Words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
ARTWORK BY NICO KRIJNO
King Charles III has been dubbed King Climate for his conservation efforts. But an institution rooted in hierarchy can’t uphold nor deliver climate justice.
Nothing less than “revolution” is what King Charles III said—when speaking about his book Harmony just over 10 years ago—was needed to save the Earth from the threat of humanity.
A revolutionary, of course, King Charles is not. Yet, his long standing and outspoken love of nature is what has earned him the nickname King Climate both in the press and across social media. For context: King Charles has over the years supported sustainable farming practices and backed greater investment in renewable energy. He has called out the dangers of single-use plastics and used his platform to speak out against the detrimental health effects of air pollution. During his first week as king, and in the lead-up to Elizabeth II’s funeral, he banned the use of private jets and helicopters, suggesting instead that world leaders take commercial planes and buses to get around.
It seems like a promising start, but will King Charles pave the way for a greener monarchy? Most likely, the answer is no. The British Royal Family’s combined carbon footprint is estimated to average 3,810 tonnes a year—that’s 381 times more than the country’s average of 10 tonnes per person. In other words, Buckingham Palace would require a total overhaul of its operational structure to bring down its carbon output anywhere close to “normal.” Moreover, and more importantly, the notion that the Royal Family—which has amassed privilege, wealth, and power through the exploitation and extraction of entire nations—can represent justice remains implausible.
It is no news that the monarchy was instrumental in establishing the British empire during the reign of Elizabeth I, who approved and even sponsored the voyages of John Hawkins, the first known English person to include enslaved Africans as cargo on board his ship. As of last week, 15 countries, including Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Belize, and Canada, still recognized Elizabeth II as the head of their respective states—down from over 70 overseas territories in 1952.
“If the queen had apologized for slavery, colonialism, and neocolonialism and urged the crown to offer reparations for the millions of lives taken in her/their names, then perhaps I would do the human thing and feel bad [for her passing],” Cornell University professor Mukoma Wa Ngugi wrote on Twitter. “As a Kenyan, I feel nothing.” British officers are known to have raped, castrated, and tortured tens of thousands of freedom fighters during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya—which began the same year that Elizabeth II ascended the throne—in efforts to uphold the status quote of imperialism.
“The monarchy is not an institution that can deliver equity. Its role can only be to address the harms done through the redistribution of wealth.”
With the empire also came the rise of industrialization. It is no surprise that many of the countries that are being disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis—like Pakistan, which this summer saw record flooding; Somalia, which has been devastated by unprecedented droughts; and India, which in recent weeks experienced its highest temperatures yet—are either currently or formerly colonized nations. The British empire accrued wealth by extracting raw materials like cotton and wheat from colonies using slave labor only to have them manufactured and sold in England, a system that destabilized entire countries and destroyed ecosystems in the process.
“Climate justice needs to be centered on values of decentralization,” sustainable fashion advocate and photojournalist Aditi Mayer told Atmos. “But the monarchy has always been rooted within this idea of hierarchy that’s been maintained on racial, cultural, and religious lines. In this sense, it’s not an institution that can uphold or deliver equity. Its role can only be to address the harms done through the acknowledgement and redistribution of wealth—wealth that was stolen to begin with.”
Mayer explains that reparations paid by the Crown could go toward the systemic funding of industries that were destroyed by colonialism. Cotton, for example, was one of the main exports of the British Raj in part because of its commercial success in European markets. To eliminate competition and assert dominance, Britain decimated most of India’s textile manufacturing hubs, including the country’s hand loom industry.
“It’s an example of a whole industry that was built on artisans, spinners, and weavers that has been completely destroyed,” said Mayer. “Today, there are national attempts to revive these industries because of their connection to cultural sustainability. This is a very concrete way for the Royal Family to support initiatives rooted in social, environmental, and cultural sustainability that also tie back to the legacy of the monarchy in these countries.”
“Indigenous leaders, who have faced horrific treatment in the name of that family, have consistently shown graciousness, patience, and selflessness.”
For those steps to be taken, however, the role of the crown needs to be redefined—something Mayer says King Charles must do if he is serious about implementing change. “Queen Elizabeth’s reign was framed by her neutrality,” she said. “What King Charles needs to do is speak to the ways in which the monarchy has reinforced a culture of supremacy on racial and religious terms. It needs to be recognized.”
One urgent example is the Doctrine of Discovery, a doctrine first established by the Catholic Church in 1452 to justify the theft of land from Indigenous people, which The First Nations Leadership Council is calling on King Charles to renounce. The doctrine has historically been used by both Britain and France to claim ownership of land in North America.
“These laws were created centuries ago by Europeans to give themselves the right to take whatever they wanted to take,” said Adam Olsen, a representative of the legislative assembly for British Columbia’s North Saanich, and a member of the Tsartlip First Nation. “Those actions have been devastating—they have devastated Indigenous peoples across the world. The cultures that have done this to people—to our brothers and sisters—need to carry some guilt.”
The passing of Queen Elizabeth, and the proclamation of Charles as King, has been met with rightful anger by Indigenous communities who are asking that the Crown be held responsible for the crimes it has committed against First Nations people; that it be held accountable for the systems of violence it has enacted.
“In our culture, it’s important to be respectful when an elder or a matriarch passes away. But, over this past week, I’ve also had to engage in difficult conversations about what this transition means,” said Olsen. “Indigenous leaders, who have faced horrific treatment—residential schools and genocidal acts—in the name of that family, have consistently shown graciousness, patience, and selflessness. I want to continue to model that behavior, all the while calling into question how we are being governed. And who it is serving.”