Europe’s royals as climate activists

The day before last December’s Copenhagen summit on climate change drew to a tortuous close, world leaders temporarily broke off their labyrinthine discussions, changed out of their business suits, put on white tie and tails and headed off in motorcades to Christiansborg Palace. It was a momentary ceasefire in the increasingly fractious gathering; warring heads of state smiled for the camera and shook hands.

There was more to the state banquet, hosted by Queen Margrethe, than normal regal hospitality: it was inspired by a real interest in the issues. The Danish royal family, like royal families across Europe, has taken up the cause of environmental education and action with great conviction. Usually it is not sitting monarchs but heirs to the throne who have become involved, but involved they certainly are. Last year, the three heirs to Scandinavian thrones – Queen Margrethe’s son Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, Crown Princess Victoria of ­Sweden and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway – travelled to Greenland together to witness for themselves the effects of climate change. They visited a research centre where scientists drill for ice cores that are used to estimate temperature and climate shifts over the past 700,000 years.

At the other end of the world, Prince Albert of Monaco spent several weeks touring Antarctic research stations with his foundation, which he set up in 2006 to fund environmental protection projects. Meanwhile, Princess Astrid of Belgium has taken up climate change because of its relevance to her main area of interest – the spread of malaria. And, fittingly for the future king of the Netherlands, parts of which are below sea level, the Prince of Orange campaigns on climate and water management issues as a member of several international committees that work to secure clean water and sanitation in developing countries.

European royals hold dinners, convene meetings of business leaders, open conferences, hold photo sessions in picturesque regions, set up foundations and make speeches urging planetary preservation. What’s more, their efforts are having some effect. Scores of businesses, cajoled by royals, have signed up to take action on greenhouse gas emissions, and environmental issues have made their way into some unlikely places, including the celebrity-filled pages of Heat and Hello! When any of the current ­generation of heirs ascends the throne, we can expect their gown to be – ­metaphorically at least – trimmed in green rather than ermine.

Prince Frederik motions me to sit on a gilded sofa in a light grey room of the Amalienborg palace, pours coffee and hands me ­delicate chocolate biscuits. This is his home, which lies across a large cobbled square from his mother’s palace in central Copenhagen. Outside, in the cold December air, tourists are beginning to gather for the changing of the guard and salute to the Danish queen. Inside, the rooms seem rather austere for an 18th-century royal palace, sparsely furnished and monotone. But somehow they are still cosy. That might be because they’re warm: this wing has been refurbished, Frederik tells me, with double glazing and insulation – sensitively installed to preserve the original decor, of course.

Frederik is charming, handsome and beautifully dressed in what I have come to recognise as “royal casual” – an impeccably tailored brown blazer, twinned with lighter trousers and a checked shirt. He speaks eagerly and warmly. “Going to the Arctic was immense for me,” he says. “Greenland is a wonderful country… but you can see the changes. I was probably most impressed by the visual things – that you can see what’s happening there. I think it’s important for me to have a message for other people from that, to convince the broader population that there are changes happening and that we are making the change.”

Along with his mother, Frederik played a prominent role in the Copenhagen summit, inviting government representatives, scientists, journalists and activists to the medieval Helsingør Castle – better known as Hamlet’s Elsinore – for an evening’s discussion about climate issues. Like the other royals interviewed for this piece, he thinks a lot about his family’s long ­history and its obligation to act as stewards of the nation’s heritage. ­“Historically, royal families have represented an institution,” he says. “The institution is built on heritage, and is timeless in that sense. I hope that my family will continue in another thousand years.”

Royals, with the sense of destiny that settles upon those who have emerged victorious from centuries of battle over territory and precedence, are used to taking the long view, and they do it on a scale that most of us would find puzzling, if not incomprehensible. (“It was decided a hundred years before I was born,” Crown Prince Haakon of Norway tells me, “that I would be king.”) But thinking in these timescales makes sense when you’re talking about climate change, Prince Frederik argues. “If climate change becomes radical, then we are all in danger – we are in danger of not being able to see ourselves in a thousand years.”

Royals who take up causes are nothing new. When monarchies were still politically powerful, able to appoint cabinets and start wars, they dispensed patronage to nearly every kind of charity and popular campaign, from stray dogs to indigent widows. The habit is written into the fabric of European capitals, where 19th and early 20th-century hospitals often bear the name of their royal protector, carved in stone. Some of this heritage lives on: in Britain there are royal societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, for the protection of birds, for the prevention of accidents, for the encouragement of arts, manufacture and commerce.

