Everyone agrees that Queen Elizabeth II is a tough act to follow. As a constitutional monarch who united her kingdom without ever making a political statement, let alone a partisan one, she stood above politics as a symbol of the best of British values and character.
King Charles III takes the crown as an old man who has spoken out on issues ranging from urban architecture to the environment and global warming. His personal life also carries heavy baggage: some will never forgive him for his treatment of Princess Diana.
Given this history, he should resist those advisers who want to force him into his mother’s mold. He is not his mother and never will be. He must find his own way. He must recognize his flaws and build on his strengths.
One of its strengths is the aforementioned commitment to the environment. Long before it became fashionable, Charles denounced the plastic pollution of the oceans. He was also ahead of other world leaders in warning about global warming.
As early as 1970, Charles warned of “the horrifying effects of pollution in all its cancerous forms” and highlighted the problem of “indestructible plastic containers”. He took up the challenge of climate change long before anyone else.
“We are destroying the chances of future generations at a rapid rate,” he said, “by failing to recognize the damage we are causing to the natural environment, bearing in mind that this is the only planet that we know has life on it.”
Unlike many, he takes seriously what scientists say about the effects of climate change. “It is disconcerting,” he said, “that in our modern world we have such blind faith in science and technology that we all accept what science tells us about everything – until it’s about climate science.”
At first, critics mocked him for these concerns, but he was never afraid to speak hard truths. “There’s not much we can do now to stop the ice from disappearing from the North Pole in the summer,” he said. “And we probably can’t prevent the melting of permafrost and the resulting release of methane. Also, I’m afraid we’re too late to help the oceans maintain their ability to absorb carbon dioxide.”
At last year’s COP26 meeting in Scotland, he warned: “The scale and scope of the threat we face calls for a global systems-level solution based on the radical transformation of our current economy based on on fossil fuels into a truly renewable and sustainable economy. “
He urged countries “to come together to create the environment that enables every industry sector to take the necessary action. We know it will take trillions, not billions of dollars.”
For most of her reign, Queen Elizabeth would never have uttered those words, which would have sounded too political. But even she at COP26 spoke out forcefully, saying that “the time for words has now passed to the time for action”. Although she only spoke decades after her son, her words at COP26 may have given Charles the green light to continue his advocacy on global warming. Hope.
It’s true that as king, Charles will have to be careful what he says. His surest strategy is to be a spokesperson for science and the need for action, and to let others decide specific policies. But it can act as a convener of scientists and other experts to develop solutions to global warming.
In these efforts, he would find a willing ally in Pope Francis and other religious leaders who recognize global warming as the moral issue of the 21st century. Like the king, religious leaders are not in a position to make political choices about what should be done, but they have the right and the obligation to demand action now before it is too late.