Environment

Can green King Charles change government policy on climate change?

The King was way ahead of his time when he spoke about the environment back in the 1970s. Now, as the government threatens to accelerate fossil fuel extraction, could he be our best secret weapon in the fight for a greener future?

Prince Charles with chickens at Highgrove

In the space of one momentous week, the UK has acquired a new king and a new prime minister. One of them is known for staunch and unstinting devotion to environmental causes, the other immediately promised to open new gas and oil fields and to start fracking. There is now an ideological schism at the very top of society around the UK’s response to climate change.  

It is not the elected representative who better reflects the British public. Liz Truss’s policies may play well to the 140,000 Conservative Party members who voted, but among the broader population they are out of step. More than eight in 10 people in the UK (84 per cent) are concerned about climate change, according to recent Ipsos Mori polling. A similar proportion think that the recent heatwaves in the UK were mostly or partly caused by human activity. The number of people saying they are “worried” or “very worried” about climate change has doubled in the last decade. It’s a remarkable shift in opinion, and one on which the King was way ahead of the curve. 

Princes Charles (as he was then) made his first speech on environmental protection in 1970. “When you think that each person produces roughly two pounds of rubbish per day and there are 55 million of us on this island using non-returnable bottles and indestructible plastic containers, it is not difficult to imagine the mountains of refuse that we shall have to deal with somehow,” he told the Countryside Steering Committee for Wales. Recalling the event 50 years on, Charles said he’d been considered “rather dotty”. 

In the 1980s, Charles took matters into his own hands, turning his Gloucestershire estate Highgrove into a model of regenerative organic agriculture. It’s a time that was memorably represented in The Crown, with Josh O’Connor donning his Wellington boots to portray Charles’s determination to transform the run-down estate into a model of green farming.  

Prince Charles gives speech at COP26
Charles gave a speech at the opening ceremony of COP26 in Glasgow. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Again, it was a radical move by the prince, and he faced pushback as well as mockery. In 1986, he was roundly ridiculed for his conversations with plants, after he said: “I just come and talk to the plants, really – very important to talk to them, they respond.”  

Undeterred, Charles has continued to be a vocal environmental advocate. In 2010 he published Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World. “This is a call to revolution,” the book opens. “The Earth is under threat.” 

In 2020 he called for a “Marshall-like plan for nature, people and planet”. Speaking at the opening day of Climate Week NYC, he said: “The borderless climate, biodiversity and health crises are all symptoms of a planet that has been pushed beyond its planetary boundaries. Without swift and immediate action, at an unprecedented pace and scale, we will miss the window of opportunity to reset for a green-blue recovery and a more sustainable and inclusive future.” 

With views like that, it’s hard to see how Charles would be enthusiastic about the current government direction. Though Truss’s government remains legally bound to hit ‘net zero’ by 2050, environmental groups expressed alarm at the new prime minister’s energy policy. Within days of taking office, Truss had promised to “accelerate” North Sea gas and oil extraction and to start fracking in England within six months. Ministers were rolled out to argue that increasing domestic energy production would help tackle the cost-of-living crisis by leaving us less exposed to international energy markets, but this strategy has been ridiculed by environmentalists, and even called into doubt by Truss’s own chancellor. 

“Additional UK production won’t materially affect the wholesale market price,” Kwasi Kwarteng wrote on Twitter in February this year, speaking in his role as minister for business, energy and industrial strategy before his promotion to the Exchequer. “This includes fracking – UK producers won’t sell shale gas to UK consumers below the market price. They’re not charities.” 

Friends of the Earth said Truss was living in “cloud cuckoo land”. Mike Childs, the group’s head of science, policy and research, said: “The government’s energy plan is farcical in its detachment from reality. It does nothing to tackle the root cause of the energy crisis – our reliance on costly, polluting fossil fuels – and only lines the pockets of the oil and gas companies driving the cost of living and
climate emergencies.” 

“The public are way ahead of the government on the need for rapid action to reduce emissions,” Extinction Rebellion UK (XR) spokesperson Nuala Lam told The Big Issue. 

While XR campaigns for an increase in democratic decision-making through a citizens’ assembly model, Lam called on Charles to take drastic action. “While we have a monarchy that many feel is undemocratic, it is clear that our new King could choose not to be complicit in the first moves of our new unelected Prime Minister,” she said.  

“It is within King Charles’s power to refuse to sign legislation that we all know will do nothing to help with our energy bills and perhaps most importantly, as the UK is still the global COP lead, signals to the world that the UK puts corporate profits above all else, encouraging other nations to follow suit. He can refuse to be complicit in the destruction of communities and lives all over the world.” 

It is true that the King has the right to refuse Royal Assent, but signing bills into action has long been regarded as a formal role. The Cabinet Manual, which sets out how the UK government works, describes the monarch’s role as “providing stability, continuity, and a national focus”. The last occasion on which a monarch vetoed a bill was in 1708, when Queen Anne blocked the Scottish Militia Bill. Doing so today would cause a constitutional crisis. It is very unlikely King Charles will choose that path, but that’s not to say he lacks influence.  

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As an unelected ruler, King Charles does not have the democratic mandate to push his preferred policies. By convention as head of state, the monarch has to remain strictly neutral with respect to political matters. But like his mother, Charles will have weekly audiences with the Prime Minister, during which the monarch may ‘advise and warn’ when necessary.  

Fifteen prime ministers served under Queen Elizabeth. These meetings were strictly private, but occasional anecdotes leaked out, hinting that she may have been more political in private than she was in public. John Major described the meetings as “cathartic”, Blair called her “direct”, Brown said they had a “congenial and businesslike conversation”, and May praised the Queen for her “impressive knowledge and understanding of the issues of the day”. In a hot mic moment Cameron got himself in a spot of royal bother when he told New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg that the Queen had “purred” down the phone to him at the news of the ‘no’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum.  

It remains to be seen how Charles, already less reticent than his predecessor, will navigate relations with the government on the issues that have been at the heart of his whole adult life. During his time as Prince of Wales, he’s already been accused of meddling by the press. His “black spider” memos – written to British government ministers and politicians over the years and revealed through a freedom of information request – covered topics including farming, genetic modification, climate change, social deprivation, planning and architecture. 

King Charles has hinted that he will change in his reign, saying, “As I take up my new responsibilities, 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.” But he will still represent the UK on the international stage, and may take that opportunity to align with progressive, climate-friendly initiatives. 

Last year, he flew to Rome ahead of the COP26 in Glasgow to urge world leaders to take immediate action on climate change. Though those views may no longer see him painted as an eccentric, he was accused of overstepping the bounds of constitutional monarchy.  

On GB News, Nigel Farage was quick to accuse him of wading into “political” questions and therefore away from the royal tradition of staying above the fray. “There he is with political leaders and he’s urging, in effect, legislative change,” said Farage. “And I just wonder whether this is overstepping the mark for the royal family.” 

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Farage, however, has campaigned against the government’s net zero targets and has been quoted as saying, “I think wind energy is the biggest collective economic insanity I’ve seen in my entire life.” He is not a disinterested party, and he is very much in the minority in the UK and globally. 

Given the vast weight of scientific evidence warning what will happen if we do not tackle the climate crisis, and the overwhelming support of the UK public for action, King Charles could argue that it is no longer a controversial political view. His previously niche environmental interests would then no longer require neutrality. He could rally against the existential threat to his people, and the Earth. That really would be a revolution. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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