But there is something different about the newfound royal enthusiasm for environmental causes. This is not just about lending the royal prefix, nor about acting as a figurehead while others gather donations. No longer content to remain passive accomplices in good causes, green royals are becoming much more active in campaigning. And for some critics, royal involvement in the vexed issue of climate change comes close to breaking the ultimate taboo: unwarranted intervention in the political process.

For Crown Prince Haakon, such concerns are irrelevant. A goodwill ambassador for the UN Development Programme, he is clear that he acts out of humanitarian instincts, and speaks humbly of how he came to what he regards as his calling. “If we realise and accept that every person has dignity, and dignity does not stop at borders, that all ­people should have access to dignified lives, a dignified level of healthcare, income and education… then the decisions we make at all ­levels will move the world forward in such a way that we get there.”

Prince Haakon has travelled the world, returning again and again to Africa, where he has witnessed the effects of drought and food shortages – experiences that are likely to become more frequent for many people if the climate changes. On one visit there, he met an HIV-positive woman living in dire poverty with little prospect of a better life. But while she “had every right in my mind to be angry, frustrated, bitter, she was the opposite – she had become an activist, teaching her peers how to avoid becoming infected. She really put her neck out when she told people that she was positive.” The prince was inspired. “I was supposed to be the Prince of Norway. But she was the only leader in that room. She has become my role model.”

Global-warming sceptics regard royals campaigning against climate change as a fad at best and at worst a form of political activism ­inappropriate for public figures who are meant to remain outside the realm of democratic politics. Myron Ebell, director at the Competitive Enterprise ­Institute and one of America’s most prominent climate-change sceptics, says: “The interest of royal personages in promoting global warming alarmism and supporting energy-rationing policies is a good example of out-of-touch elitism. It’s a popular cause for them and other wealthy people who don’t have to worry about skyrocketing energy bills.”

This is a complaint that might have received short shrift as little as a year ago, but in recent months, global efforts to combat climate change have hit a crisis. The Copenhagen summit produced a limited agreement, but one overshadowed by the scenes of chaos at its closing, which badly dented faith in the United Nations process. Yvo de Boer, the official in charge of that process, resigned shortly afterwards, saying no global ­agreement was yet in sight.

Far more damaging, however, have been scandals relating to the science informing political decisions on climate change. Last November, thousands of e-mails were hacked from a server at the University of East Anglia, dozens of which appear to show climate scientists manipulating data or planning to conceal vital information. The university rejects claims of distortion and secrecy, saying that its use of data was in line with standard scientific practice. Several investigations have begun, but the damage is done. Soon after that, critics uncovered a clutch of alleged flaws in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the bible of climate science. At least one claim – that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 – has been demonstrated to be false, and others are still in dispute. An audit of the report is now under way.

These indignities have taken their toll on the climate change cause: a survey conducted by Ipsos Mori in January found that only 31 per cent of the British public regarded climate change as a “definite reality”, down from 44 per cent last year. That shift in public opinion may throw the wisdom of royals’ advocacy into question. Ebell is scathing: “My guess is that Prince Charles’s clueless comments tend to confirm the suspicions of ordinary people that global warming is just another fashionable cause.”

The reasons his Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco gives for his involvement in climate-change activism are disarmingly personal. Over tea and biscuits in the Monégasque consulate in ­Mayfair – at first I take the biscuits to be Duchy Originals, then realise it must be Monaco’s coat of arms I can see stamped on them – he talks of his father’s and grandfather’s love of the sea, and how both men helped shape his awareness of the natural world. He has also talked about the influence of his mother, Princess Grace, who gave him a much-treasured nature poster when he was a child. “With that heritage, I felt obliged to be more involved personally,” he says. “I saw the urgency, especially in the years that followed.”

He sees his environmental work as a duty. “Everyone in a position of leadership or responsibility should be thinking of environmental [issues]. It’s not just political leaders who should be doing so, but leaders of civil society – they have to take this issue on.” He accompanied his father to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where the parent treaty to the Kyoto protocol was signed. Later, when he succeeded his father, one of his first acts was to sign up Monaco to the protocol.

