“I remember years Before, back in the 60’s when I was a teenager I used to worry so much about all the things that were going on, the destruction of everything. The uprooting of trees and hedges and draining of wet patches… that kind of incandescence of progress and technology to the exclusion of nature… that utter determination to somehow conquer nature.”
These are not the words of a typical environmental activist, but of King Charles III, who was reflecting on his commitment to protecting nature a few years ago. The video clip marks half a century of the new king’s climate activism, a career that began in 1970 with a speech calling for changes in the way we treat the environment, at a time when the idea of global warming – or even the notion Cutting down trees – perhaps a bad idea came up – was a fringe belief at best.
Since then, the 73-year-old monarch has spent much of his life doing something about the environmental issues that bothered him as a youngster. He is an outspoken supporter of sustainability, organic farming, renewable energy and biodiversity. He has encouraged others to rethink urban design and corporate production. He goes without meat a few days a week. His old Aston Martin runs on excess wine and excess cheese whey. Clarence House, where he lived as Prince of Wales in London, has solar panels. Balmoral, the royal family’s summer residence in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, features hydroelectric turbines and biomass boilers. And at last year’s COP26, the king warned world leaders that “after billions of years of evolution, nature is our best teacher” when it comes to reducing emissions and sequestering carbon, noting that “restoring natural capital, accelerating nature-based solutions and leveraging the circular bioeconomy will be critical to our efforts.”
The King has become head of state in the UK at a time when environmental issues have never been more at the forefront of public and political discourse – and when people are increasingly calling on their leaders to act to avert the climate crisis. But unlike other global poster boys touting climate issues, King Charles is the real deal when it comes to actually believing in the need to tackle climate change, argues Piers Forster, professor of climate physics at the University of Leeds and trustee of the United Bank made of carbon.
“Although he has given many speeches – in Davos etc. – to world leaders, I always get the impression that he really wants to see action on the ground rather than nice words,” says Forster. Farming and land use change are the king’s passions, says Forster, something he will pay particular attention to: “He is not a friend of large-scale agriculture with all its greenhouse gas emissions, the use of fertilizers and the ruthlessness of soil or biodiversity.” This is also the point at which The UK government’s progress — on decarbonising agriculture, increasing biodiversity and improving soils — has been particularly poor, notes Forster.
But after assuming the throne, it’s not certain the king will be able to speed up progress on green issues. Sir Jonathon Porritt, founder of the non-profit sustainability forum For the Future and author of Hope in Hell: A Decade to Address the Climate Emergency, argues that now that the king is monarch, he will actually have less power to bring about change. While he likely still views green issues as “vitally important to the well-being of the nation,” Porritt says, the king’s influence will be limited. “He will definitely not engage in direct campaigns against the evil Big Oil and Gas empire. This goes far beyond the role of a constitutional monarch.”