince Charles visits Cameroon’s rainforest to increase awareness about deforestation.
Tim Graham —Getty Images
Some activists, however, say there are major holes in the King’s environmental philosophy. For example, he continues to fly in highly polluting private aircraft. And in a 2010 speech at Oxford University, he cast population growth in Africa and other developing regions as a “monumental” challenge for the planet—an idea repeated by his son Prince William last year. Given that people living in Africa make a tiny contribution to greenhouse gas emissions compared to residents of countries like the U.K., these kinds of “overpopulation” arguments arguably carry racist undertones.
British political analysts believe Charles has still been incredibly helpful to the U.K. environmental cause. Charles is a member of the Royal Family, an institution that conservatives in the U.K. revere. He has contributed to climate action achieving greater bipartisan acceptance in Britain than the U.S. According to Craig Prescott (a Bangor University constitutional law lecturer and expert on constitutional law). “He created a space for it to become part of our discourse in a much easier way. It hasn’t been as controversial as it might have been.”
The U.K. Government’s Record
If King Charles III is a “climate King,” as some environmental news outlets have optimistically labeled him, Liz Truss is definitely not a “climate Prime Minister.” Commentators say she has shown strikingly little interest in the issue during her 12 years in parliament, despite serving as environment secretary from 2014 to 2016. Truss has promised to “double down” on the U.K.’s existing 2050 net-zero emissions goal. However, campaigners doubt her willingness to take the extreme actions required to meet it. The U.K.’s green party dubbed her a “disaster” for the climate.
While campaigning for Conservative Party leadership this summer, Truss expressed concern about solar panels “filling” the country’s fields—they occupy 0.1% of U.K. land mass—and promised to scrap green taxes on energy bills.
In her first week as Prime Minister, Truss announced a plan to overturn the U.K.’s ban on fracking, which carries risks to both local landscapes and the national effort to decarbonize. Jacob Rees Mogg became the new energy minister. Mogg is one of few British lawmakers who supports climate change. Mogg immediately said he would solve the U.K.’s energy price crisis by facilitating new domestic fossil fuel projects to extract “every last cubic inch of gas” from the U.K.’s North Sea reserves. Energy experts say that strategy will have no impact on prices because of the multi-year lead times to get such projects off the ground, and the U.K.’s exposure to the global energy market.
Prince Charles, Diana, Princess Of Wales, and a tree were planted in Chester, England May 1988. Arabella Pollen’s suit is worn by Diana.
Terry Fincher/Princess Diana Archive—Getty Images
The King’s Limited Role
King Charles III will almost certainly not attempt to block any of Truss’ individual environment-related policies. Under the U.K.’s constitutional monarchy, the King or Queen is bound to act on the wishes of the government, Prescott says. Every piece of legislation that is passed by Parliament must be approved by the monarch. However, it is impossible for them to decline this consent in these modern times.
Even the kind of campaigning Charles did as Prince—urging climate action without advocating specific government policies—would likely be controversial now that he is King.
In his Saturday speech, Charles stated that he was aware of the restrictions of his new position. “It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply,” he said.
Instead, he hinted that he hopes Prince William, on taking up Charles’ old title as Prince of Wales, will also take up his campaigning role, “to continue to inspire and lead our national conversations, helping to bring the marginal to the center ground where vital help can be given.” Prince William has already staked his interest in climate change in recent years: in 2020 he founded a climate innovation prize and in 2021 he criticized private space exploration as a waste of resources that could instead be used “to repair this planet.”
Space to Influence
King Charles III could use his climate role in two important areas. The first is that he will have a major diplomatic role. Since few business and government leaders will refuse an invitation to Buckingham Palace, he will be able to convene—as he has already done as Prince—powerful players in the energy transition. His role will include hosting foreign state visits. He will have the chance to talk with foreign dignitaries and at the very least, try to reach common ground about the environment.
Second, he will hold weekly meetings with Truss—audiences that function like company briefings for a board chairman, Prescott says. Truss will keep him informed about the government’s day to-to-day operations and performance. Though he doesn’t have any control over the country, the King may raise questions about its long-term strategy. “By all accounts, what the Queen did was sometimes test and probe what the Prime Minister was saying or what the government policy was,” says Prescott, “rather than saying ‘I disagree’ or ‘I think that’s wrong.’”
Matthew from E3G claims that Charles is neutral but has the potential to exert influence. “It would be within his rights that he would ask questions of Liz Truss, about whether she thinks that her policies are going to address the long term threats facing the U.K.—to remind her of that responsibility—without telling her what policy she must or must not support.”
The King, then, may be a small silver lining on the U.K.’s climate horizon, Matthew says. “He is more educated about these issues than almost any living politician. I think that makes us incredibly lucky to have him.”
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