But Charles’s environmental views are complex: he is both a classic environmentalist who loves nature, trees and wildlife, and a traditionalist who fought against wind energy on his estate, flew around the world in a private jet. and he once criticized population growth in the developing world. He represents some of the paradoxes of a world struggling with climate change: a man with extreme wealth and a significant carbon footprint speaking out against global warming; a political figure with little real political power.
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Many of Charles’s ideas about the natural world are reminiscent of the classic environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s, 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 criticizes what he calls the “mechanistic thinking” of industrial agriculture, industrialization and even the Enlightenment, arguing that humanity’s attempt to separate from nature has created more problems than it has solved. He becomes lyrical in his opposition to gross domestic product, or GDP, as a way of measuring the success of nations. And – in the strangest moments – he praises a “sacred geometry” that in his mind unites the architecture of Spanish mosques and planetary orbits.
The new king also put his ideas into practice in many of his possessions. A house he bought in Scotland has been transformed into a kind of environmental class, where children learn about the health of the soil. His country house boasts an organic farm that Charles started in 1985. And in a mind-boggling detail that has been repeated many times in the media, Charles has apparently adapted his Aston Martin to run leftover wine and cheese.
But there is also a more controversial side to the king’s green views. Charles, as his father, Prince Philip, before him, sometimes plunged into the sticky swamp of population growth. In a speech given at the Sheldonian Theater of the University of Oxford 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 hosts 20 million ”.
With populations rapidly increasing in Mumbai, Cairo, Mexico City and cities in other developing countries around the world, Charles said the Earth cannot “support us all, when the pressures on her generosity are so big “. In “Harmony,” he reiterates the same concern, arguing that population growth – long considered too hot an issue to manage – must be addressed.
Overpopulation anxieties are not new and have been repeated at times by other members of the royal family and famous Brits. Philip once asked for “voluntary family limitations”; David Attenborough, Britain’s most famous broadcaster, similarly said that “population growth must stop”.
It might seem a simple logic to blame climate change on the global population, which is now approaching 8 billion. But there is a long and dense history of thinkers in developed countries who criticize population growth in developing countries. Betsy Hartman, Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at Hampshire College, said: “In this ideology of ‘too many people’, it is always some people who are ‘too many’.”
And developing countries, where population growth is highest, also have the smallest carbon footprint for each additional person. In Nigeria, for example, each individual produces an average of 0.6 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. In the United States, that number is a whopping 13.7 tons. Developed countries, meanwhile, have declining or relatively stable birth rates.
The king’s enthusiasm for clean energy also has asterisks. He has installed solar panels in his London mansion and country house, but according to the British Sunday Times, he has also refused to install wind turbines in the Duchy of Cornwall, a vast estate covering nearly more than 200 square miles. (According to the Guardian, Charles once called wind turbines a “hideous patch in the landscape.”)
In a way, Charles is emblematic of how old-school environmental values can clash with the needs and demands of a decarbonised world. Being a traditional conservationist, one who loves trees, nature and animals, does not mean supporting the changes needed to combat climate change. In some cases, organic farming may require more carbon and resources than conventional farming. Zeroing carbon emissions will require a large amount of land for solar, wind and geothermal energy; it will also require advanced technologies – better batteries, machines that suck up carbon dioxide from the sky – that Charles has historically criticized as forms of “mechanistic thinking.”
There is, of course, another paradox in the idea of Charles as “king of the climate”. The royal family holds almost unimaginable wealth for the rest of the world. As a prince, Charles traveled around the world in a private jet. As king, he is likely to fly even higher carbon, easily placing his personal carbon emissions in the highest percentage of all humans on the planet. And while the carbon footprint is a blunt instrument with which to measure environmental impact, the richest people in the world, including the royal family, live in ways that are hard to reconcile with a rapidly warming planet. (According to a study, the richest 1% of the world’s population produces Double 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 climate and the environment. He said that in his new position he won’t be able to be a public attorney like he has done in the past. “It will no longer be possible for me to devote so much of my time and energy to the charities and issues that I care so deeply,” he said in a televised speech last week. And as king, he will make a valuable little contribution to the functioning of the British government. (Queen Elizabeth II also refused, the vast majority of the 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 politics. A study published in the journal Nature Energy last year claimed that people with high socioeconomic status – which is most definitely Charles – are both highly responsible for global warming and may have disproportionate power to fight the problem. They can do this through their investments, by influencing politicians and other powerful people, or by generally redefining what the “good life” should be like. In Britain, the Conservative Party is more likely to approve of the monarchy and reject environmental policies. It is possible that Charles’s example may lead some members to think more carefully about the environment, climate change, and the nature they care so much about.