How the British Monarchy Is Taking the Throne on Climate Change

Prince Charles and Prince William are leveraging their power and platform for profound good.

Danny Schleien
Oct 15, 2020 · 7 min read

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

President Kennedy delivered that iconic line in a September 1962 speech at Rice University. The year prior, he gave a speech to a joint session of Congress proposing to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, calling for a massive space exploration program to execute on that mission.

Kennedy did not live to see his moonshot accomplished, but the boldness of his vision propelled America in the famous Space Race. In 1969, the world heard Neil Armstrong say “a small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.”

After Kennedy’s death, the Kennedy White House became known as “Camelot”, an ode to its seemingly idyllic and royal quality.

Almost six decades later, a real-life version of Camelot — the British monarchy — is embarking on a quest as bold and audacious as the moonshot Kennedy proposed in 1961.

Except the British royals aren’t proposing a moonshot.

They’re heading something we need a lot more these days: an Earthshot.

Every year from 2021 until 2030, the Earthshot Prize Council will award a prize to five winners offering “evidence-based solutions” for each of the five broad Earthshot objectives:

  • Protect and restore nature
  • Clean our air
  • Revive our oceans
  • Build a waste-free world
  • Fix our climate

Kensington Palace (Prince William’s residence) indicated the prize money “will be used to support agreed environmental and conservation projects as well as large-scale public recognition and significant support to scale their solution.”

The prizes could go to “a wide range of individuals, teams or collaborations — scientists, activists, economists, leaders, governments, banks, businesses, cities, and countries — anyone who is making a substantial development or outstanding contribution to solving these environmental challenges,” the palace said.

As the BBC noted, “with £50m to be awarded over a decade, the “Earthshot Prize” is the biggest environmental prize ever.”

The Earthshot Prize will make five awards of £1m (~$1.3m) each year for 10 years. Thus, 50 solutions in total will be rewarded over that time frame.

Prince William is leading the charge within the British monarchy, but he’s recruited a powerful squad of people, from Shakira to Yao Ming, to help The Earthshot Prize deliver on its mission.

“There’s a lot of people wanting to do many good things for the environment and what they need is a bit of a catalyst, a bit of hope, a bit of positivity that we can actually fix what’s being presented,” Prince William told BBC Radio 4. “I think that urgency with optimism really creates action. And so The Earthshot Prize is really about harnessing that optimism and that urgency to find solutions.”

I’ve often lamented the overwhelming negativity inherent to the environmental discourse. There’s a prevailing mentality of “doom and gloom” that both induces hapless anxiety and discourages productive action.

Earthshot, as the Prince noted, does the opposite. It underlines a truth many fail to recognize: we have a decade to save the planet, but it can be done.

And anyone can help.

In case you’re doubting that last bit, look to British history.

In 1714, in the wake of the Scilly naval disaster of 1707, the British government offered a Longitude Prize to the first person who could determine how to tell your longitude at sea. Knowing your longitude at sea is critical; it allows you to understand how far east or west you are.

Britain was the world’s technological leader back then, so the winner must have been a famous sailor or astronomer, right?

Wrong. The first person to determine how to tell your longitude at sea was a humble clockmaker named John Harrison. Harrison invented the marine chronometer, a timekeeping device that solved the longitude problem.

The fact that Harrison, who was 21 years old in 1714, won was so unexpected that British authorities refused to grant Harrison his prize for many years.

If a clockmaker could figure out the most perplexing problem sailors and astronomers had wrestled with for centuries, anyone can figure out solutions to saving the planet.

You might be wondering what inspired Prince William to helm The Earthshot Prize. After all, he is the epitome of privilege. He’s white, male, wealthy, and born into more privilege than you could ever ask for.

Luckily, his privilege hasn’t insulated him from the urgency of protecting the planet. His grandfather, Prince Philip, co-founded the World Wildlife Fund.

And his father, Prince Charles, has been an environmental activist for decades.

