King Charles at COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (Picture: PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
One of the most striking features of an extraordinary last two weeks has been the extent to which, even amongst those who are not royalists, the Queen was respected, admired and loved.
And while these feelings are certainly not universal, the country has, in many respects, felt more united than it has done for some time.
That ability to unite for the sake of what we have in common couldn’t be more critical at this juncture in our shared history.
A war in Ukraine is killing thousands and threatening peace in the rest of Europe, which for most of us seems as lifelong and enduring as the Queen herself.
Energy bills are spiralling as a result of our destructive dependence on fossil fuels; and a cost of living scandal is plunging millions into poverty.
All the while, there is a rapidly-closing window to avert climate catastrophe, the signs of which are becoming ever more apparent.
From deadly floods in Pakistan killing 1,500 and displacing millions, to the EU’s 53,000 excess deaths in July following record-breaking heatwaves, and one of the UK‘s worst droughts in living memory.
Tackling the climate emergency is a crucial piece in the puzzle to solving other national crises – making our energy system less vulnerable to volatile gas prices, keeping our homes insulated all year round, and slashing our household bills.
It’s also an opportunity to right some of the imperial and colonialist wrongs perpetuated by Britain in the past – by putting climate justice and climate reparations front and centre of the global response.
So having a monarch in King Charles who has used his platform to articulate the threat that the climate emergency poses to us all, for well over 50 years, is significant even for those of us who fundamentally disagree with the hereditary principle.
As long ago as 1970, Charles spoke out as a young 21-year-old, warning about ‘the horrifying effects of pollution in all its cancerous forms.’
In 2013, he criticised the ‘confirmed sceptics’ and ‘corporate lobbyists’ who are resisting climate action and sending us deeper into crisis.
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And he’s met and spoken with US climate envoy John Kerry.
That doesn’t make his track record on the environment perfect by any means – the call to block wind farms on his own Duchy of Cornwall estate was unnecessary.
Nor does it excuse the fundamental wrongdoings attributed to the institution he represents. The history of the British monarchy cannot be separated from that of Britain’s complicity in slavery, the plundering of people and natural resources in the name of Empire.
The Royal Family will increasingly risk undermining broad support if it doesn’t offer an apology for slavery, as many are demanding, and take serious steps on reparations for the past.
The monarchy can do more to lead from the front – and we should welcome that possibility.
As his constitutional role changes, King Charles might not be able to speak out in the same manner as he has done previously – but when we are on a war footing against the climate emergency, there are certainly steps that an eco-conscious monarch can take to help make a difference.
The Queen had 70 years to make history, Charles will have far fewer (Picture:Getty)
For starters, let’s look at the monarchy’s land use.
The UK has become one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world – yet there are also 850,000 acres of Crown Lands, owned by the monarchy, with vast potential to be nature-rich and thriving.
If rewilded effectively, these lands could make a difference in helping to tackle the nature emergency – and would send a message to all other major landowners in the UK to join the national effort to reverse the destruction of our biodiversity and wildlife.
And let’s open up some of these spaces not just to nature, but to the general public too.
If it’s true that King Charles intends to continue using Clarence House as his home, rather than Buckingham Palace, then perhaps it’s time to merge the palace’s private gardens with nearby Green Park to form a vast green space across London and provide a tangible public benefit.
There are many other examples that a climate-active monarchy could set.
All royal palaces could become carbon neutral; King Charles could ensure the entire Royal Family transition to electric cars; journeys within Britain could be made by train, rather than by plane or helicopter; meat could be served less often at state banquets.
None of this will fully mitigate the giant environmental footprint associated with the monarchy’s massive wealth and privilege, but it would send a symbolic message around the world that climate action matters to all of us.
We are marking the end of an era and, for now, for better or worse, we have a monarch.
I can think of no better way to deploy the soft power that that role enjoys than making sure Charles’ words on the environment really count.
Queen Elizabeth had seven decades to make history, King Charles will have far less. But uniting Britain and the world in a proportionate response to the climate emergency could be an even more meaningful legacy.
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