Climate change could strain relations between Britain's new king and new prime minister

Wellor more than half a century, the Queen’s late son Prince Charles — now King Charles III — has been beating the environmental drum with increasing intensity. In the early twenties, he gave prophetic speeches about pollution. In middle age, he founded high-profile sustainability initiatives. And in January, at the age of 73, he issued his strongest call yet for radical climate action by business and government. “The world is on edge,” he wrote essay. “And we need the mobilizing urgency of war-like support if we are to win.”

These positions could put King Charles III at odds with the government he now serves. Just two days before Charles became king, the United Kingdom also got a new prime minister: Liz Truss. Hailing from the right wing of the Conservative Party, she was elected by its members to replace Boris Johnson. Truss regularly casts doubt on the UK’s renewable energy policies and promises to increase investment in fossil fuels. And, the most disturbing to environmentalists, she has appointed an energy secretary who doubts whether climate change is caused by human activity and whether the world should even try to prevent further global warming.

However, public clashes between the king and the prime minister are highly unlikely. Although the couple will hold weekly private meetings to discuss government business, the British monarch’s role is largely ceremonial. The king is expected to stay above politics and strictly avoid sharing his opinion. Queen Elizabeth II was notoriously successful in this regard, almost never missing an opinion on national or global events during her 70-year reign.

Prince Charles meets Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Amore Motley ahead of their bilateral meeting at the COP26 summit in Glasgow on November 1, 2021. (Jane Barlow - Getty Images)

Prince Charles meets Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Amor Motley ahead of their bilateral meeting at the COP26 summit in Glasgow on November 1, 2021.

Jane Barlow — Getty Images

Many expect Charles, an unusually outspoken royal as a prince, to find it harder to keep quiet – especially when it comes to the climate. He can, advocates hope, find subtle ways to further the environmental agenda, within his royal role, or frame the fate of the planet as a matter outside of politics.

“We are in a situation where the level of threat is much greater than ever because of the slow pace of change,” said Ed Matthew, director of campaigns at the European climate think tank E3G. “As our sovereign, it is certainly part of his duty to help ensure that the UK is protected from future threats.”

Climate king

Environmental protection was the cornerstone of Charles’ public identity as Prince of Wales. Beginning in the 1970s, he gave speeches emphasizing air pollution, plastic waste, oil spills and industrial agriculture, and convened meetings with world leaders to discuss these threats. He founded a charity focused on making the financial world more sustainable in 2004, and another in 2010 dedicated to regenerative agriculture. In interviews, the prince often highlights his personal efforts to live an eco-friendly life – including limiting his meat consumption and famously driving his Aston Martin with waste from wine and cheese production. Such attitudes, expressed long before environmental issues became part of mainstream public discourse, are sometimes seen as eccentric in the British press. “They thought I was pretty stupid, to say the least,” he said in 2020 during his early campaign.

Prince Charles visiting a rainforest in Cameroon to raise awareness of deforestation in 1990 (Tim Graham - Getty Images)

Prince Charles visiting a rainforest in Cameroon to raise awareness of deforestation in 1990.

Tim Graham — Getty Images

But some activists say there are major gaps in the king’s environmental philosophy. He continues to use highly polluting private jets, for example. And in a 2010 speech at Oxford University, he described population growth in Africa and other developing regions as a “monumental” challenge for the planet – an idea it’s repeating by his son Prince William last year. Given that people living in Africa contribute little to greenhouse gas emissions compared to residents of countries such as Great Britain, these kinds of “overpopulation” arguments probably carry racist undertones.

Still, British political analysts say Charles has been extremely helpful to the environmental cause in the UK. He is part of Royal family, an institution revered by British Conservatives. As a result, he helped climate action achieve greater bipartisan acceptance from in USA, says Craig Prescott, a constitutional law expert and lecturer at Bangor University. “It created a space for it to become part of our discourse in a much easier way. It’s not as controversial as it might have been.”

