The Queen’s death brings with it a lot of changes for the country, both in the long and short-term. Beginning that transition to life under a new king – the first in more than 70 years, and the first many of us have ever known – has proven more jarring than many of us anticipated, and has prompted us to focus even more attention on the future, even as we take a moment looking back, too.
And, as has been the norm over the past few years, this one, tremendous change comes at a time already defined by tremendous change – both good and bad – for millions across the country. The past months in particular have made us all particularly aware of the crisis surrounding our dependence on fossil fuels, and its undeniable impact on the environment around us, and further afield.
From the wildfires that destroyed homes in East London in July this year, to the unprecedented loss of life that Pakistan is currently facing as a result of mass flooding – the ongoing fuel crisis, causing unmanageable increases to the cost of living for countless homes in and beyond the UK – proof of the precarious position we find ourselves in is no longer something any of us can ignore.
None of us can deny that change must happen, and though it is slow to come from the government, King Charles’s reputation as a true advocate of the environment brings a new ray of hope as his influence over the country and its officials grows.
But the monarchy’s role is, for many of us, unclear. How much change can he bring, and what can he really enforce as King?
King Charles and the Environment
King Charles’s reputation as a true advocate for the environment came about decades ago, during a landmark speech he gave at the age of twenty-one. His words, first spoken in 1970, ring eerily true today. They are illustrative of the warnings that have been uttered time and time again over decades of human history, against our harmful practices. He stated: ‘We are faced at this moment with the horrifying effects of pollution in all its cancerous forms’.
To think that more than fifty years ago, the climate crisis was being felt as keenly as it is today – though, admittedly, by a smaller number of people – is enough to make anyone feel unsettled. This is not an isolated example of a warning that came ‘before its time’ – a fact which makes it all the more troubling.
At the time, speaking out against environmental damage was deemed eccentric and strange, and the King himself was considered dotty for his sensitivity toward environmental changes. His sensitivity to change became the butt of jokes, as did his decision to talk to the plants he was cultivating – something that has, interestingly enough, demonstrated some value in recent studies, as shown by The Spruce.
Over the decades, the King has continually reaffirmed his stance on environmental change, and the importance of maintaining the balance of the natural world all around us. He has demonstrated a keen interest in renewable energies, having been granted permission to install solar panels on the roof of Clarence House back in 2010, a hydroelectric turbine in the river running beside Birkhall in Aberdeenshire.
He has spoken out against deforestation, genetically modified foods, biodiversity loss, overfishing and untenable farming meat production, as well as the illicit practices of the global private sector. He has spoken at numerous United Nations Climate Change Conferences (most recently, COP26).
Regrettably, the ‘dotty’ image lingered as news outlets and popular culture continued to patronise those who spoke out against the building climate crisis through the late twentieth century and, to some extent, into the twenty-first. Now, however, more people than ever are willing to listen.
The Monarchy, Power, Influence, and Impartiality
Charles’ accession to the throne has given rise to plenty of questions. We are all aware that accession brings with it new influence, new power, and new authority. But, even before the death of Queen Elizabeth II, many felt unsure about the real parameters of the role a King or Queen of England can play in today’s world, versus the role it played some seventy years ago when the last coronation took place.
At the same time, however, the differences between the world as it was and the world as it now is give rise to the perfect platform for impact and positive change. Those who are willing to position themselves at the very forefront of the fight against climate change are needed more so than ever. The population at large is looking for strong, decisive leadership – something we have yet to see from the government.
The trouble is, in spite of King Charles’ personal commitment to climate reform, his role as monarch will demand a certain amount of impartiality. That’s not to say that, as King, he needs to portray himself as impartial to the state of the environment, but that, as King, he cannot pit himself against corporations or industries – however harmful their practices.
What’s more, while the monarch is required to give royal assent to prospective laws, the expectation of impartiality means that it is a formality, rather than an opportunity for the reigning King or Queen to pass their own judgement or scrutiny over the bills.
This is, of course, largely responsible for the fact that the monarchy represents a source of constancy. Feuds do not arise, at least publicly, between the royals and parliament because of the expectations that have been in place for generations.
Nevertheless, it is clear that change is needed. King Charles has already stated his desire to slim down the monarchy, and to make it more relevant to modern Britain. It is not outside of the realm of possibility that he could instate some changes to his own role, and create a new dynamic quite different from the status quo maintained by Queen Elizabeth II.
A New Role in a New Time?
During his first speech after the announcement of the Queen’s death, King Charles stated that he no longer expected to have the same amount of time or ability to invest into the charities and causes he has long since held close to his heart. Quite how much he expects to have to remove himself from the equation remains unclear, and his desire to modernise the monarchy may well enable him to align himself with a particular movement – such as climate reform – in a way Queen Elizabeth II never felt the constraints of the role permitted her to do.
It is, of course, early days. None of us are able to foresee quite what life under Charles’ reign will look like – or, indeed, if anything will really change for the British public at all. The royal family has been called under scrutiny in recent years for being ‘out of touch’ with modern Britain, and putting the right amount of pressure on other authoritative figures to act against climate catastrophe now represents the best possible ‘common ground’ on which to reconnect with them.
In 2020, King Charles announced his Sustainable Markets Initiative and, twelve months later, the Terra Carta – guidance for signatories to follow if they are ready to make their practices more sustainable. The initiative received significant support from the Commonwealth but, at this point in time, it is difficult to gauge quite what will happen to the Commonwealth of the Queen’s reign into the future.
Charles’ eldest son and heir apparent Prince William of Wales has inherited the same keen interest in the environment. He is the founder of the Earth Shot prize, which we wrote about earlier this year, and which seeks to provide funding and exposure to potentially transformative new technologies and initiatives that could prove fundamental to our planet’s recovery.
As he takes up the title his father held for more than sixty years, we can only hope William will be willing to take up the important work King Charles was doing for local and remote environments.
King Charles’ regard for the natural world has not always been recognised as a virtue but, thankfully, no label or joke was enough to deter him from pursuing important work, and from establishing initiatives and programmes that prove fundamental to our efforts against a climate crisis to this day. His new role as King elevates his platform but, unfortunately, current expectations of the reigning sovereign mean that, as it stands, we can’t feel sure that his accession will prove pivotal.
Traditionally, the King is an impartial figure, but we cannot ignore the fact that the country is in need of change, and of a power more effectual and more in-tune with the needs of the people than our current government. The fear surrounding not just the climate crisis, but also the cost-of-living crisis, cannot be resolved by constancy alone. Change is fundamental, and it needs to be pushed forward with the tremendous effort of someone who truly understands what is no longer tenable, and what cannot be avoided any longer.