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King Charles III’s climate, environment beliefs are messy

King Charles III's climate, environment beliefs are messy

When King Charles III assumed the throne last week after the death of his mother, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, some commentators were quick to point out that the septuagenarian could be the nation’s first “climate king.” After all, the heir to Britain’s throne has spent the last 50-odd years speaking out about climate change, pollution and deforestation. Much has been made of the new king’s penchant for organic farming and his outspoken support for climate action. Last year, at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, he urged the assembled world leaders to adopt a “warlike footing” to address the rapidly warming planet.

But Charles’s environmental views are complex: He is both a classic environmentalist who loves nature, trees and wild animals, and a traditionalist who has battled against wind energy on his estate, flown around the world in a private jet and once critiqued the growth of population in the developing world. He represents some of the paradoxes of a world coming to grips with climate change: a man with extreme wealth and a significant carbon footprint speaking out against global warming; a political figurehead with very little real political clout.

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Many of Charles’s ideas on the natural world are redolent of classic 1960s and 1970s environmentalism — the era in which he came of age. In “Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World,” a 2010 book by the then-Prince of Wales, Charles critiques what he calls the “mechanistic thinking” of factory farming, industrialization and even the Enlightenment, arguing that humanity’s attempt to separate itself from nature has created more problems than it solved. He waxes lyrical in his opposition to gross domestic product, or GDP, as a way of measuring nations’ success. And — in stranger moments — he praises a “sacred geometry” that in his mind unites the architecture of Spanish mosques and planetary orbits.

The new king has also put his ideas into practice on many of his estates. A house he purchased in Scotland has been turned into a kind of environmentalist classroom, where children learn about soil health. His country home boasts an organic farm that Charles started in 1985. And in a head-spinning detail that has been repeated in the news media many times, Charles has apparently retrofitted his Aston Martin to run on leftover wine and cheese.

But there is a more controversial side to the king’s green views, as well. Charles — like his father, Prince Philip, before him — has at times waded into the sticky morass of population growth. In a speech given at the Sheldonian Theater at Oxford University in 2010, then-Prince Charles noted: “When I was born in 1948 a city like Lagos in Nigeria had a population of just 300,000; today, just over 60 years later, it is home to 20 million.”

With population increasing rapidly in Mumbai, Cairo, Mexico City and cities in other developing countries around the world, Charles said Earth cannot “sustain us all, when the pressures on her bounty are so great.” In “Harmony,” he reiterates the same concern, arguing that population growth — long considered an issue too hot to handle — needs to be addressed.

Overpopulation anxieties are not new, and have been echoed at times by other members of the royal family and famous Britons. Philip once called for “voluntary family limitations”; David Attenborough, Britain’s most famous nature broadcaster, has similarly said that “population growth must come to an end.”

There may seem to be a simple logic in laying the blame for climate change on global population, which is now inching toward 8 billion. But there is a long and fraught history of thinkers in developed countries critiquing population growth in developing ones. Betsy Hartman, a professor emerita of development studies at Hampshire College, has said, “In this ideology of ‘too many people,’ it’s always certain people who are ‘too many.’”

And developing countries, where population growth is highest, also have the smallest carbon footprint of each additional person. In Nigeria, for example, each individual accounts for on average 0.6 metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions every year. In the United States, that number is a whopping 13.7 metric tons. Developed countries, meanwhile, have birthrates that are either falling or relatively stable.

The king’s enthusiasm for clean energy also has some asterisks. He has put solar panels on his London mansion and his country home, but according to Britain’s Sunday Times, has also refused to install wind turbines in the Duchy of Cornwall, a vast land holding covering almost more than 200 square miles. (According to the Guardian, Charles once called wind turbines a “horrendous blot on the landscape.”)

In a way, Charles is emblematic of how old-school environmental values may clash with the needs and requirements of a decarbonized world. Being a traditional environmentalist — one who loves trees, nature and animals — does not mean that you support the changes necessary to combat climate change. In some cases, organic farming can be more carbon- and resource-intensive than conventional farming. Zeroing out carbon emissions will require a vast amount of land for solar, wind and geothermal energy; it will also require advanced technologies — better batteries, machines that suck carbon dioxide out of the sky — that Charles has historically critiqued as being forms of “mechanistic thinking.”

There is, of course, another paradox in the idea of Charles as a “climate king.” The royal family holds wealth that is almost unimaginable for the rest of the world. As prince, Charles traveled the world widely by private jet. As king, he is likely to do even more high-carbon flying, easily placing his personal carbon emissions in the top zero-point-something percent of all humans on the planet. And while carbon footprint is a blunt instrument by which to measure environmental impact, the richest people in the world, including the royal family, live in ways difficult to square with a rapidly warming planet. (According to one study, the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s population produce double the carbon emissions of the poorest 50 percent.)

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The question is whether now, as king, Charles will continue to be a voice on the climate and environment. He has said that in his new position, he won’t be able to be a public advocate as he has in the past. “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,” he said in a televised address last week. And as king, he will have precious little input into the working of the British government. (Queen Elizabeth II likewise refused, the vast majority of time, to interfere in politics.)

But the new king’s environmental record could still influence the British public, even if he doesn’t hold direct power to make policy. One study published in the journal Nature Energy last year argued that people with high socioeconomic status — which Charles most certainly is — are both highly responsible for global warming and may have disproportionate power to combat the problem. They can do so through their investments, influencing politicians and other powerful people, or generally redefining what the “good life” should look like. In Britain, the Conservative Party is more likely both to approve of the monarchy and to reject pro-environment policies. It’s possible that the example of Charles could sway some members to think more carefully about the environment, climate change and the nature that he holds so dear.

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