The UK's new monarch: the green king?

Throughout his life, the UK’s new monarch King Charles III has championed environmental issues and is seen by some as a leading climate advocate, who supports charities and campaigns with global significance. But the monarchy is also a symbol of colonialism. We explore how the two intersect and influence the green credentials of the new king.
  Published:  05 May 2023    |      7 minute read

Located on Queens Way in Kolkata, West Bengal is the opulent, gleaming Victoria Memorial Hall. When Queen Victoria died, Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, proposed its construction in the capital of the British Raj to serve as the national memorial to the queen and to celebrate the history of the British Empire. Within the structure is a towering centrepiece: a marbled statue of Queen Victoria herself.

Over the years the building’s purpose has transformed. For many, it no longer represents the power of a foreign ruler, but rather has been reclaimed as a vital piece of Indian heritage. The building symbolises the complexities of reclaiming history, while acknowledging Curzon’s idealistic view of imperialism.

At the height of the British Empire, the crown ruled over 2 billion people, including the people of India. It’s estimated that around 100 million people died prematurely in India because of British colonialism, making it the largest policy-induced mortality crisis in human history. “History cannot be changed, and the crimes of the British Empire cannot be erased,” write academics Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel for Al Jazeera.

The National Geographic defines colonialism as “control by one power over a dependent area or people”. It involves conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.

Imperialism is when a country extends its power into other territories for economic or political gain. The goal of imperialism is to acquire resources, often through exploitation and force.

For some, the monarchy and the royal family are emblems of historic injustice. But this isn’t just a matter of the past. It’s also problematic in the present, because of inherited riches, power and other benefits.

Mumbai-based writer Rothin Datta argues that Britain’s colonial legacy has an ongoing material impact on the lives of people today. He says British colonialism has created, perpetuated or intensified many issues, including “unemployment, famine, poor sanitary conditions, lack of access to education and healthcare, caste-based [sic] oppression, religious violence, gender-based violence and myriad other issues”.

Among these issues are environmental and climate breakdown.

Oppressive systems like colonialism have facilitated the exploitation of natural resources on a large scale, which is a form of environmental injustice.

According to sociologist Dr Robert Bullard, "environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations."

If environmental justice is about the right we all have to protection from environmental harm, then environmental injustice is what happens when some of us aren't afforded that right.

One example is North Africa, where countries in the region are key suppliers of natural resources, such as oil and gas, to the global economy. Fossil fuel companies are still using tactics set up in the colonial era to extract resources and transfer wealth out of the region. This has worsened the climate crisis, as well as harming the land where the resources are extracted, with North Africa suffering from pollution, loss of soil fertility and water scarcity.

On a broader scale, the region experiences recurrent heat waves, droughts, and rising sea levels. The people who are suffering the worst impacts of resource extraction are poor: small-scale farmers, fisherfolk, the unemployed and near-landless rural workers. Many have lost livelihoods, suffered land degradation and environmental destruction, and had their health seriously undermined.

Our sister organisation Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka described the brutal impact of British rule on their country, which included a bloody war killing thousands, responsibility for biodiversity destruction, extraction and seizing land.

Sri Lanka was colonised by the British for over 150 years, between 1796-1948. They set up a complete governance mechanism, including a railway system to extract goods from Sri Lanka. The British arrested Sri Lankan king Sri Wickrama Rajasingha with the support of Sri Lankan elites and his family was deported to Mauritius. During this bloody war, the British killed thousands of Sri Lankan local people and the indigenous communities.

British colonials responsible for the biodiversity destruction in the country. Thousands of wild elephants were killed as a sport and for their tusks by the British, including government agents like Major Thomas William Rogers, who alone killed over 1,400 elephants.

The British enacted the Crown Lands Ordinance No.12 of 1840 which seized all public land under the British crown. The Waste Lands Ordinance No.1 of 1897 was enacted, and all uncultivated lands were declared as state lands. In doing so, the British gained access to use the land for coffee and tea cultivation. Towards the end of the 1900s, Sri Lanka had almost 400,000 acres of tea plantation, and is one of the main sources of income for the country. But this has been left vulnerable due to climate change.

These are just a couple of examples of how colonialism has contributed to the destruction of the environment and exacerbated the climate crisis. Raw materials from colonies [PDF] across the British Empire were key to the Industrial Revolution, as did profit from the transatlantic slave trade, kick-starting the climate crisis by rapidly increasing the emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Climate and ecological breakdown shouldn’t be considered on their own, but rather as products of systemic exploitation, which widens the inequalities faced by people globally. We need people with influence and power to take action for ecological and climate justice.

What will a new monarch mean for the climate movement?

For some in the environmental movement, King Charles III is a beacon of hope. Charles has spoken out about climate and environmental concerns for the last 50 years and is seen by some as a leading climate advocate, who supports charities and campaigns with global significance. He’s expressed sympathy for Extinction Rebellion, given a speech to the Countryside Steering Committee for Wales warning against the environmental cost of oil pollution and plastic waste when he was just 21, co-authored a children's book on climate change, and spoken from the heart on environmental concerns at global conferences with world leaders.

