The climate crisis has gone woke: Can King Charles save us?

The topic of global warming has somehow become a culture war issue. Can the King step in before it’s too late?

June 07, 2024
 Climate protestors in royal family masks. Image:  Vuk Valcic / Alamy Stock Photo
Would our own royals ever engage Fleet Street in a climate change conversation? Image: Vuk Valcic / Alamy Stock Photo

We met—the King and Queen and 40 or so senior journalists—in a glorious palace to talk about the climate crisis. Under an ornate Baroque ceiling and chandeliers the size of small SUVs, we blinked at scary charts and wondered—some of us, anyway—why they weren’t front-page news.

We broke for drinks and dinner, the King and Queen mingling easily among the guests. And then we returned to the conversation, with further debate over the food. On my table, I sat between the King’s private secretary and a fiery young woman from Extinction Rebellion. It was, um, lively.

No, this was not King Charles and Camilla. Committed environmentalist though I know he is, I cannot easily imagine our own King inviting Fleet Street’s finest in for a fireside chat about climate change. He does not—perhaps understandably—seem to like journalists very much. And his advisers would surely caution him against getting involved in anything so woke.

This was King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands and the invited journalists included most of that country’s editors-in-chief. The setting was the glorious 17th-century Royal Palace in the heart of Amsterdam.

The main keynote speech was given by Wolfgang Blau, who in 2020 threw in a distinguished career in journalism (in Germany, the UK and US) to devote himself to reading and thinking about what he calls the “climate question”. He devised a pioneering programme at Oxford University to improve the quality of climate coverage.

Those scary charts: Blau showed just three in his 20-minute presentation (you can see them here). The first showed an eye-popping leap in ocean surface temperatures in 2023–24, prompting climate scientists to have urgent conversations about what explains it.

The second—earth surface temperatures—showed a similar unprecedented rise in 2023. Finally, Blau showed the increase of CO₂ in the atmosphere. Same story: a huge leap, showing that the concentration of CO₂ is actually accelerating—and fast.

Was I the only journalist in the room who stared at those graphics and wondered why they weren’t leading every news bulletin and dominating every front page? Would we go down in history as a generation of sleepwalkers?

Blau had a generous explanation: that journalism, as conventionally practised, simply struggles to cope with the climate question.

News editors tend to have a checklist of criteria when deciding what leads the bulletin: is it new? Does it affect our audience? Is there a celebrity involved? Is it simple enough to explain? Is it urgent? And so on.

Back to that alarming rise in ocean surface temperatures. Is it new? Yes, but not by the standard of news journalism; it’s been going on for months. There’s no high-profile person involved. It surely will affect audiences, but not tomorrow.

Simple? In some ways yes—burning coal, gas and oil is the root cause—but complicated in that scientists can’t fully explain the unprecedented acceleration. Urgent? In some senses, of course. But it will still be urgent tomorrow and next month—and there are always seemingly more important stories.

That’s the generous explanation for why journalism can sometimes struggle with doing justice to the enormity of what’s happening to our climate—even though the effects are being felt way beyond the narrow discipline of environmental journalism. If climate is not woven into the coverage of city, sports, immigration, security, economics, legal, food and fashion desks, then something is already drastically wrong.

The less generous explanation is that, somehow, climate change has been drawn into the so-called culture wars. In this country net zero is officially “woke”, and if you believe in it, you will not find it easy to secure employment in the Guild of Columnists. Write a pot-boiler catchily titled Not Zero, and you’ll never be short of commissions.

I found myself wondering how an average culture-warring editor would respond to the scary charts Blau produced? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that they were convinced that something deeply worrying and unprecedented was, after all, happening to our climate. How on earth could they go back to their newsrooms and break that unwelcome news to audiences which have been conditioned—by them—for 10, maybe 20 years, to believe it was all alarmist nonsense?

There is an old Fleet Street term to describe the sharp U-turns or changes of mind which are periodically involved in the business of news: a reverse ferret. Telling viewers or readers that—after all—climate change is real, deadly, accelerating, scientifically proven and beyond urgent would be the greatest reverse ferret in the history of our tattered old trade. So I fear that ideology will—at least for a time—trump truthfulness or reality.

That, of course, is very bad news for the human species. Time is short and politicians have uncomfortable choices to try and urge, or even impose, on electorates, a great many of whom have been falsely reassured by news organisations that there’s nothing to worry about.

It’s also very bad for journalism, which—even at its best—struggles with issues of trust and relevance. Younger audiences, in particular, have long since decided to go elsewhere for information about the climate. Who could blame them for asking: “If I can’t trust journalists on climate, then why should I trust them on anything?”

First and foremost, journalism is, or should be, a craft. It relies on being able to persuade sceptical audiences that there are such things as “facts”—and that the craft of journalism is a tried and tested way of uncovering them.

But with the most consequential issue of our—and arguably any other—generation, a sizeable number of journalists have decided to ignore, or bury, the facts.

When Blau broke with journalism in 2020 and started immersing himself in the latest research about climate change, he started having panic attacks. “I was terrified when I read these IPCC summary reports and I was also baffled,” he told the royal gathering. “I thought, how could I not have known this, that this is where things stand?”

Blau had been a committed environmentalist all his working life, “but I didn’t understand how severe the situation is and it felt very existential. It made me question everything I had done in my life.”

It was a powerful admission—and it was remarkable that it took a royal family to gather so many distinguished journalists together to think intensely about the issue in this way.

You would not have known from this week’s Sunak-Starmer slugfest that climate change is probably the most urgent issue of our times: it didn’t even merit a 45-second soundbite. Perhaps King Charles could ignore his advisers and step in to get people talking.