Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, died on Thursday.
Elizabeth’s legacy will be many things, but perhaps the most consequential trend she presided over is the steady escalation of climate emergency — and the cumulative harm of climate colonialism that the monarchy bears responsibility for.
In 2020, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the impact of climate change had been magnified in formerly colonized countries in the Caribbean and southwest Indian Oceans. The researchers found that colonization degraded soils, removed forests, and erased eons of traditional knowledge that previously enabled people to coexist with extreme weather. In some cases, the researchers concluded, colonialism was directly responsible for “irreversible ecological shifts.”
It’s impossible to fathom, much less calculate, the consequences of British Imperialism on the planet as a whole.
In Elizabeth’s 70 years of reign, the world warmed by a full 1 degrees C under the influence of fossil fuel burning — as much as it had warmed the previous 10,000 years combined. The extractive relationships that colonialism perpetuates — in crude oil, forests, minerals, and human lives — continues to the present day.
There are signs that the tide is beginning to turn against the monarchy, and it may be the increasingly urgent effects of climate change that help to push decolonization forward.
When Elizabeth rose to the throne in 1952 in post-war Europe, it kicked off a decolonization movement throughout the global South. The Queen was an active participant in this process, resisting independence movements. By 1967, more than 20 former British colonies were independent — across the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.
Now, the world is in a similar state of turmoil and transition. The racism and white supremacy that colonialism has enabled is inseparable from the monarchy. The royals bear unique responsibility as the most prominent face of the more than 500-year legacy of European colonization and genocide inflicted on nearly every corner of the world. Climate change itself is a direct consequence of the philosophy of exploitation that drove colonialism for centuries.
Prince Charles — now King Charles — has used his position of power to advocate for climate action in his own unique way.
Though Charles may seem to be an environmentalist on the surface, his concern for nature is rooted in conservatism and a reluctance to shake the status quo. As Charles has championed nature-based solutions, including carbon offsets and a focus on net zero emissions, he’s attracted controversy by including the oil giant BP into his efforts. Even the new King himself, whose estate at the Dutchy of Cornwall has claimed to be net zero since 2006, has used questionable accounting by granting himself carbon offsets through tree planting.
Instead, the best way to repair the monarchy’s legacy and historic role in furthering climate change is for King Charles to use his platform to confront the ongoing harms head-on and advocate for reparations for colonialism — particularly climate colonialism — through the loss and damage mechanism that’s part of the already-existing UN climate treaty.
After devastating floods last week in Pakistan — yes, another former British colony — the country’s top climate official made it clear that climate reparations are overdue.
“There is so much loss and damage with so little reparations to countries that contributed so little to the world’s carbon footprint that obviously the bargain made between the global north and global south is not working,” said Sherry Rehman, in an interview with The Guardian. “We need to be pressing very hard for a reset of the targets because climate change is accelerating much faster than predicted, on the ground, that is very clear.”
The movements for Scottish independence, Irish unification, and further decolonization of former British territories like Jamaica, Australia, and The Bahamas give hope that self-governance and justice might come sooner rather than later.
Climate colonialism is not dead with the queen. It is very much alive and will continue doing harm until the royals themselves work to reverse and repair it.