Britain’s brand new monarch, King Charles III, has been an outspoken climate advocate. As Prince of Wales, he’s spent decades campaigning on environmental issues, organic agriculture, and biodiversity.
Charles has pushed corporations to invest in conservation. In the 1980s, he also placed an organic farm on his estate in Gloucester. And in 2015, he divested his personal holdings from fossil fuels.
For all this, he’s been dubbed the “climate king.” But his environmental impact is a mixed bag.
Many have pointed to the wild contradictions in Charles’ personal habits. Though he’s known for his conspicuously climate-friendly consumption — his vintage Aston Martin car runs, incredibly, on the byproducts of wine and cheese, and some 90 percent of the energy used in his homes and office comes from renewable sources, according to his website — he also has a propensity for taking high-emitting private jet trips, including to fly to United Nations climate talks.
Perhaps an even bigger question: What does it mean for a “climate king” to preside over a nation that’s colonized so many others? Experts say colonialism and the climate crisis are closely linked. In fact, colonialism is a historical and continual driver of climate change and its imbalanced effects, as a February report from the world’s top climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stated.
“Inequality and marginalization anywhere leads to horrific impacts from climate events,” Erin Coughlan de Perez, a climate scientist at Tufts University and report co-author, told the Globe at the time.
British colonialism drove the Industrial Revolution, which helped spark the climate crisis, research shows, because as the British extracted raw materials from its colonies, the empire poured the resulting wealth into an economy fueled by coal.
“Not only was the British empire an oppressive colonial entity, it was also quite literally the one political power that started the fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution, the driving force behind climate change,” environmental justice expert Basav Sen told the newsletter Heated.
And the legacies of colonialism are visible in today’s climate disasters, experts say. Ayesha Siddiqi, a geography lecturer at the University of Cambridge, says those histories exacerbated the horrific floods that are currently overwhelming the nation of Pakistan.
“Since colonial times state planning in this part of South Asia has historically been focused on a very modernist engineering paradigm which relies on mega projects for water management, and also for flood management,” she told Inside Climate News. “This has resulted in a number of documented challenges, such as breaching of banks, and creating sudden changes in river flows and feeding flood waves.”
1. Please stop: suggesting ‘glacier melt’, ‘unprecedented rains’, ‘monsoon season’ etc are responsible for this disaster. Structural inequality, bad policy-making (politically but also ideologically motivated) and Imperial power/knowledge systems pre & post independence are.— ayeshasiddiqi (@ayeshasiddiqi12) August 28, 2022
There are other examples: Studies of catastrophic fires in Australia and storms on Caribbean islands were made worse because of colonial legacies. Communities were displaced, and sustainable vegetation and building practices — which helped keep fires and floodwaters, respectively, at bay — were wiped out.
One way he could begin to help, however, would be to continue to advocate for climate action, eschewing the expectation that he’ll fall silent in his new position.
The UK is the fifth-biggest historical emitter in the world. By pushing political leaders to not only curb the nation’s current emissions, but also provide climate aid for formerly colonized nations, he could help ensure they can weather the climate crisis his nation helped start in the first place.