Daniela Elser: Prince Charles’ climate change interview shows up Meghan and Harry


If ever there was a royal moment which summed up just how bananas the world is right now, then it is this: Watching Prince Charles telling the world, via an iPhone video, that his Aston Martin runs on cheese.

Yes, cheese, specifically “whey from the cheese process” along with “surplus English white wine”. (Raising an even more important, existential question: Is there really such a thing as “surplus” vino?)

We know all of this because the 72-year-old heir to the throne has just done a wide-ranging interview with the BBC about climate change in which he revealed he understands the “frustration” of Extinction Rebellion activists and that he has put solar panels on the roof of Clarence House. Greta Thunberg would approve.

But hit play on the three-minute clip (which was shot on a smartphone and put out via the BBC) and something strange happens … you will find yourself genuinely liking Charles.

He comes across as endearingly committed to his eco work and his passion and zeal are abundantly clear. To borrow from the parlance of his daughter-in-law Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, the royal comes across as compassionate and authentic.

Watching it, something crystallised for me: The royal family is in the midst of a stealthy rebirth, from plaque-unveiling professionals adept at making small talk with pensioners to engaged, dynamic leaders on issues including climate change, sexual assault and mental health.

Somehow, without any fanfare, press releases or even a ceremonial 41-gun salute, the house of Windsor seems to have decided to mothball their century-old modus operandi, jettison their centuries of combined of ribbon-cutting expertise, and to emerge, chrysalis-like, as impassioned and vocal activists.

It’s a thrilling new version of what the monarchy can stand for and do – and it is one that Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex oh-so prematurely cut themselves off from.

Exhibit A) Next Sunday, UK time, will see William launch his inaugural Earthshot Prize, the biggest environmental awards in history, which will see $1.9 million distributed to each of the five winners.

The gongs will be handed out at a glittering, celebrity-stuffed event at Alexandra Palace and will see Coldplay perform a fossil fuel-free set and which will be powered by the energy created by 60 cyclists.

The night will also see Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, present an award, the first time she has taken part in an event which will be beamed live across the world to millions of people. (Well, aside from her wedding.)

This comes along with the broadcast of the associated five-part TV series, The Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet, which was hosted by William and highlights the enterprising and creative solutions communities and individuals around the world are finding to address climate change.

Hosting awards nights? Fronting TV series? Making Chris Martin sing Yellow?

This isn’t your grandma’s monarchy.

In William’s approach to the issue of climate, we are not simply seeing a well-meaning member of the royal family highlight an issue du jour, get the media to pay attention momentarily and then said HRH smugly exiting the stage for a well-earned G&T.

Instead, with his Earthshot Prize, we are seeing William take the stock standard HRH role and transform it into a much more proactive one, one defined by using his platform to support those finding solutions to address this urgent issue.

Goodbye speeches given on podiums; hello coalface.

In fact, over the last 18-months, we have seen the Duke of Cambridge give a TED talk (a first that one would have thought would have gone to Harry or Meghan) and fronted a 2020 documentary about his climate work.

(“Someone has to put their head above the parapet and say, I care about this,” he said at the time of his decision to make the 90-minute special. “To have the belief that if we all work together, we can make a difference.”)

Likewise, over the same period, Kate has taken part in her first Q+A, launched the biggest survey ever undertaken in the UK on early childhood which involved more than 500,000 Brits and then in June unveiled the Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood in a boffin-filled outing at the London School of Economics.

There was not a posey-toting child or plaque in sight.

Quite literally, the world has never seen, or heard, quite so much from senior members of the royal house, let alone on issues that in some quarters are still viewed as distastefully political and divisive.

This trend is one that is only going to become more pronounced in the weeks to come.

In early November, when 120 world leaders including US President Joe Biden gather in Glasgow for the UN’s COP26 climate conference, the Queen, Charles, his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall and William and Kate will be there rubbing shoulders too.

The world has not seen so many members of the royal house out in collective force, not counting Ascot or at Christmas, perhaps ever before.

What this paradigm shift really comes down to is the royal family’s work no longer being defined by saying, but rather by doing.

No longer content to give speeches, we are witnessing the emergence of the royal family 2.0., a version of The Firm that is marked by a willingness to throw oneself into the fray. (Mind the pearls though.)

Elsewhere, and getting nowhere near the attention they deserve, we’ve seen Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, become predominantly focused on addressing sexual and gender-based violence in war zones and who last year visited Sierra Leone.

Then there is Camilla who has become increasingly vocal and outspoken about her work centring on domestic violence and sexual assault and who in September became involved with Nigeria’s first sexual assault referral centre.

Imagine – just imagine – how much more potent this current conception of the monarchy would have been if Harry and Meghan were in the thick of it too.

Like so many stories about the Sussexes, this comes down to ‘if only.’

If only in late 2019, the malcontent duo had not let the idea of quitting foment. If only they had understood the power of the royal imprimatur (and that they would lose it the second they started sprouting lines about ‘progressive new roles’).

If only they had taken courtiers up on the mooted plans for them to live in South Africa. If only they had opted for some sort of circuit-breaking move rather than an irreversible, scorched earth withdrawal from palace life.

What is so interesting about the current royal renaissance we are witnessing is that it is such a stunning about-face from how things looked post-Megxit.

After their 2018 wedding, with their crowd-hugging, Instagram quote-posting way the Sussexes nearly immediately became shorthand for the future of the monarchy. Then, on January 8 last year they announced to the world they were done with being full-time working members of the royal family, and it immediately looked like they were taking the palace’s best chance of survival with them.

Instead, we’ve seen a stunning reversal of fortune.

Nearly 10 months after the launch of their Archewell Foundation, the Sussexes’ philanthropic efforts can, most generously, be described as scattered, with the couple having shown a frustrating propensity to skitter from issue to issue.

(During the couple’s recent three-day ‘tour’ of New York alone they took part in meetings that covered Covid, mental health, racial justice, women’s economic empowerment, and youth engagement, read to schoolchildren in Harlem and then appeared at the Global Citizen event which aims to tackle poverty, climate change and vaccination access. Even an ambitious deity hopped up on Red Bull could not simultaneously tackle so many grinding world problems.)

Harry and Meghan have proven, time and again, how skilled they are at delivering impassioned, moving speeches with an artful array of Diptyque candles in the background. Yes, they care – and deeply – but the world isn’t going to be saved via Zoom and from their Montecito sofa.

The chasm between that approach and the one we are seeing from William, Kate and Charles of late, could not be more pronounced.

The tragedy here is, this new palace modus operandi would have been the perfect fit for the driven Sussexes – if only they had not decided to become history’s most famous royal conscientious objectors.

What Charles and his sauvignon blanc-powered sports car epitomise is the palace’s seeming willingness to new ways of doing things and a certain impressive canniness. The monarchy’s endurance in this century will come down to the institution coming to stand for something meaningful in contemporary society.

Right now, what Charles, William and Kate are doing is carving out that new, updated role for the crown with gusto, determination and “surplus wine”. If only Harry and Meghan were a part of it too. And if only someone could explain to me what “surplus wine” meant.

Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.

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