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Don’t Let the Royal Photo Scandal Distract from Critical Commonwealth Efforts on Climate Change

27 Mar 2024
By Michael Sheldrick
Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York embraces Alicia Tien, Global Citizen Youth Leader Awardee and Hazirah Sufian, Global Citizen Youth Leader Awardee onstage during the Global Citizen NOW. Source Kim Landy/Getty Images/

As journalists fixated on the Princess Kate photo scandal, they overlooked an another involving a Royal unfolding on the other side of the world. The Duchess of York’s recent visit to Samoa previewed the opportunity of this year’s Commonwealth summit to both enhance the royal image and secure much needed support for climate-vulnerable nations.

Amid the media frenzy over a controversial photo shared by Princess Kate, a moment of significance was quietly unfolding in Samoa, far from the media spotlight. Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, alongside Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa, emphasised the urgent need for intergenerational dialogue on climate change — a call to action she echoed on Instagram.

This encounter coincides with a critical year for the Commonwealth, designated as the “Year of Youth,” when the call for climate justice from its predominantly young population, with over 60 percent under the age of 30, has never been more urgent. In this context, the Duchess’s engagement — from her interactions with youth leaders at the recent “Global Citizen Now” summit in Melbourne, including Brianna Fruean, a fervent Samoan climate advocate since the age of 11, to her visit in Samoa — lays crucial groundwork for the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Under King Charles’s stewardship, this summit is poised to convene more than 50 world leaders in Samoa later this year. It not only has the potential to sculpt the King’s legacy but also to secure vital commitments to support communities that are already battling climate change.

Despite contributing minimally to causing the climate crisis, many of the Commonwealth’s 56 countries bear the brunt of its impacts. Notably, over half of the 14 countries that recognise King Charles as their head of state are small island nations in the Caribbean and Pacific. These countries, including Samoa, are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

Securing the USD$400 billion needed annually to mitigate climate-related loss and damage is a pressing issue for these nations. At the recent climate talks in Dubai, establishing a new Loss and Damage Fund represented progress, though its initial $700 million falls far short of what is needed to tackle climate change. While modest, contributions from Commonwealth nations like the United Kingdom and Canada contrast starkly with Australia’s lack of contribution, especially notable given its significant shortfall in climate financing for developing countries. This gap persists despite estimations that Australia’s equitable share of the burden would be less than the cost of a single nuclear-powered submarine. The forthcoming Commonwealth Summit presents an opportune moment to advocate for greater contributions from such countries.

For its part, the Commonwealth has a track record of mobilising funding to tackle global challenges. In 2011, during a summit in Perth, Commonwealth leaders played a pivotal role in rejuvenating efforts to eradicate polio. Under the leadership of then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the meeting secured a $118 million pledge, recognised by the World Health Organization as a “turning point” in the campaign, which had previously faced funding shortages. Four years later, the commitment to polio eradication was reaffirmed in Malta. Thanks to sustained support since then, the number of countries where polio is endemic has decreased from four to two, with only a handful of wild polio cases reported in 2023.

Other notable instances of creative policy entrepreneurship exist in the Commonwealth’s history. Through the adept diplomacy of leaders, like former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, the Commonwealth played a pivotal role in garnering support for economic sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s. This breakthrough was achieved despite staunch opposition from the UK’s then-Thatcher-led Government.

King Charles also holds significant personal sway when it comes to placing the needs of climate-vulnerable communities on the global agenda. Though his role as a constitutional monarch imposes certain limits on his direct engagement in global climate initiatives — as exemplified in 2022 when the British government advised against his attendance at the UN climate talks in Sharm El Sheikh — he possesses other avenues to inspire and mobilise support for climate action. A particularly impactful gesture could be a symbolic donation from the King’s private estates to the Loss and Damage Fund, mirroring the Scottish Government’s £1 million pledge at the start of the UN Glasgow climate talks in 2021. This contribution, strategically announced to align with his visit to Samoa, signalled solidarity and commitment.

Furthermore, King Charles’s proactive engagement on sensitive issues, especially his call for dialogue on the legacies of slavery and colonialism at the last leaders’ gathering in Rwanda, underscores his capacity to catalyse meaningful conversations and actions on climate justice within the Commonwealth. This dialogue increasingly acknowledges the links between historical injustices, like slavery, and contemporary climate challenges. Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados poignantly noted, “We financed the Industrial Revolution with our blood, sweat, and tears. Now, are we to pay for its greenhouse gases? That’s fundamentally unfair.” King Charles’s past remarks have garnered significant respect from leaders like Mottley who, despite Barbados’ recent transition to a republic, continues to hold the King in high regard and remains actively involved in Commonwealth efforts on climate change.

Well into his seventies, King Charles has the opportunity to carve out a distinct legacy, one not defined by tenure but by impact. The forthcoming Commonwealth summit in Samoa offers a prime opportunity to heed its young people – leaders like Brianna – calling for climate justice. The King’s strong advocacy for small island nations, alongside bolstered financial commitments from nations like Australia, could significantly enhance the Commonwealth’s stature, especially among critics who doubt its relevance. Such efforts will likely resonate far beyond the fleeting distractions of the latest scandal or tabloid headline.

Michael Sheldrick is the author of “From Ideas to Impact: A Playbook for Influencing and Implementing Change in a Divided World.” He has worked on several Commonwealth Summits in Australia (2011), Malta (2015), and the UK (2018) to drive specific policy outcomes for anti-poverty and global health efforts. For his work, Michael was acknowledged as a finalist for Young Commonwealth Person of the Year.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.