Queen's Speech at COP26 Calls on Leaders to Strive for 'True Statesmanship'

That implies long-term vision—and the advice applies to all of us.

Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth at a reception with British PM Boris Johnson in October 2021.

Pool / Getty Images

As politicians, pundits, and protesters gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), Queen Elizabeth II delivered a video message on Monday evening to mark the start of the 12-day event. 

The queen, who was supposed to give her speech in person but was prevented from doing so due to medical complications, offered a positive and hopeful tone in her pre-recorded video. She described Glasgow as a fitting location for a climate change conference, given that it was once the heart of the industrial revolution. (One might argue it bears the greatest burden of responsibility, in that case.)

She acknowledged a personal connection to the topic since the "impact of the environment on human progress was a subject close to the heart of my dear late husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh." She is proud his environmental interests have been carried on by their son Prince Charles and grandson Prince William—although there was, conspicuously, no mention of his brother Prince Harry's involvement in environmental projects.

The queen pointed out that Philip told an academic gathering in 1969 that global pollution, if left unaddressed, would become increasingly intolerable within a very short time. "If we fail to cope with this challenge, all the other problems will pale into insignificance."

She went on to assess the role of leaders, saying that she has had over 70 years to observe what makes a leader truly great. Then, in what was perhaps the most thought-provoking part of her speech, the queen said that what world leaders offer their people today are government and politics—"but what they do for the people of tomorrow, that is statesmanship." 

What Is Statesmanship?

Statesmanship, defined as a skill in managing public affairs, should be the goal more so than leadership because it suggests that leaders are able to make difficult decisions in the present day that will benefit humans not yet born. That long-term vision shapes policies to create a better world for all, which is why the queen said she hopes today's leaders will "rise above the politics of the moment and achieve true statesmanship."

While others may have left the reference at that, it got me thinking. Her mention of statesmanship seemed perfectly fitting, as it immediately made me think of Marcus Aurelius, last of the "Five Good Roman Emperors" and an avid philosopher who wrote down many of his most private and profound thoughts and observations of the world in a book now called "Meditations." Aurelius was fixated on the idea of statesmanship and aspired to become the ideal Roman statesman, which meant ruling his people with both the mind and the heart, not just the sword.

Marcus Aurelius
A statue of Marcus Aurelius in Capitoline Hill, Rome.

Paolo Gaetano / Getty Images

Statesmanship, Stoicism, and Environmentalism

Aurelius was also a lifelong student of the Stoics, and "Meditations" has become a central text for anyone interested in Stoicism. I've become fascinated by this philosophy in recent years and have often thought about how it applies to environmentalism. Indeed, much of the Stoics' quest to live a better life aligns with present-day striving to live a more sustainable and less carbon-intensive life.

My colleague, Treehugger design editor Lloyd Alter, explored this topic in an article several years ago, when he interviewed Kai Whiting, an expert lecturer on sustainability and Stoicism at the University of Lisbon. One point Whiting makes is that it's up to us to determine our locus of control, knowing what we can change and what we cannot. Once established, "you must act accordingly." This could be (among other things) "acknowledging a moral obligation to question the marketer's sales pitch." Whiting goes on:

"You start to read up on the supply chain because, at best, you are just trying to keep up with the Joneses, but at worst, you are actively undermining your path towards virtue because in purchasing items you automatically buy into the processes that created them: questionable labour practices in Asian sweatshops and electronics factories, South American rainforest destruction, or shady banking deals in New York and Zurich. This does not mean that Stoic philosophy calls for an abandonment of capitalism; however, it should cause you to reevaluate your priorities, your attitude, and your actions."

In other words, armed with the knowledge that we have of the current climate crisis, we all have a duty to be statesmen and stateswomen of sorts. We might not rule nations, but we do rule ourselves—and play important and influential roles in the realms of our families, homes, and communities. And taken collectively, that can add up to a planet's worth of change.

Collective Responsibility

Aurelius, the most famous ancient statesman of all, wrote a paragraph in "Meditations" that is fitting for the time of COP26: 

"All of us are working on the same project. Some consciously, with understanding; some without knowing it. Some of us work in one way, and some in others. And those who complain and try to obstruct and thwart things—they help as much as anyone. The world needs them as well. So make up your mind who you'll choose to work with."

We're not getting off this boat anytime soon, and everyone has a role to play, whether we like it or not. So it's up to us to choose how to respond, whether it is to remain in denial or to act as a true statesman like Aurelius would have done—which is to do what is hard because it is right.

The queen's speech is full of the usual cheery and hopeful platitudes that one might expect in the early days of the climate change conference when everything still seems possible. But her statesman reference is a lone gem that applies to us all, not just the leaders to whom it is directed. If COP26 changes nothing (and no, I'm not terribly optimistic), may it at least establish a greater sense of responsibility in each of us to act with the future in mind. 

Or, as Aurelius wrote, to "commit to justice in your own acts... resulting in the common good. [That is] what you were born to do."