On February 19, 1970, a nervous, 21-year-old Cambridge University student, wearing a mud-brown suit typical of the times, warned the Welsh Countryside Commission in Cardiff about “the horrifying effects of pollution in all its cancerous forms.”
The speaker, then a young Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, predicted that the enormous costs of fighting pollution would test politicians’ will and the public purse. “Are we all prepared to accept these price increases for the sometimes dubious advantage of seeing our environment improved? Are we prepared to discipline ourselves to restrictions and regulations that we feel we ought to impose for our own good?”
Sadly, Charles proved uncommonly prescient. As heir apparent, he fought climate complacency for 50 years, proving himself to be one of the world’s most consistent – if unlikeliest – eco-activists. The road, however, has been bumpy. At the start, Charles recently recalled, he was considered “dotty” for harping on such uncomfortable truths. Later, he enraged Cabinet members for exposing Britain’s odious habit of dumping sewage in the North Sea.
Charles has harangued and fatigued his subjects over topics as varied as conservation of wetlands and wildlife, urban design and architecture, organic farming, sheep-shearing, green buildings, socially responsible business, personalized healthcare and electric vehicles (his own Aston Martin runs on surplus wine and whey from cheese-making).
As he explained in the introduction to his 2009 book, Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, “What I have actually been trying to demonstrate is that all of these subjects are completely inter-related and that we have to look at the whole picture to understand the problems we face. For not only does it concern the way we treat the world around us, it is also to do with how we view ourselves.”
His solutions have also been remarkably consistent in encouraging creative leaders. In that 1970 speech, he launched a new “Countryside Award” for organizations that enhanced the environment of Wales. Half a century later, he launched the Sustainable Markets Initiative to rally global companies to accelerate the energy transition; at COP26, the 2021 UN climate summit in Glasgow, Charles handed out the Terra Carta Seal to 45 global companies leading the way (a project on which Corporate Knights offers advising services).
But while Charles has been heralded for his climate advocacy, some climate activists from countries colonized by England are hoping the new king will do more to acknowledge the links between colonialism and the climate crisis. In a report released in April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change named colonialism as a driver of the “vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change.”
But as king, Charles will likely have to curtail his activist instincts. Centuries of convention forbid the British monarch to interfere in political decision-making (Charles I lost his head in 1649 for insisting on the divine right of kings). “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,” said Charles in a televised address in September.
Jonathon Porritt, former head of the U.K. Green party and Charles’s sometime advisor, notes that his reticence may not carry over into private conversations – and that the monarch meets with the prime minister every week. As Porritt told The Guardian, “Whoever is prime minister should probably anticipate a pretty lively set of conversations.”
In any event, William, the new Prince of Wales, seems set to carry on his father’s work. In 2020, he cofounded, with biologist and broadcaster David Attenborough, the Earthshot Prize, a 50-million-pound organization to recognize individuals or organizations that create impactful solutions to big environmental problems. In announcing the first winners last year, William courted controversy by criticizing billionaire entrepreneurs for funding space travel over climate solutions: "We need some of the world's greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.” Sounds like a chip off the old block.