Charles has been talking about environmental issues and fighting for the planet for “pretty much his entire working life.”

While addressing delegates at the Saving the Ozone Layer World Conference in 1989, he said: “Since the Industrial Revolution, human beings have been upsetting that balance [of nature], persistently choosing short-term options and to hell with the long-term repercussions.”

At the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, he said: “The conclusion I draw is that the future of mankind can be assured only if we rediscover ways in which to live as a part of nature, not apart from her.”

Prince Charles recently delivered a speech about the fight against climate change recorded from the British monarchy’s Balmoral estate. The contradiction of speaking about climate change from a global symbol of privilege was real.

But so was the message he emphasized.

“Without swift and immediate action, at an unprecedented pace and scale, we will miss the window of opportunity to ‘reset’ for… a more sustainable and inclusive future,” the heir to the British throne said in the video address.

“[The environmental] crisis has been with us for far too many years — decried, denigrated, and denied,” he continued. “It is now rapidly becoming a comprehensive catastrophe that will dwarf the impact of the coronavirus pandemic… The global pandemic is a wake-up call we simply cannot afford to ignore.”

Prince Charles contracted COVID-19 earlier this year. He experienced mild symptoms but nonetheless has first-hand experience to understand the severity of the pandemic.

Unlike another well-known world leader who recently contracted COVID-19, the Prince knows what everyone in the climate community knows: this pandemic pales in comparison to what will come from climate change.

In the words of Bachman Turner Overdrive, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

“It is their lives we are gambling with, as well as the ultimate survival of everything that tries to share this ailing Earth with us. So let’s get on with the urgent task of forming a global alliance to overcome the perverse obstacles facing us.”

Like his son, Prince Charles looked across the pond for inspiration as he thought of ways to advance the climate cause.

The Prince has proposed a modern-day Marshall Plan meant to mobilize resources against climate change. The original Marshall Plan, named after former U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall, entailed a multibillion-dollar investment by the United States in Western Europe to restore the war-torn region after World War II.

His plan includes six steps:

  1. Embrace carbon pricing.
  2. End “perverse” fossil fuel subsidies.
  3. Scale up carbon capture and storage technology.
  4. Expand a global carbon offset market.
  5. Create an ecosystems services market which would put a higher value on preserving nature.
  6. Prioritize sustainable urban development that protects the environment.

“At this late stage I can see no other way forward but to call for a Marshall-like plan for nature, people and the planet,” Prince Charles said in comments delivered at the opening of Climate Week NYC 2020.

“We must now put ourselves on a warlike footing, approaching our action from the perspective of a military-style campaign,” said Charles, warning that the world had been “pushed beyond its planetary boundaries”, only for the crisis to long be “decried, denigrated and denied” by those in power.

I’ve written about how we should adopt a warlike mentality in this respect. We can quibble with the Prince’s proposal (I’d personally like to see a less market-centric approach!) but the urgency of the cause cannot be ignored.

As Helen Clarkson, chief executive of the Climate Group, which organizes Climate Week NYC, said in the wake of the Prince’s address, it would be nice to harness the spirit of the Marshall Plan and see the United States (and other global superpowers) lead by example.

It feels deeply ironic to me that the British royal family, the world’s most iconic symbol of privilege, is taking the throne on a global problem borne largely from privilege.

But I’m incredibly grateful that Prince William, Prince Charles, and many other influential and powerful people are fighting for the planet and leveraging their privilege for good.

And if you have an idea to help save the planet, don’t hesitate to submit your idea to the Earthshot Prize Council. As Sir David Attenborough said, even suggestions that “may sound crackpot” are welcome, so long as they have the potential to make a difference on what he called “the world scale”.

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Danny Schleien

Written by

Writer, editor, explorer, lifelong learner. Social distancing expert since 1994, big fan of semicolons and Oxford commas. Think green.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Danny Schleien

Written by

Writer, editor, explorer, lifelong learner. Social distancing expert since 1994, big fan of semicolons and Oxford commas. Think green.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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