What can the Brexit vote tell us about harnessing peoples’ enthusiasm to act on climate change?

Graphic showing a green future city, with icons representing health, wealth, happiness and employment

Dr Neil Jennings, Partnership Development Manager at the Grantham Institute, considers how we can frame action on climate change in terms of other public priorities.

Each month, the polling organisation Ipsos MORI surveys members of the public in the United Kingdom about what they think are the main issues facing the country. Currently (July 2019), the ‘Common Market/Brexit/EU’ tops the list. However, in 2015 it was in 10th place – with only 9% of the population concerned about the European Union. So, how did an issue that figured relatively low on the public’s list of concerns in 2015, spur 17.4m people to vote to leave the EU in a referendum just a year later? And can insights from the EU referendum teach us anything about how to galvanise action on climate change?

Graph taken from briefing paper: "Co-benefits of climate change mitigation in the UK" showing issues of concern raised by UK public via Ipso MORI data
Graph taken from briefing paper: “Co-benefits of climate change mitigation in the UK”. N.B Immigration was not a response category until 2015

Those campaigning for Brexit achieved success in the referendum partly by framing the UK’s membership of the EU in terms of issues that were of greater concern to the UK public. Brexit was spoken about in terms of immigration (an issue of concern for an average of 44% of Ipsos MORI survey respondents in 2015), the National Health Service (39% of respondents), schools (16%) and housing (15%).

The proposed benefit of Brexit to the NHS was infamously plastered on the side of a bus – suggesting that £350m paid to the EU each week could instead be spent on healthcare. Similar claims linking the £350m to schools and housing were explicit on Vote Leave materials.

A similar approach has resurfaced recently, with a Conservative social media campaign suggesting that Brexit will benefit the NHS, schools, police and the economy. Unsurprisingly, these issues are currently listed as some of the biggest areas of public concern.

Picture of Boris Johnson, with text "brexit by 31 Oct, NHS, Schools, Police, Economy"
Conservative Facebook ad

That political movements and parties try to frame issues in terms of other public priorities is of course nothing new. It nevertheless serves as a reminder that, when we talk about climate change, it’s essential to relate this often distant and far-off issue to things the UK public care about. This is particularly pertinent now. The UK has achieved a 43% reduction in domestic greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 without any major changes in public behaviour. However, reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will be much more challenging and is likely to require direct changes to people’s lives, such as reducing meat consumption, increasing walking and cycling, replacing gas boilers with heat pumps. As such, it’s essential that climate action is framed in a positive way that resonates with the everyday concerns of the public.

To some, climate action can be synonymous with giving things up. Those of us calling for greater action on climate change need to focus more attention on the multiple benefits that reducing carbon emissions can bring. Cleaner air will improve public health and reduce the burden on the NHS; the low-carbon jobs market will create employment opportunities; better insulated, energy efficient houses will help reduce poverty by making it easier for people to afford to heat their homes; more UK renewable energy generation will bring less reliance on imported oil and gas. For more detail on these benefits, check out our recent briefing paper and the animation below.

This framing is relevant at a number of levels – from conversations we have with friends, colleagues and loved ones, to the way climate action is discussed by decision-makers. A wave of councils across the UK have recently declared climate emergencies, making this the ideal time to be talking about how action on climate change can benefit many other areas of public policy. Councils are well-placed to capitalise on the benefits of climate action, as many of the solutions have tangible benefits at local levels – this local authority toolkit from Ashden is a great resource on the co-benefits of climate action at the local level.

Recent extreme weather events, scientific reports, school strikes and Extinction Rebellion activities have all contributed to the UK public being more concerned about the environment than at any point in almost the last thirty years. It’s essential that we don’t lose this momentum, and incorporating the co-benefits of climate action into the way we communicate the issue is an important way to do this. After all, climate action is about creating a cleaner, greener, fairer future for all of us – now that’s worth writing on the side of a bus!

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One thought on “What can the Brexit vote tell us about harnessing peoples’ enthusiasm to act on climate change?

  1. The key is to ensure that we use Facebook, and social media to push out our subliminal messages based on other concerns. We just need to get access to their databases! Just like the Vote Leave corrupted peoples minds!

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