But the hopes of some for his continued campaigning, let alone the monarchy taking responsibility for its contribution to the climate crisis, have been quashed. In his first speech as king, Charles said “it will no longer be possible to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I cared so deeply.” Environmentalist Al Gore acknowledged Charles’s accession to the throne as “bittersweet” and “of profound consequence for the UK and the world,” expressing being “grateful for his decades of leadership and deep commitment to the environment and protecting the future of our planet”.

This concern has already materialised, with Charles taking a step back from engagements he’d ordinarily attend. Despite attending COP26, he was asked by the government to not attend the COP27 summit in Egypt in 2022, leaving people to speculate just how far the King’s position in the climate movement will change.

Are all forms of environmentalism just?

Some have seen the news of King Charles III stepping down from climate engagement as a step back in the fight for the planet. But others have criticised his green credentials, and some have been unable to separate the individual from the colonial institution he represents. These points of view raise questions about elite forms of environmentalism and conservationism, and their impact on global communities.

There’s a clear conflict between having environmentally sound values and being the beneficiary of wealth accrued by the monarchy through exploitative means such as colonialism, imperialism and slavery. In an open letter from a Jamaican advocacy group to William and Catherine, Prince and Princess of Wales, the royal family were recognised as “direct beneficiaries” of historical wealth accumulation, “including that stemming from the trafficking and enslavement of Africans”. In 2022, Cambridge University academic Priyamvada Gopal noted that “astonishingly there appears to be no study of this topic,” while the Guardian explained that Queen Elizabeth “successfully lobbied the government to change a draft law in order to conceal her ‘embarrassing’ private wealth from the public.”

However, King Charles, for the very first time, has signalled support for research into the monarchy’s slavery ties, and how his family has benefited from the atrocity. It’s vital that we confront this history and its continuing legacy, which has enormous impact on both people and planet, including one of the greatest challenges we’re all facing: the climate crisis.

Former Guardian environment editor John Vidal proposed a plan for green King Charles to sell the "many thousands of great diamonds, rubies and other jewels that have been handed personally to royalty over 200 years", while stating that "most jewels were looted in colonial times" and use the cash to help save the planet. He observes that the new King “runs a multibillion-pound private corporation and has one of the world’s greatest personal fortunes.”

It can’t be overstated how important finance is when tackling the climate crisis, especially when it comes to rectifying years of climate exploitation and working towards climate justice. This isn’t a novel idea. The United Nations climate change body states that wealthy countries have a historic responsibility for causing the crisis and must provide financial support to help poorer countries reduce emissions and adapt to impacts.

Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka explained: “while Charles is a well known environmental advocate, the British monarchy is responsible for leading environmental destruction in the 17th, 18th and 19th century. Their ecological and climate debt is far beyond calculation – they owe a lot to the colonised nations. As an environmental advocate, Charles needs to recognise the contribution of British crown to the historical environmental damage across the world, apologise to the countries they colonised and help to become climate resilient and protect remaining biological resources.”

As well as monetary wealth, the monarchy owns over 287,000 acres of agricultural land and forest. They could be used for public good, like using the land for environmentally sustainable agriculture and forestry. And their ownership of the waters around Wales, currently valued at £603 million, means that communities can’t benefit financially from offshore renewables in a way which would really help Wales economy and its prosperity. With so much potential to rectify the climate crisis at its disposal, the crown raising awareness of climate issues without adequate action is simply window dressing to some.

In recent years, the British monarchy has remained politically neutral, with Queen Elizabeth II maintaining a “blank slate” for the 70 years of her reign. But tackling climate change isn’t and shouldn’t be a political matter, but rather a humanitarian one. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese encouraged Charles to remain involved with the environmental issues he cares about, saying “I think dealing with the challenge of climate change shouldn’t be seen as a political issue, it should be seen as an issue that is about humanity and about our very quality of life and survival as a world.”

While advocating for specific policies falls outside the remit of a constitutional monarchy, King Charles III is still the head of state. Expressing the urgent need for action on climate change should serve as a unifying statement in the same way we might expect for any other national crisis. The government seems reluctant to allow this to happen.

There’s no climate movement without climate justice

Solutions to the climate crisis must address climate justice if they’re to be successful. To do this, it’s important to look at the colonial roots and ongoing practices of environmental injustice that have exponentially worsened the climate crisis. Kimberly Nicholas, Professor of Sustainability Science, argues that “a key element of climate justice is for high emitters to rapidly reduce our own emissions. By doing so, we leave more space for people who need their emissions to survive, and we lessen their burden in facing increasing impacts of climate change they haven’t caused.”

Former colonial powers still reap the financial rewards of having exploited the resources and people of other regions. And consequently, those that were colonised still suffer the economic consequences, meaning they’re not sufficiently equipped to deal with the devastating impact of climate breakdown.

Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka expressed: “the British monarchy and its colonial legacy is responsible for environmental destruction and climate catastrophes which have cost thousands of lives. In 2017, Sri Lanka was the second worst climate affected country in the world, and in 2018 Sri Lanka was the 6th worst climate affected country. We suffer these climate injustices due to the historical natural resource destruction from a few centuries ago. Therefore, western colonials like the UK have a special responsibility to bring climate justice solutions, rather than supporting false solutions like carbon credits.” 

As part of the environmental movement, we’re committed to learning how the legacies and current manifestations of colonialism affect people both at home and globally, and actively tackling the impact. This is so we can create a world where carbon emissions are reduced and our natural world is protected. And so we create a fairer and more just world in the process.

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