Editor’s note: Joseph Romm, former Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in the Clinton administration, has written eight books on climate and clean technology, most recently, Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know. He holds a PhD in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The opinions in this comment are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.
For more than five decades, the Prince of Wales, Charles, the heir to the British throne, has spoken about the dangers of climate change and the need for joint global action to protect the environment.
In one of his first speeches on the environment in 1970, he warned about the problem of air pollution “blown up by endless cars and airplanes.” When he started calling for climate action in 1990, he again showed that he was ahead of the curve.
But the past is not necessarily the foreword, especially now that the speaker of these bold statements is the new sovereign of the United Kingdom.
The question for the new king, his subjects and environmentalists around the world is, what will Charles do now?
Will he abandon an environmental platform that has enabled millions of people to become more aware of climate change? Will he remain silent and on the side of the ecological movement, at a time when the harmful effects of global warming are felt more acutely than ever?
Some readers of the political tea leaves have pointed to his first speech as king as evidence that Charles wants to abandon his public campaigning, even on pressing issues such as future global climate catastrophe.
In a speech to Britons last week, Charles pledged to uphold “constitutional principles”. He added, “I will no longer be able to give my time and energy to the charities and issues that I care so much about.”
It echoes what he said in a BBC documentary a few years ago, when asked if he would continue his public campaign after becoming king, when he replied that being sovereign is a “separate exercise”. Once crowned king, Charles said he could only act “within constitutional parameters”.
In fact, the uncodified constitution of Great Britain states that the sovereign should not express an opinion on political matters. And certainly the beloved Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth, who died last week, maintained that tradition throughout her reign.
But it is more essential than Charles’s adherence to Britain’s unwritten constitution. And the newly crowned king already knows what it is.
At the UN’s November 2021 COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Charles declared that climate change is an “existential threat” that we must all put on a “war footing” if we hope to defeat it. As he warned, “time is literally running out for the nations of the world to start ‘radically transforming’ their economies away from fossil fuels and towards renewables.
Recent research shows the wisdom of these words, revealing that the earth is approaching various climate tipping points sooner than previously thought. The failure of world leaders to respond to climate change was felt this summer in Britain itself, with a record high of 104°F just a few weeks ago.
But Charles has duties that extend far beyond Britain’s borders. The 56 nations that make up the Commonwealth have committed in their charter to help each other achieve prosperity through sustainable development, “particularly in addressing the challenges of climate change adaptation and mitigation”.
The Commonwealth includes many of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, including many low-lying island nations that face rising sea levels and worsening tropical storms, such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, Vanuatu, the Maldives and a dozen Caribbean countries. It includes 21 African nations that are also experiencing the adverse effects of climate change. And that includes Pakistan, where warming-driven floods have submerged a third of the country. India, a former British colony, also experienced record flooding this year. Scientists also predict that sea level rise could displace 18 million Bangladeshis by 2050.
The prime minister of Australia – one of 14 Commonwealth countries that still recognize Britain’s sovereign as head of state – also said it would be appropriate for Charles to continue to advocate for the climate. “I believe that meeting the challenge of climate change should not be seen as a political issue,” said Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who called it our “survival as a world.”
Also from the point of view of political interest, any monarch who hopes to curry favor with the subjects of those distant former colonies – some of whom have openly announced that they are reconsidering their intention to become a republic following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. he may consider including environmental protection in his agenda.
But some activists in former British colonies say the imperative for Charles to remain engaged in environmental issues is not just political, but moral.
Climate expert Basav Sen, who was born and raised in India, says that Britain was “the only political power to literally start the fossil fuel Industrial Revolution”, and that the “colonial plunder” of the British Empire “provided much of the capital”. investment” for that purpose. It’s an argument that some in the UK might dismiss out of hand, but it remains the way many climate activists in Britain’s current and former overseas territories see the issue.
In an interview at the World Economic Forum in 2020, Charles asked: “what good is all the extra wealth in the world… if you can’t do anything except watch it burn under catastrophic conditions?” He asked: “Do we want to go down in history as people who did nothing to bring the world back from the brink?” He answered her question, “I don’t want to.”
The following year, Charles launched the Terra Carta, a mandate and roadmap for climate action that gives “nature its fundamental rights and value.” As he wrote in the foreword, it takes its name from the Magna Carta of 1215, which “encouraged belief in the fundamental rights and liberties of the people” – an implicit case, if ever there was one, that it could be considered climate action. constitutional principle.
Surely, these are not the words of a man who intends to remain silent in the face of one of the gravest emergencies facing civilization right now.
And while tradition may suggest he should stay mum on political matters, a new sovereign is well within his royal prerogatives to shape the contours of his reign. At least that’s what some political observers say. As one, Charles’ former press secretary, Julian Payne, noted, “the king is a collector” and can bring together “the best brains and the most experienced people and listen to their ideas” on climate action.
The UK Conservative Party has endorsed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for climate science and action. By March 2022, half of Conservative MPs had joined the Environmental Conservatives Network, as the country commits to net zero emissions by 2050.
Where Charles can do his part is to press Britain’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss on climate action in his weekly private meetings with her. Truss has promised to “redouble our efforts to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, which in a conservative way helps households and businesses”.
Unfortunately, he has appointed climate skeptics and deniers to top positions such as transportation secretary, energy secretary, and commerce secretary. Even if she rejects the role of the public talking about climate, the monarch must be an activist for the Conservatives to continue with her government’s climate credentials.
Charles can and should make climate change a central focus of his reign, both publicly and privately. In fact, it will probably be the only way to keep the monarchy relevant in the coming decades, where climate change becomes a major global issue, with its impacts becoming more widespread and catastrophic.
No one is suggesting that the King will rule as a carbon copy of his mother; it would be foolish to even try it. But he must make an effort to win over the public on his own terms, in his own way and by pressing the issues and priorities that interest him, among which climate action is the main one.
To do less would be to tie his hand behind his back on an issue that seems to matter to him above all others and will allow him to make a truly consequential mark as Britain’s new ruler.