He powers one of his personal cars on white wine and whey. He proudly welcomed the world’s leaders to home turf in Glasgow last year for a United Nations climate conference that some viewed as a tipping point for action to slow global warming. And now, King Charles assumes the throne and its figurative leadership as Britain braces for a bitter winter in the middle of a global energy crisis.
Charles III, who automatically ascended to king upon Queen Elizabeth’s death earlier this month, does await his ceremonial coronation. Yet to many, he’s already been crowned a “climate king.”
In an interview with the left-leaning Guardian, British environmentalist Tony Jupiter ventured to suggest Charles III is “possibly the most significant environmental figure of all time.”
David Callaway, longtime markets veteran and founder of Callaway Climate Insights, says a young Charles addressed global warming in a speech as early as 1970.
Charles, in fact, has embraced alternative fuels — biofuels and other options meant to wean the world from gasoline
— for at least some of his personal driving.
He once told the BBC, “my old Aston Martin, which I’ve had for 51 years, runs on, can you believe this, surplus English white wine and whey from the cheese process.”
Emily Atkin, editor of the “Heated” climate-change newsletter, says she wishes more of the world was asked to comment on Charles’s “climate fighter” status. Of the 10 most climate-vulnerable nations, eight are former British colonies, according to the Global Climate Risk Index.
“While Charles has acknowledged the general injustice of the monarchy’s colonial legacy, he has not connected that legacy to growing climate injustice around the world,” Atkin wrote in her latest issue.
Atkin did note that Charles has called attention to the plight of the Caribbean, so often in the line of hurricanes that are typically packing more water and increasing in frequency due to global warming.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, president of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, was gentler on the new king’s climate status.
“[Charles] has successfully made issues of conservation, adaptation and mitigation in the U.K. and its colonialist territories a focal point,” she said. “This includes investing his time, his ceremonial power and convening capacity to draw attention to environment.”
But for Toles O’Laughlin, the legacy of colonization and its impact on environmental justice isn’t relegated to the past. That’s because the poorest, or still-developing economies, are home to many resources that rich nations use, while the developing world pollutes less per capita than the developed world.
“Decolonization is not merely a reflective exercise, it is a lens that affixed to the present makes the future less bloody, brutish, hot and short,” Toles O’Laughlin tweeted earlier this month. “And it’s required to move from diversity to equity in environment and all the other realms.”
For sure, the many years leading up to this leadership change has revealed many times over Charles’s interest in environmental matters. “Climate change and biodiversity loss are no different [from the cross-border threat of COVID-19],” then-Prince Charles said in 2021. “In fact, they pose an even greater existential threat to the extent that we have to put ourselves on what might be called a war-like footing.”
“‘Decolonization is not merely a reflective exercise, it is a lens that affixed to the present makes the future less bloody, brutish, hot and short.’”
— Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, president of the Environmental Grantmakers Association
The heir to Britain’s throne was addressing the leadership of the world’s richest and most powerful nations to reconsider what to date has been a voluntary, many argue, slow-moving fight to slow global warming, calm rising oceans and stop deforestation. He addressed the U.N.’s Conference of Parties, or COP26, a two-week climate change event in Glasgow late last year.
It’s not the first time the now King Charles III had pushed for a global effort to fight the Earth’s warming. In September 2020, for instance, Charles called for a “Marshall-like plan for nature, people and planet.”
Charles told the Glasgow gathering it will take greater spending to adequately curb climate change than some countries may imagine, but that the effort must infiltrate the global economy. He urged “countries to come together to create the environment that enables every sector of industry to take the action required. We know this will take trillions, not billions, of dollars.”
The royal was drawing from a recent “code red” report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which he said had provided “a clear diagnosis of a scale of the problem — we know what we must do.”
“‘Countries [must] come together to create the environment that enables every sector of industry to take the action required. We know this will take trillions, not billions, of dollars.” ”
— King Charles III
For Charles, climate change is not just a passing fancy; his past remarks have gotten fairly specific on policy.
Efforts to curb emissions must include the pollution from coal-fired power stations, he said at the Glasgow summit. Western nations have emphasized the need for China, India and others to take a harder line on burning coal.
Charles also said then that “putting a value on carbon, thus making carbon capture solutions more economical, is therefore absolutely critical.”
Charles, and other royals, face criticism for the large carbon footprint of flights and other secure transport that their official duties require. The family did urge dignitaries and business notables to fly to the queen’s services on commercial airlines and collectively bus to the events, not rely on low-passenger private jets with significant carbon footprints.
Winter is coming
It also may be evident that Charles is aware he can’t step on official policy. Asked by the BBC last year if the U.K. was doing enough to combat climate change, he replied: “I couldn’t possibly comment.”
For sure, after the ruling party’s leadership change, official policy may sway from the king’s personal beliefs.
The just-ousted prime minister, Boris Johnson, was an advocate for renewable energy and helped Britain toward being a world leader in offshore wind power. His successor, Liz Truss, believes fossil fuels — those tagged for creating Earth-warming emissions — still reign. In fact, she’s named climate-change skeptic Jacob Rees-Mogg, a fixture on the far right of the Conservative Party, as Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, a powerful slot for energy and climate policy alike. Rees-Mogg once said the global population should drill “every last drop” of oil.
Truss has pledged to lift a nationwide ban on fracking as well as to approve more North Sea oil drilling
both decisions framed as making sure “energy supplies are more resilient and more secure” in the face of the strain on global energy markets from Russia’s “Putin’s appalling war in Ukraine.”
Truss “will also know that [Charles’s] opinions are largely shared by his subjects, even though they are prone to chuckle at tales like his reported delight in talking to the plants on his estates,” said Callaway, the climate newsletter editor. “Truss will ignore his views at her peril.”
As he grieves the loss of the queen, the new king, who will turn 74 in November, may feel another loss: ceded ground on the progress made on climate change, according to some political analysts. Keeping the world’s leaders focused on the coming critical years and decades for fighting climate change, even in the face of current struggles, may be his responsibility, and in large part, his own legacy.
“Unlike his mother, Charles is an outspoken activist. He will ruffle feathers, especially on the right. He runs the risk of becoming portrayed as an elitist dilettante, but the [‘green’] movement needs a leader — and the logical pick, [California Gov.] Gavin Newsom, is tainted by a perception that crime is out of control in California,” says Greg Valliere, chief U.S. policy strategist with AGF Investments.
“King Charles ‘runs the risk of becoming portrayed as an elitist dilettante, but the [‘green’] movement needs a leader…’ ”
— Greg Valliere, chief U.S. policy strategist with AGF Investments
Valliere says the climate-change features in a newly passed U.S. law will have an impact on “green” spending for the next decade. It’s one sign of how serious the world has gotten, alongside Britain’s king, when it comes to climate change.
The law’s “proponents cite, correctly, that much of the U.S. and Europe has burned to a crisp this summer; obviously, there’s a climate crisis,” Valliere said. “But the prospect of a long cold winter has deeply unnerved political leaders from the U.S. to Germany to England. They’re scrambling to stockpile fossil fuels, and an underappreciated story is that most consuming countries may be able to muddle through a cold winter.”
Because the threat of Russian gas embargoes has had an enormous impact on the West, the focus is on new nuclear power plants, oil and gas pipelines and refining capacity
and less on retrofitting a vintage English grand touring car for a new era.
“Will Charles be an activist or a pragmatist?” asks Valliere. “If he scolds fossil fuel consumers, his honeymoon will be brief.”