UK Government Record

If King Charles III is “climate king,” as some environmental news optimistically puts it label it Liz Truss is definitely not a ‘climate prime minister’. Commentators say she showed strikingly little interest in the publication during her 12 years in parliament, despite serving as environment secretary from 2014 to 2016. Truss pledged to “double” the UK’s existing 2050 net-zero emissions target. But campaigners have serious doubts about her commitment to the drastic action needed to achieve it. UK Green Party I duplicated it climate “disaster”.

While campaigning for the Conservative Party leadership this summer, Truss expressed concern about solar panels “filling” the country’s fields – they take up 0.1% of the UK’s land mass– and promised to scrap green taxes on energy bills.

In his first week as prime minister, Truss announced a plan to overturn the UK’s ban on fracking, which poses risks to both local landscapes and national decarbonisation efforts. Then she chose Jacob Rees Moggone of the few climate-skeptical lawmakers in mainstream British politics, to lead the Ministry of Energy. Mogg immediately said he would solve the UK’s energy price crisis by facilitating new domestic fossil fuel projects to extract “every last cubic inch of gas” from the UK’s North Sea reserves. Energy experts say this strategy will not have an impact on prices due to the multi-year timescales for starting up such projects and the UK’s exposure to the global energy market.

Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales plant a tree in Chester, England, May 1988. Diana is wearing an Arabella Pollen suit.  (Terry Fincher/Princess Diana Archives—Getty Images)

Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales plant a tree in Chester, England, May 1988. Diana is wearing an Arabella Pollen suit.

Terry Fincher/Princess Diana Archives—Getty Images

The limited role of the king

King Charles III will almost certainly not try to block any of Truss’s individual environmental policies. Under the UK’s constitutional monarchy, the king or queen is bound to act according to the wishes of the government, says Prescott. The monarch must give royal assent to any piece of legislation passed by parliament, but it would be unthinkable in modern times for them to refuse that assent.

Even the kind of campaigning Charles did as prince – pushing for climate action without advocating specific government policies – is likely to be controversial now that he’s king.

Charles made it clear he was aware of the limitations of his new role in his first speech as monarch on Saturday. “It will no longer be possible for me to devote so much of my time and energy to charities and issues that I care so deeply about,” he said.

Instead, he hinted that he hoped Prince William, after assuming Charles’ old title as Prince of Wales, would also take up his role in the campaign, “to continue to inspire and lead our national conversations, helping to bring the marginalized to the center where vital aid can be given. Prince William has already staked his interest in climate change in recent years: in 2020 he founded a prize for climate innovation, and in 2021 he criticized private space exploration as a waste of resources that could instead be used “to repair this planet.”

Space for influence

However, there are two key areas where King Charles III can use his role to fight for the climate. First, he will play a key diplomatic role. Since few business and government leaders will turn down an invitation to Buckingham Palace, he will be able to convene – as he has already done as a prince – powerful players in the energy transition. He will also play a key role in the household of state visits by foreign leaders. In theory, this gives him the opportunity to at least try to find common ground on the environment in a conversation with foreign dignitaries.

Second, he will hold weekly meetings with Truss — audiences that function as company briefings for the board chairman, Prescott says. Truss would inform him of the day-to-day workings of her government and its results. Although he has no control over the country, the king can raise questions about its long-term strategy. “Judging everything, what the Queen does is sometimes test and examine what the Prime Minister is saying or what the government’s policy is,” says Prescott, “instead of saying, ‘I don’t agree’ or ‘I think this is wrong.’ .”

E3G’s Matthew says there is room for influence even as Charles follows this line of neutrality. “He would be within his rights to ask Liz Truss questions about whether she thinks her policies will deal with the long-term threats facing the UK – to remind her of that responsibility – without telling her what policy should or should not support.

The king may therefore be a small silver lining on the UK’s climate horizon, says Matthew. “He is more educated on these issues than almost any politician alive. I think that makes us incredibly lucky to have him.”

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Write to Ciara Nugent in [email protected].

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