The Prince and the Planet

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, are in Northern California at the end of their first U.S. visit together. The Prince, a serious organic farmer and environmentalist, has framed this part of his trip around issues of sustainability -- visiting organic farms in Marin County and speaking to a symposium on "Peak Oil and Global Warming." It's striking that he has chosen to make this the focus of his trip. Even more striking is the fundamental unanimity of the panel, assembled by the Business and Environment Program of the University of Cambridge (which Charles created), on what supposedly is a highly divisive and controversial issue. I am the only environmental representative on the panel, which includes two utility companies, the State of California, the biggest public pension fund in the country, representatives of the high tech industry, an urban designer, and a CEO from Australia.

Yet, except for some very minor disagreements around the edges, largely on the prospect of accomplishing the changes we were all advocating, everyone seemed to agree on what work needs doing in the next 15 years. No one thought that peak oil or global warming were myths or anything other than profoundly serious challenges. Everyone agreed that efficiency, renewables, and new technologies were the solutions. And, unanimously, the panel urged that we should stop subsidizing fossil fuels and get the prices right.

So, although global warming seems highly charged and controversial in Washington, California's business community is in accord with California's environmental community -- and with the Prince of Wales.

Charles's speech was quite impressive. The greatest applause came when he talked about the moral imperative to take care of the future; of the need to stop subsidizing energy companies, because, "however well intentioned, subsidies simply don't work"; and a beautiful quote from Robert Kennedy, which I had not heard before, about how GNP does not measure any of the "things that make life worth living." He closed by laying out the work he is doing with the National Audit, Britain's financial measurement agency, and his effort to develop new measures that would really reflect what we are doing to natural, as well as man-made, capital.

There was some irony as well in the timing of his appearance. The most recent Rolling Stone has a feature on "Climate Warriors and Heroes." One of the heroes is the Sierra Club's Dan Becker -- but another was British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Unfortunately, even as Rolling Stone was working on the feature, Downing Street was showing signs of coming down with the White House disease -- global warming denial. Blair recently commented that, after Kyoto, we should be very cautious about "targets" because "people get very nervous and very worried...." It's not completely clear what Blair means -- he may be talking about targets for the industrial nations and technology support and incentives for the poor -- but it's making environmentalists in the UK "very nervous and very worried." I tried to explore what this really meant with a senior official from the British Embassy who was accompanying Prince Charles, and part of his response was very chilling -- "well, your President isn't going to go for targets [true], and we have to play the cards we are dealt [scary]."

Let's hope that leadership by Charles, and by such prominent leaders in Britain as Lord May (Britain's most prominent independent scientist and the head of the Royal Academy, who has warned that without global targets no action on climate change is meaningful), will pull Blair back into a leadership posture and away from the White House. But it can't be taken for granted after my conversation with the Embassy.