When Queen Elizabeth II died September 2022, her son Charles III became the new king of England. Immediately, headlines advised on how he could brand himself as the climate king. Publications lauded him as the potential “activist king” or recalled his works as the “climate prince.”
It’s true that, compared to other public figures or wealthy celebrities, Charles has a pretty impressive resume of caring about the environment. He’s been championing environmental causes since the 1970s and has been touting crunchy practices like composting for decades. In 2021, as Charles was travelling to the UN climate summit, the Washington Post branded him “the 21st century’s first eco-king.”
But Charles III is not your climate king. He is a wealthy man who takes private jets and was born into a rich ruling family. He’s now the figurehead of a nation facing rising income inequality and more risks and deaths from climate change-related extreme weather. Any actions he’ll take on climate as king will be cosmetic, at best. His job as royalty will be to maintain the status quo — which is the last thing we need as the world keeps getting hotter.
The ways Charles talks about climate give some insights into how he thinks about it as an issue. Take the message the then-Prince of Wales recorded for a conference on saving the ocean. “We have seen unequivocal evidence that plastics are not only polluting our waters but are entering our food chains and our bodies,” he said in the address. “We are quite literally poisoning ourselves.”
It’s a fine-enough sentiment, but, crucially, we aren’t poisoning ourselves. Corporations owned and operated by the world’s wealthy few are the ones doing the poisoning. They’re supported across the world by permissive government policies. And the people who are most impacted by their dirty crimes are poor people and people of colour — not wealthy elites like Charles.
As the head of the royal family, Charles III will unfortunately be called to political neutrality. He can support his preferred causes, but he is limited in straight-up calling out the fossil fuel companies and politics that have made our climate crisis possible.
And his personal life inescapably marks him as part of the world’s most rich and powerful — the very people who are the most responsible for climate change. Charles’ personal net worth is estimated to be about 600 million pounds. His lifestyle and the lifestyles of his fellow ultra-wealthy produce over 1,000 times the CO2 emissions of the bottom 1% of earners.
UK leadership does seem to be aware of the optics of a huge national celebration for an extremely rich man in these trying times. Saturday’s coronation is being touted as “sustainable,” with a shorter route than Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation back in the 1950s. But the festivities are still speculated to cost upward of 50 million pounds (more than $US62 ($86) million), the Guardian reported.
Plus, the examples often trotted out to frame Charles as a climate guy can be a little cringey. In a 2021 interview with the BBC, he described how his 1970 Aston Martin runs on a surplus of white wine and whey from cheese making, which, hey, is pretty cool! But the average person does not have time nor the funds to retrofit a car to run off biofuels made with pino grigio. And his enthusiasm for low-emissions vehicles doesn’t seem to extend very far: In 2022, the Telegraph reported that Charles III had taken more than 20 private flights (including several helicopters) to avoid traffic. No amount of whey byproduct or leftover wine is going to make up for the emissions from private jets and helicopters.
King Charles III is inheriting the throne during a pivotal time for global climate action. It’s a huge responsibility, but he is not among those on the frontlines of the problems. People displaced by wildfires and victims of heat waves throughout the UK don’t need more words — they need action that Charles won’t be able to take on as king.
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