“I have drawn great comfort and inspiration from the relentless enthusiasm of people of all ages – especially the young – in calling for everyone to play their part,” Elizabeth II noted in a video-message at Cop26, the UN climate conference, last year. At the time these words seemed innocuously vague. Today they have new weight.
After an intervention by Liz Truss, Charles III will not be following his mother’s lead at Cop27 in Egypt in November. Despite the King being a renowned and long-standing champion of environmental protection, The Times reports that the Prime Minister advised him not to attend. So instead of urging others to “play their part”, his own role will be lessened.
That it is Truss who has ensured this is no surprise. Her growth-at-any-cost approach to the economy has always been on an ideological collision course with Charles’s concern that over-consumption is harming people and the planet. Truss’s first few weeks in office have been marked by de-regulatory, anti-environment policies that will remove protections and make it harder for Britain to reduce its carbon emissions. Silencing Charles fits with this assault on nature.
Yet in making the monarchy part of her ideological battleground, Truss is further exposing her own shaky constitutional position. Yes, a king should remain scrupulously neutral on political issues; the prime minister, for their part, should have a clear democratic mandate. In her recent mini-Budget, Truss had authorisation from neither the electorate nor cabinet.
It is also perfectly possible for Charles to make politically neutral comments on climate change. How to tackle the challenge may be deeply politicised, but the science speaks for itself: unless greenhouse gas emissions are cut rapidly and deeply, then devastating climate “tipping points” will very probably be passed. The British public gets this, with around a quarter citing climate and environment as a major issue of concern in Ipsos polling. The UK’s target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 was enshrined in law in 2019 – planning not to meet it would surely be an unconstitutional move.
There is precedent for the monarch speaking at a climate conference even within the present electoral cycle. Some in the Tory party have suggested that Prince William could go in Charles’s place, but at last year’s summit three generations of royals took part: the Queen, Charles and William. If only William attends this year the UK will weaken its soft power on an issue on which it formerly led the world.
And as head of the association of Commonwealth nations, Charles arguably has a responsibility to represent the interests of those beyond Britain’s borders too. Climate change is hitting the poorest hardest, and the World Bank has warned that it will increase extreme poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean by 300 per cent this decade.
All of which is to say that Truss is in the wrong. Charles must be allowed to speak at Cop27, as his mother did at the last conference. The Queen called for leaders to rise above politics and “achieve true statesmanship” on the climate – words that the Prime Minister, more than anyone, now needs to hear.
[See also: What is on the agenda at Cop27?]