Charles III and Climate Change in the U.K.

I hold no brief for monarchs—I spent my boyhood giving tours of Lexington’s Battle Green, the sacred patch of Massachusetts soil where the Minutemen launched the fight against the crown’s colonialism. However, it is worth noting that the newest occupant of the British throne, Charles III, understands in fairly deep ways the climate crisis now imperilling our career as a species.

It is, as he said at the Glasgow climate talks last year, an “existential threat” that requires the world to go on a “warlike footing.” His language showed him to be a man who had studied the problem deeply: “As we tackle this crisis, our efforts cannot be a series of independent initiatives running in parallel. 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.” Speaking to the assembled leaders, he said, “Many of your countries, I know, are already feeling the devastating impact of climate change, through ever-increasing droughts, mudslides, floods, hurricanes, cyclones, and wildfires.” He concluded, “I can only urge you, as the world’s decision-makers, to find practical ways of overcoming differences so we can all get down to work, together.”

Yet this, apparently, is something that he will no longer be allowed to do. At the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, in fact, Charles was due to meet with John Kerry, the U.S. special envoy for climate, in Scotland, to discuss climate financing. But, now that Charles has ascended to the throne, he is bound by convention to not publicly register his own views on matters of political policy, and, indeed, to accept the policies of the government. “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 in a televised address, upon taking up his new role. “But I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.”

Maybe. But those in the government on whom, at present, he will have to rely, at least in the United Kingdom, are not the best possible advertisement for the advantages of democratic decision-making. Charles is not the only Britisher with a new job: the Conservative leader Liz Truss came on as Prime Minister a couple of days before the Queen perished. Surely Truss’s advent did not actually hasten the monarch’s demise, but, if they discussed climate change, it must have been a wary chat. Before last year’s Glasgow talks, the Queen was caught on an open mike, during the opening of the Welsh Parliament, telling Charles’s wife, Camilla, and the Parliament’s presiding officer, how annoyed she was by leaders waffling on the issue. “It’s really irritating when they talk, but they don’t do,” Elizabeth said. Truss doesn’t even talk much about climate change—she gave a speech last week on energy policy in which, though she referred to clean and renewable technologies, she managed to not even mention the phrase, and also promised to increase oil and gas extraction. (It’s a sign of how far right the Tories have swung; Margaret Thatcher, who had trained as a scientist, was an early advocate of climate action.) Truss has called for ending the ban on fracking in the U.K., and she has appointed as her Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Member of Parliament who has wandered the fever swamps of climate denialism.

Here’s what Rees-Mogg told an interviewer in 2014 about climate change: “If you read the I.P.C.C. report on this, it said that if we were to take action now to try and stop man-made global warming, it would have no effect for hundreds or possibly a thousand years. I’m all in favor of long-term policymaking, but I think that trying to forecast the climate for a thousand years, and what little steps you make now having the ability to change it, is unrealistic. And I think the cost of it is probably unaffordable.” In fact, as the Guardian noted, this is precisely a hundred per cent the opposite of what the climate experts in the I.P.C.C. have been trying to tell us: their real claim is that we need immediate action, right now, and that if we don’t get it the results will be playing out for hundreds and thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of years. But Rees-Mogg believes what he believes, which is that we should “cut the green crap” and that “we need to be thinking about extracting every last cubic inch of gas from the North Sea.”

As a small-“D” democrat, I acknowledge that we can’t have hereditary monarchs making public policy, even if, in this case, their understanding of the science far outstrips the ideological biases of unhereditary officials; also, colonialism and climate change are more than a little linked. But I hope that King Charles figures out a way to keep applying pressure, and I have an idea. The Queen left an estimated personal fortune worth five hundred million dollars, and Charles himself reportedly had almost as much before he became king. His nominal ownership of the Crown Estate, which includes the seabed out twelve nautical miles from the coast and a large swath of central London, might be promising, but, sensibly enough, the monarch has no control over the estate. Still, Charles could leverage some of his own money.

In 2020, investment managers at Coutts, a bank used by both Charles and the Queen, pledged to drop their holdings in “extreme” fossil fuels, such as tar-sands oil. “Inaction is not an option,” Mohammad Kamal Syed, the head of asset management at Coutts, said in 2020. “We invest with purpose and integrity, and with a keen focus on sustainability. It’s extremely important that we do this well. It’s not enough to simply sit back and do nothing to make it worse. We all have to do something tangible. Defeating climate change, for example, isn’t about what we believe, it’s about what we do.”

Charles divested his personal holdings from fossil fuels in 2015 and now, as king, he could pressure Coutts to speed up the disconnection of royal holdings from all fossil fuels. (The bank is currently planning to cut emissions related to its over-all holdings in half by the end of 2030.) It would send a strong signal—an acknowledgement that, in our overheating world, all fossil fuels are extreme, and that time is short. It would add to pressure on big banks both in the U.K. and America to do likewise; probably it would inspire other “high-net-worth individuals” to do the right thing, if only to win royal favor. And it would undercut the climate skeptics now in charge of Britain’s energy policy, but in a way that crossed no constitutional lines; just or not (and not seems more likely), it’s his dough. Like mother, like son: continuity, after all, is supposed to be the point of the monarchy. ♦

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