Will Charles be the world’s first climate monarch?

The King has long championed environmental issues but his new role is very different

King Charles III
King Charles III, then the Prince of Wales, visits the Eden Project in 2011
(Image credit: Matt Cardy/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Environmentalism was a cornerstone of King Charles’s identity as Prince of Wales but commentators have wondered if he will be able to carve out an identity as the country’s “climate king”.

Charles has spent some 50 years speaking and campaigning on environmental and climate issues, with his interests ranging “from tropical forests to the ocean depths, from sustainable farming practices to water security”, said the BBC.

As Prince of Wales he raised the alarm on subjects that many previously thought of as fringe and “long before such concerns became mainstream”, said the broadcaster.

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In recent years he became increasingly focused on tackling global warming, becoming a “major presence” at the Cop26 global climate change summit in Glasgow last year, where he urged leaders to find practical solutions to rescue the planet.

But in his first speech as monarch, King Charles III acknowledged his new role means 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”. It was a line that signalled not only his new role within the Royal Family but also an awareness of his constitutional duties as its head.

What did the papers say?

Charles “set the precedent” for his many years of environmental campaigning back in 1969, said Town & Country magazine, when the young Prince of Wales wrote to the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, about the decline of salmon stocks in Scottish rivers. “People are notoriously short-sighted when it comes to questions of wildlife,” he wrote.

The following year he made a speech warning of the dangers of pollution, telling the Countryside in 1970 conference that action must be taken against the “horrifying effects of pollution in all its cancerous forms”.

He would later reflect that it was a speech for which he was branded “rather dotty”, as he said in an interview for his Sustainable Markets Initiative in 2020. The project, which aimed to encourage the private sector to accelerate its efforts to build a sustainable future, was just one of many environmental projects Charles undertook as Prince of Wales.

It was for his environmental credentials that he was “deployed as a not-so-secret weapon” at the Cop26 climate summit in 2021. It was hoped that his “personal relationship” with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, would “help persuade one of the world’s largest polluters to agree to the phasing out of coal”, said Sky News.

Ultimately, the Glasgow summit urged countries to “phase down” coal use rather than phase out unabated coal use, a result that was “far from perfect, but better than nothing, and partly thanks to Charles”, the broadcaster added.

What next?

When Charles assumed the throne, many commentators speculated that he could be the nation’s “first ‘climate king’”, said The Washington Post.

But Charles’s views on the environment are “complex”, said the paper. It described him as “both a classic environmentalist who loves nature, trees and wild animals” but also “a traditionalist who has battled against wind energy on his estate, flown around the world in a private jet and once critiqued the growth of population in the developing world”.

He represents “some of the paradoxes of a world coming to grips with climate change”, said the paper. He is a man with “extreme wealth and a significant carbon footprint speaking out against global warming” and “a political figurehead with very little real political clout”.

But as King, Charles is now subject to different rules, with the monarch “obliged to remain politically neutral”, said the BBC. But many of his friends and advisers believe he “will not cool on the issue of global warming”, said the broadcaster. It remains to be seen whether he will continue to be “so outspoken on this or any other issue”, it said.

So far it seems the King is clear on his constitutional duties. When asked in an interview in 2018 whether he would be a “meddling” king, he replied: “I am not that stupid.”

But his beliefs could put the King “at odds with the government he now serves”, said Time magazine. The new prime minister, Liz Truss, has, for example, “regularly expressed doubt about the U.K.’s renewable energy policies and pledged to ramp up fossil fuel investment”.

While “public clashes” between the new King and the new prime minister are “very unlikely”, as “an unusually outspoken royal” he may still have a “tougher time” keeping silent on climate change and environmentalism.

But his advocates and supporters hope he may be able to find “subtle ways to further the environmental agenda, within the confines of his royal role”, or even manage to “frame the fate of the planet as an issue beyond politics”, said Time.

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