Travelling to the Antarctic, he says, gave him an insight into the extraordinary fragility of some of the world’s most remote habitats. It’s now his job to communicate his first-hand experience to the rest of the world – an idea many of the royals bring up. “I was privileged to … see what was going on, and I talked to the scientists,” he says. “It was good to get more understanding of how important the Antarctic is in terms of influencing climate change in the rest of the world.”

It is the “convening power of royalty” that makes their involvement so important, explains Ian Cheshire, chief executive of the Kingfisher retail group, who heads a group of businesses looking at climate change for Prince Charles. Europe’s crowned heads have a unique ability to draw in almost anyone they choose from the worlds of business, politics, celebrity and civil society. Just as Queen Margrethe’s summons in Copenhagen was not to be ignored, so gatherings headed by a prince tend to be well-attended.

“Convening power” essentially means “our snobbery”. People, even very important people, will rarely decline an invitation if it bears a royal crest. The cachet of hereditary majesty has been known to draw the most profit-hungry captains of industry and the most inward-looking US politicians. There is a mystique to monarchies, however much the Scandinavian princesses may cycle round their cities. Even when that mystique is replaced by a sense of wonder that we still attach such importance to mere ancestry, few of us can say we are indifferent.

Cheshire demurs, preferring the explanation that “convening power” recognises the inherent neutrality of the royal. He points out that, required to be apolitical, they take pains to ensure that every meeting allows a fair say for all, and is not dominated by a single interest.

Probably the most famous royal to have taken on the green ­mantle is Charles, Prince of Wales. Pilloried following his divorce from Diana, Princess of Wales, and her death, in the past decade Charles has been reborn in the public imagination as a less remote, more human and relaxed figure, a doting father to his two sons, a remarried divorcee. But key to this recasting has been his role as a champion of ­environmental causes.

His concern for green issues is hardly new – he has spoken out for many years on the need for conservation. What is new is the vigour of his support for the climate change cause in the past five years, setting up a ­business forum, convening dozens of meetings and dispatching letters to ­governments and the United Nations.

Most recently, Charles encouraged a group of businesses to come up with ways to preserve forests using market mechanisms. Forestry is one of the thorniest problems in climate change: it’s clear that keeping the world’s existing forests standing is the single most effective – and ­cheapest – way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the world has yet to devise an effective way of paying nations to protect their forests from the predations of loggers, ranchers and subsistence farmers desperate to eke out a living. Prince Charles’s initiative, led by the celebrated British financier Stanley Fink, has still to come up with a comprehensive solution, but it has made some progress.

Yet behind the smiles, the pomp and glamour as the old regimes come face to face with modern political power, there is a sense that royals can get in the way as much as assist in the fight against climate change. At Queen Margrethe’s dinner in Copenhagen, more than one world leader chafed at the enforced suspension of negotiations, which by then had reached a crucial stage, with only hours to go and no agreement yet in sight. As the Queen’s servants put up the shutters in the royal palace, the heads of government headed back to sweaty, windowless rooms in their conference centre on the outskirts of the city, to roll up their sleeves and spend the rest of the night and the early morning in a line-by-line ­discussion of the negotiating text.

Among the royal activists on global warming, Prince Charles has shown the greatest willingness to try to influence politicians directly. A few years ago, it was revealed that British ministers were used to receiving long letters in spidery handwriting on any number of issues, from architecture and homeopathy to – increasingly – climate change. The reason he is able to get away with this may be that in Britain, as opposed to the US, environmentalism largely transcends party boundaries. Margaret Thatcher was the first world leader to speak out strongly on the problem of climate change, in 1988. (See “Improbable heroes of the green movement”.)

But while the Conservative party leader David Cameron has appeared to want to retain the cross-party consensus, British politics is starting to change. Cameron’s green rhetoric has been quietly dropped in recent months and there is evidence suggesting increasing climate-change scepticism within the Tory ranks. A recent poll by ComRes showed that two-thirds of prospective Conservative MPs rate the environment as a very low priority, while in a Conservative Home survey, 144 Tory candidates in marginal seats ranked “reducing Britain’s carbon footprint” as the least important from a list of 19 priorities for the next government. Some are hostile to spending on renewable energy and to green taxes and ­regulation, and openly contemptuous of any attempt to reach a global deal on limiting emissions. “They don’t believe in climate change, and they think the public don’t either,” says one ­disgruntled green Tory.

