Charles, British king in waiting, aims to cure planet’s environmental ills

The Prince of Wales and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, have had a jam-packed U.S. visit, which concludes Friday in Louisville, Ky., after three days in Washington.

But the royal visit isn’t just about sightseeing at such landmarks as Mount Vernon and the Lincoln Memorial.

It’s also about developing goodwill and promoting causes.

Prince Charles, a committed conservationist, spoke in Washington of his work preserving marine life, received a conservation award named for President Teddy Roosevelt and made a surprise visit to a Smithsonian museum to discuss an upcoming exhibit on the ancient arts and crafts of Kabul, Afghanistan.

In Louisville he’ll give a speech, the marquee event of the trip, in the city’s Cathedral of the Assumption, on the connection of health and land and sustainability in agriculture. He and his wife, Camilla, in keeping with the theme, will visit a food literacy project for young people at a local farm and stop by the Big Four Pedestrian & Bicycle Bridge, a mile-long, former railroad bridge that opened last year crossing the Ohio River.

British Ambassador Sir Peter Westmacott, using the acronym for non-governmental organizations, described Prince Charles at an event his week as “a one-man NGO.”

A former private secretary to Prince Charles, Westmacott said: “And I saw over the years how his royal highness was so often ahead of public opinion on issues of global importance, such as the environment . . . sustainability; and the role the private sector could and should play in helping to make a difference.”

“Add to the courage of his convictions the extraordinary convening power of his royal highness, and you have an extraordinarily effective one-man NGO,” he said.

A lot of that has to do with the prince’s standing on the international stage.

At the White House Oval Office on Thursday, President Barack Obama told Prince Charles when the press was briefly allowed in the room, “I think it’s fair to say that the American people are quite fond of the royal family.” The prince said, “That’s awfully nice to know.” And Obama said, “They like them much better than they like their own politicians.”

Prince Charles, 66, heir to the throne, has spent years promoting conservation through the multimillion-dollar Prince’s Trust and other organizations. “He’s trying to prove he’s a serious person waiting to be king,” said Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor at American University.

And he has a following.

“Prince Charles is a fantastic convener,” said John Gantt, president of the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, which gave the prince the Teddy Roosevelt International Conservation Award Thursday evening – a bronze and marble sculpture of a herd of elephants – for “his extraordinary conservation leadership.”

Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president, was a leading conservationist who preserved over 200 million acres of land in various ways, such as national forests and parks.

By using the draw of his royal name and rank, Gantt said, the prince brings leaders in the private and public sector together on such issues as fighting elephant poachers in Africa, educating against deforestation and cleaning oceans.

On Wednesday, Prince Charles spoke to the Global Ocean Commission, a gathering of environmental, governmental and business groups, about marine pollution.

“One issue that we absolutely cannot ignore is that of the increasing quantity of plastic waste in the marine environment,” he said. “I was horrified to learn that, according to recent research, we collectively allow as much as 8 million tons of plastic to enter the oceans every year.

“Today, almost half of all marine mammals now have plastic in their gut,” he said, adding that he was haunted by the sight of dead seabirds, especially albatrosses, washed up on beaches.

“It is, I believe, utterly crucial that we do much more to speed up the transition to a more ‘circular’ economy – that is to say, one in which materials are recovered, recycled and reused instead of created, used and then thrown away,” he said.

In a stop that was not posted on his itinerary, the prince visited the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art.

He leads a nonprofit to rebuild the historic old city of Kabul and to promote its arts and crafts. The galleries are planning an exhibition for March 2016 featuring the Afghan arts and his foundation’s architectural restoration work.

“The Prince of Wales believes that everyone has a role to play in tackling even the most complex sustainability challenges facing the world,” the British Embassy said in a statement.