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COP26: The Royal Family’s climate interventions have left no one in any doubt that they want meaningful actions from the summit

Written by on 7 November 2021

It was Thursday night and Alok Sharma, the president of COP26, was on stage at the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow in front of the chief negotiators introducing a special guest. 

At the moment the chief negotiators are of course busy people so he wouldn’t have wanted to waste their time with just any speaker. The man he’d invited to give the assembled group one final pep talk was the Prince of Wales.

With a sprinkling of royal modesty, he stressed how pleased he was that so many had found time to come and hear him: “I know just how hard and difficult these negotiations can be, let alone the fact that many of you probably never get much time to eat nor sleep.”

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3:39 Has the Royal Family saved COP26?

But then came the stark reminder of the task ahead: “There are so many people out there around the world putting so much expectation on your shoulders and in many ways, the whole weight of history rests on you this time round… We are depending on you and I look forward to hearing your valuable results.”

With their phones raised in the air to take pictures, and people manoeuvring to get close to the prince it appeared they were more than happy to listen.

Of course, quantifying precisely how helpful his words are, when it comes to making sure this summit is a success, can be trickier, but if the UK government wanted the Royal Family to be visible this week and help push the UK agenda, they certainly can’t have been disappointed.

The royals have been everywhere and with their unique star appeal have helped to get pictures from this summit to a wider global audience as they’ve rubbed shoulders with everyone from world leaders to wealthy businessmen and high-profile campaigners.

On Monday and Tuesday, the royal press pack got a steady stream of messages about those turning up for face time.

One from the Clarence House team who look after Prince Charles read: “Biden bilat is happening, Scott Morrison…also bilats with Sierra Leone, currently with Bangladesh, Israel called in…Jamaica have asked”. Actor and environmental campaigner Leonardo DiCaprio also unexpectedly turned up to meet Prince Charles.

Prince William during his speech at cop26 Image: Prince William during his speech at COP26

It was Prince William who said very loudly during one reception: “I liken it to speed dating here. You literally speed date, you chat for a bit then press the button and then quickly move on to the next, you don’t have enough time!” Like his father he also spent time with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and President Biden, along with John Kerry, and Bill Gates among many others.

It is easy to be cynical about soft power, the whole point of it is that it’s meant to be subtle, but this has been one of those weeks where we were supplied with an abundance of pictures to illustrate it, just like the G7 summit in Cornwall where the leaders were falling other themselves to meet the Queen.

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As committed environmental campaigners Prince Charles and Prince William could not have done more to try to help with the groundwork and set the tone ahead of the difficult negotiations.

They’ve reiterated the warnings. “COP26 is the last chance saloon,” Charles said at the G20, adding that we need to be on a “war-like footing”, as Prince William reminded the crowd at a clean technology event: “Ours is a common mission, to look without fear or despair at the challenges ahead in this crucial decade, and to believe that we humans have the ingenuity to make the seemingly impossible, possible.”

They’ve also used it as a platform to talk to anyone who might potentially support their own big ideas to combat the climate crisis.

Britain's Prince Charles speaks with fashion designer and sustainability advocate Stella McCartney as he views a fashion installation by the designer, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain November 3, 2021. Owen Humphreys/Pool via REUTERS  Image: Prince Charles speaks with fashion designer and sustainability advocate Stella McCartney

So, what are they? For Prince Charles it’s about getting businesses and governments to communicate better, asking world leaders to set clearer targets to allow the private sector to release the trillions of dollars only they have to invest in potential solutions. He’s already opened up discussions between companies and world leaders in a way that hasn’t been done before.

Designer and now sustainable fashion innovator Stella McCartney was one of those the prince took to the G7 summit in the summer to meet the G7 leaders.

I spoke to Stella just before she caught up with the prince again in Glasgow. She laughed about how they both had famous parents and in similar ways had at times been seen “as the freak in the room” for their environmental views, but told me that what he’s doing now couldn’t be more important for businesses, “his ability to bring people together and talk about important topics, he doesn’t shy away. I’m actually quite cynical about things at times and I really do have a respect for what he’s doing and how long he’s been doing it also. He doesn’t shy away from hard-hitting topics and he opens up conversations and gets the right people in the room to make significant change”.

Prince William wants us to focus on innovation and try to inject more optimism into the climate debate, and part of that is about listening harder to what young people have to say.

Vinisha Umashankar with Prince William Image: Vinisha Umashankar with Prince William

Vinisha Umashankar from India is one to watch out for. She’s only 15 years old and one of the finalists in Prince William’s Earthshot Prize after designing a solar powered ironing cart. William invited her to address the world leaders alongside him, a speech that led to a standing ovation for Vinisha from the likes of Boris Johnson.

Speaking to me afterwards she said how grateful she was to have the duke’s support but didn’t hold back on her wider message to the older generation: “We as youth we’re always somehow dependent on someone in a higher authority, but what we’re saying right now is we don’t need your help when it comes to this because we will lead even if you don’t help us or refuse to. Because we’ll act even if you delay and we’ll create the future even if you’re still in the past…we’re creating our own support system, but we’re inviting you to join us.”

What I’ve found most interesting this week is the conviction with which the royals have delivered their messages.

Prince Charles speaks on the sidelines of COP26. Image: Prince Charles speaks on the sidelines of COP26

Interventions which in the past they may have been criticised for. Don’t forget that during his decades of environmental campaigning the Prince of Wales has been ridiculed about his thoughts on the subject and more significantly criticised for trying to lobby or influence politicians and world leaders with his views.

The Royal Family are of course meant to be politically neutral, and there are still some who think they are overstepping the mark with their climate interventions.

The anti-monarchy group Republic have put up billboards in Glasgow showing the face of Prince Charles and Prince William, describing them as hypocritical when they still use private jets, helicopters, have their own royal trains and multiple huge homes. And yes on all those issues there are questions they still need to answer.

But this week the gloves have been off, Prince Charles and Prince William have said what they want, clearly feeling emboldened by the growing global political consensus about the climate crisis unfolding around us.

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2:17 The Queen has urged world leaders at COP26 to act on climate change

On Monday in her video message the Queen praised her own family’s longstanding focus on the cause, quoting a speech from Prince Philip about “world pollution” from all the way back in 1969.

You cannot doubt their ongoing determination to use their position to make sure the world wakes up and acts now, just as you cannot doubt the Queen’s decades of diplomatic experience which was again used to maximum effect this week despite her absence.

Her words “I, for one, hope that this conference will be one of those rare occasions where everyone will have the chance to rise above the politics of the moment, and achieve true statesmanship”, left no one in any doubt that she wants meaningful actions from this summit. Her family, like the rest of the world are waiting.