Cameron may win the battle and stick to his green agenda, but if his majority is narrow or backbenchers flex their muscles, he will come under increasing pressure to drop it. In a political climate such as this, Prince Charles’s vehement support for environmental causes and the fight against global warming could take on a very different complexion. While the green movement will welcome having such a powerful voice to put their case, the tension between monarchy and government could become strained. The question of political interference could open up.

The royals with whom I spoke didn’t want to acknowledge this possibility. Frederik protests that “climate change concerns everyone”. “It is a transcendent issue that is politicised occasionally,” he says.

A more pertinent question may be: does it matter? While princes may bring the magic of majesty to readers of Heat and Hello! and in the process help recruit them to the green cause, and while they may bring business leaders together in feel-good meetings, the limits to their power and prestige are all too apparent. Real political power is located elsewhere, and increasingly debates about European public opinion on climate change are a sideshow. One senior US official said the activities of royals on climate issues were “not even on the radar” in the US, and other non-European countries agree.

At the Copenhagen summit, this changed world order became inescapably apparent after Queen Margrethe’s banquet. European leaders tried to forge a compromise among the world’s leading developed and developing nations, thrashing out details of what could be agreed in a late-night ­session. But within 24 hours, all that effort was blasted away. The agreement that emerged from the talks was not crafted by the Europeans; indeed, journalists asking the European Union representatives for comments on the final shape of the accord were met with panic and ­puzzlement. EU politicians, let alone royalty, had simply been out of the loop.

Instead, a new brand of royalty stepped forward. In the closing hours of the Copenhagen summit, after the clock should have stopped on the talks, President Barack Obama of the US walked into a room where he was supposed to meet the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. In a story much recounted since, he instead found Wen speaking to the leaders of three of the other biggest developing nations: India, Brazil and South Africa (a group that has come to be known by the acronym “Basic”). Taking a seat, Obama proceeded to extinguish the remaining causes of disagreement among the countries present, and within hours the leaders assembled in that small room had succeeded where the rest of the summit failed. Without the Europeans, without the UN, they had come to an accord. The developing countries present hailed the deal as ground-breaking. Jairam Ramesh, environment minister for India, proclaimed: “It was a deal between the Basic countries and the US.”

Europe, the continent that had done most to alert the world to the dangers of climate change and that has done the most to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, was left out in the cold. The European Commission and individual country leaders had to scramble desperately to save face as rivals trumpeted their success in crafting a new settlement and, by extension, a new world order. The US and the four Basic nations had carried the day. Not one of the five is a monarchy.

Fiona Harvey is the FT’s environment correspondent. Her last piece for the magazine was a dispatch from an ever-greener Greenland as its icebergs melt. Read it at

Europe’s green royals

Prince Haakon of Norway
Born: 1973
Heir apparent: yes. Parents are King Harald V, 73, and Queen Sonja, 72
Family: married Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby in 2001
Hobbies: cross-country skiing, windsurfing
Green fact: ambassador to the United Nations Development Programme
Favourite writer: Henrik Ibsen

Prince Albert of Monaco
Born: 1958
Parents: the late Prince Rainier III and the late Princess Grace
Ascended the throne: 2005
Family: unmarried
Green facts: visited the North Pole on dog sled in 2006; set up a foundation on global warming
Strange but true: participated in five Olympic games as a member of Monaco’s bobsled team

Prince Frederik of Denmark
Born: 1968
Heir apparent: yes. Parents are Queen Margrethe, 69, and Prince Consort Henrik, 75
Family: married Mary Elizabeth Donaldson in 2004
Green facts: hosted Copenhagen summit
Interests: cars

Princess Astrid of Belgium
Born: 1962
Heir apparent: no
Family: married Lorenz, Prince of Belgium, in 1984
Green facts: fears climate change could exacerbate her pet health issue, the fight against malaria
Causes: chairwoman of the Belgian Red Cross from 1994 to 2007

Prince Charles of the UK
Born: 1948
Heir apparent: yes. Parents are Queen Elizabeth II, 83, and Prince Philip, 88
Family: married Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005
Artistic pursuits: watercolour painting
Green facts: founded the Prince’s Rainforests Project in 2007; lobbies politicians directly; has organic garden

Compiled by Emily Cataneo

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.