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King Charles’s climate kingdom – his unfinished mission

Nik Gowing, Founder & Co-Author, Thinking the Unthinkable

by Nik Gowing, Founder & Co-Author, Thinking the Unthinkable

Filed under Climate Emergency / Leadership case studies

King Charles lll has shown himself to be a vital and hugely influential force for mobilising every effort to save our planet. As the Prince of Wales he spent 50 years highlighting the abuse of nature and the existential threat to all we take for granted.

He has been well ahead of vast numbers of people in warning that ‘time is running out’. But in his self-deprecating way, Charles routinely confided how large numbers of people and interests had long regarded him as ‘slightly dotty’.

Often his ever darker warnings about climate, biodiversity and sustainability were portrayed as coming from the ‘wacky’ voice of a ‘meddling prince’ who was lost in the wilderness.

But he was right. We owe him a great deal.

In the last few years, his moment arrived. The latest science and resulting alerts have justified every warning he has made. We all face dire new realities on tipping points and breaching planetary boundaries, as confirmed last Thursday by a new and sombre peer-reviewed analysis in the journal Science.

Most of his achievements and impacts have been below the public radar. But as I and many others have witnessed behind closed doors they have been profound.

This is because of what he has said, his power to convene the people and forces who matter, and above all his single-minded determination to get stuff done. This was enshrined in his Terra Carta initiative which he launched at the World Economic Forum in 2021. It is a set of principles to 2030 that puts nature, people and planet at the heart of global value creation.

Powers of persuasion

In the Picture Gallery at St James’s Palace, where we saw Privy Councillors assembled to confirm Charles as King on Saturday, I had recently watched him urge, persuade and cajole some 160 top industrial leaders into taking radical action on climate and sustainability.

I sat at the same table. I watched him write extensive notes in his famous ‘black spider’ handwriting and send messages. I saw how he worked a room, with individual words and an encouraging smile for almost every corporate CEO or board chair.

These convening and persuasion powers had been equally evident at a dinner in Buckingham Palace the previous evening. He had been due to meet many of these same corporate leaders who are members of his Sustainable Markets Initiative (SMI) in Scotland the night HM Queen Elizabeth died.

Charles has contributed impressive video remarks to dozens of conferences that I have been involved with. Each was different but with the same assertive appeals for action. His manner was not regal. It was accessible and persuasive. And he had mastered the knack of reading auto script in a relaxed, approachable way that helped him get buy in for his message.

It has been the same when he convenes between 20 and 30 business leaders for virtual, online SMI meetings. I moderated a handful of them for him during the pandemic. When he contributed he volunteered extraordinarily sharp observations and questions which nailed core issues and kept leaders on their mettle.

Significant environmental figure

“The impact he has made has been absolutely huge,” according to Tony Juniper, a leading environmental activist who Charles recruited as an adviser. They co-authored books together. Remarkably he described Charles as ‘the most significant environmental figure in history’ whose work and voice has been ‘absolutely critical on key issues’. As a result, ‘the world is in a better place, but that is not to say we are in a good place. We certainly are not’.

It is an extraordinary achievement.

Critically, in order to achieve this, Charles has managed to walk a fine line of constitutional discretion as a prince. We urge that he must now do the same as king.

But will he - can he - maintain this pivotal role? We at Thinking the Unthinkable believe it is vital that King Charles finds a way, even if it means taking risks to push the boundaries of constitutional propriety and precedent. All our futures and survival are at stake.

However, less than 24 hours after Queen Elizabeth’s death was announced, King Charles used his first public remarks to warn that ‘it will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issue for which I care so deeply. But I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.

He needs to be pressed to reflect positively. Becoming monarch should not mean he can no longer add what is now his even more powerful voice and influence for speeding up all efforts to save our planet.

The new King now has even more global clout and influence to achieve that. Even after the immense achievements and affection generated by Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years on the throne, Charles can further vitalise the role and broaden the relevance of the British monarchy.

Survival and security

John Kerry, US President Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate, believes he must and that he can pull it off. “I hope he does and is able to, because it is a universal issue. It is not ideology. It is not about politics. It is not even grand strategy on a global scale. It is about the survival of the planet, which he has been way ahead on.”

So can King Charles do that?

He is a constitutional monarch. This means that in the UK he can ‘reign but not rule’. As a result, national policy is decided by the political party he nominates to form a government.
However if we go by the British political theorist Walter Bagehot then there are three main political rights that a constitutional monarch may freely exercise: the right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn.

The deepening warnings from science mean there is every reason for Charles to use his new position to warn and warn again, then to keep warning. After all this is about the survival and security of most parts of his kingdom.

He should keep convening those who can achieve the big progress needed. The network of influence he has created should be deepened and broadened, not diluted or marginalised just because he is now king.

This is not daily politics ‘or speaking for a specific piece of legislation’, says Secretary Kerry. “I can’t imagine him not wanting to, and feeling compelled to use the important role of monarch with all the knowledge he has, not to speak out and urge the world to do the things the world needs to do.” After all, Pope Francis speaks out, and often on issues well beyond religion.

Paddy Harverson, communications adviser to the prince from 2004 to 2013 believes he can do this. “I think he would want to continue to be able to convene, but appropriately and within the constitutional conventions of the head of state.”

A trusted hand

King Charles will also have a vital support mechanism on climate in William his heir and son, who has immediately succeeded him as the Prince of Wales. He will take on the climate brief as one of the ‘trusted hand of others’ identified by Charles on Friday. By choice William is already deep into the issues, inter alia as patron of the Earthshot Prize and Fauna & Flora International.

At his grandmother’s jubilee celebration in June William confirmed his commitment very publicly. Speaking on live TV in front of Buckingham Palace he made a point of warning a vast global audience that ‘our planet has become more fragile’. He added: “The pressing need to protect and restore our planet has never been more urgent … Decades of making a better case for taking better care of our world has meant environmental issues are now at the top of the global agenda. More and more businesses and politicians are answering the call. And perhaps most inspiringly the cause is now being spearheaded by an amazing and united generation of young people across the world.” William concluded: “When humankind focuses its minds then anything is possible.”

There is therefore a powerful transgenerational commitment on sustainability within King Charles’s Royal Family. Together it should, and must, be a formidable force to help preserve our human presence on planet Earth.

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