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‘They talk, but they don’t do’: The Queen of England is fed up with politicians’ empty words on climate action

October 15, 2021, 12:36 PM UTC

The word “irritated” just hits differently coming from Queen Elizabeth II.

Especially when it comes off the cuff, as the Queen herself griped to the Duchess of Cornwall and a Welsh politician that when it came to climate change action by politicians, “it’s really irritating when they talk, but they don’t do.” The remark was captured in an accidental livestream, and reported first by a writer for the Daily Mirror. The comments also recorded the Queen’s confusion about who exactly would be attending the COP26 conference in Glasgow, which is in just two weeks.

The remark is notable not just for its withering tone, but because the Queen never speaks publicly about politics—under any circumstances. As a constitutional monarch whose power is purely ceremonial, she has maintained a wall of political silence throughout her nearly seven-decade reign.

Sometimes, that wall of silence has persisted despite long odds. In 2019, the Queen was dragged into a constitutional crisis over the legality of Brexit, after she was asked to suspend Parliament on the orders of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The move was later declared by a British court to have been illegal. And still: The Queen remained silent.

But while the Queen has been publicly silent on the politics of climate change, the environment has been one of the few issues on which other members of the royal family have repeatedly pushed the boundaries—for decades.

That includes younger members of the family. On Thursday, Prince William openly criticized billionaires who devote their time and efforts to going to space, rather than addressing climate change on Earth; he made the comments while awarding an environmental prize he’d founded. (In the “irritating” video, this appearance comes up with the Queen—who grins widely, the very picture of a proud grandmother.) Prince Harry, meanwhile, now freed from the constraints of royal neutrality, has spoken repeatedly about climate change, even saying that he and his wife will not have another child because of it.

And then there’s Prince Charles. The heir to the throne has been famously interested in environmental issues and conservation since he was a young man—with mixed results. Some of his ideas have been hailed as both practical, and far ahead of their time: His championing of organic farming produced one of the U.K.’s top organic food brands; he has long argued in favor of eating a vegetarian diet for environmental reasons; and through his charitable arm, he’s provided grants and support for years to small sustainable businesses and new technology alike.

Some of his other ideas, meanwhile, have had distinctly uncomfortable overtones: his obsession with “overpopulation” in the developing world, for example. Many of his solutions, too, have been derided as distinctly elitist. In just one recent example, Prince Charles revealed that his car runs off a bespoke biofuel, made of leftovers from “wine and cheese.”

He is also not known for his neutrality. In the U.K., his letters to government ministers—known as the “black spider memos”—have directly demanded policy action in a way that is distinctly suspect coming from an unelected aristocrat. Those include demands for policy on his pet topics—a badger cull, for example—and occasional threats of retribution if actions weren’t taken that would directly favor himself, his charities, and his sprawling, privately owned estates. (Very little of the royal family’s wealth comes from the public taxpayer. In reality, much of it is tied to their historical roles as some of the largest landowners in the U.K.)

That spotted history might just make the Queen’s frustrated comments a comparably brilliant bit of—apparently unintentional—political stagecraft. Speaking unofficially, the world got a glimpse of a frustrated monarch, respected in large part because of how many political leaders—and political promises on the environment—she has seen come and go.

And perhaps the woman who so rarely says anything also found an inadvertent way to capture a moment—and a frustration with inaction shared not just by climate scientists, but by many young people. Economists, too, are increasingly warning of the costs of inaction. To take but one example: In the first half of 2021 alone, the cost of insured disasters reached an estimated $42 billion.

The livestream didn’t capture what, if anything, the Queen said next. But perhaps it can easily be inferred: Oh, do get on with it.

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