Climate change communication: Taking a leaf from the Brexit book

Protest. Public demonstration.

The upcoming referendum on the UK’s European Union (EU) membership has sparked a fiery debate among politicians, the media and the general public. Simon Bushell asks what climate change communicators can learn from the Brexit campaign.

Whether pushing for the UK to leave the EU (“Brexit”) or stay, EU referendum campaigners are urging the British public to take action based on an uncertain future. In this respect, they face a very similar challenge to climate change communicators. Yet these EU-centred campaigns – the Brexit campaign in particular –  have succeeded capturing the public’s hearts and minds in a way that climate change campaigns have not. So what can climate change communicators learn from the Brexit communications strategy?

There are clearly some fundamental differences between communication around the EU referendum and climate change. The Brexit campaign is simply asking people to tick a box rather than make the range of changes to their lifestyles that would be required to tackle climate change. Despite this difference, the comparison is still helpful – in both cases, rousing communication that speaks to people’s emotions is the first step towards creating action.

Presenting the evidence

Another key difference concerns the availability and distribution of evidence. When it comes to climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides a formalised structure dedicated to gathering evidence about climate change and related actions. This information strongly backs action, offering support to climate change campaigns.

However, in the case of the EU referendum, most of the centralised information is produced by the UK government, which supports a continued membership of the EU. This information supports a continuation of the status quo, arguably ‘inaction’, in direct contrast to the goals of the Brexit campaign.

The communication tools selected by climate change campaigners and “Brexiteers” may differ because of the way in which they utilise the available evidence. Those arguing for stronger action on climate change feel confident in the knowledge that most evidence supports their case. They are persuaded that if they just continue to present that evidence, and use it to describe some frightening futures, people will eventually be convinced –  or scared – into action.

Letting the evidence speak for itself may seem like a logical tactic, but research has repeatedly exposed the flaws in this approach. The “information deficit model”, which suggests that if you show people enough hard facts they will change their minds, has been invalidated in countless studies. Fear is not only an ineffective way of creating urgency or gaining support, but often leads to disengagement.

Telling stories

In contrast, the Brexit campaign has done an extremely good job of engaging the public by evoking the power of narratives: systems of stories with a common thread that are told and retold over time. Those arguing the case for Britain to leave the EU have aroused feelings of national pride by presenting an historical narrative in which Britain is a great and influential nation, which has been constrained by becoming part of the EU. According to this narrative, casting a vote to leave will set us free, allowing Britain to become “great” again.

This narrative has all the makings of a powerful, persuasive narrative. For example, it follows the classic “Hero” narrative, making you the hero at the centre of the story. It also follows an “ideal” narrative structure: Situation (Britain is a Great nation), Complication (her influence is dwindling due to the EU – part of a well told Britain in decline narrative) and Resolution (your vote helps us to leave and become Great again).

In a similar way, narratives used by climate change deniers often appear more persuasive than those advocating action on climate change. An example is the “markets” narrative, according to which leaving matters to be resolved by market forces can settle almost any problem – the less state intervention, the better. This narrative is comfortable for people as it fits in with our cultural history, and knowledge of past experiences. This is how we have always lived, and been successful, and markets are how we have solved problems before, so why shouldn’t it work now?

The power of the narrative

Climate change communicators – university press offices, campaign organisations, government communications teams, the media, businesses, you and me – could do learn from Brexit campaigners’ approach.  In the latest Grantham Institute Briefing Paper, my co-authors and I argue that we must harness the power of the narrative to encourage governments, the private sector and the public to take action on climate change.

Developing a narrative does not mean discarding the evidence, but rather presenting it in a more compelling manner. Ideally, these narratives would communicate the climate change problem and its solutions effectively, make the issue relatable and motivating action. People should be able to identify with the narratives and feel part of them, taking ownership and making the climate change story truly belong to all of us.

Adopting this approach makes sense because taking action on climate change will create a happier, healthier, more prosperous nation – and it might just make Britain great again.


Find out more

Applications are currently open for a Grantham Institute funded PhD project on Strategic narratives in UK climate policy (pdf). Deadline: 11 July 2016. View all studentship opportunities.

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