What Can We Learn From Brexit About The Way We Talk About Climate Change?


The Remain campaign was an object case in bad communications, one from which there is much to learn, argues George Marshall, director of projects at Climate Outreach, a charity working to increase public understanding and awareness of climate change.

The tragedy for the Remain campaigners is that the principles of good engagement were already well known, not least from the field of climate change communications.  

Mistakes are forgivable, but there is no excuse for stumbling down a path that is already littered with the wreckage of previous attempts to motivate public opinion – or then, as your support haemorrhages, doubling down on a losing strategy.

There are many curious parallels between the climate change and referendum debates.  Following the language of social theorist Horst Rittel both issues are “wicked” problems: complex, multifactoral, and contradictory. Both issues struggle through the same cognitive landscape of bias, fear and group loyalty. And campaigners for both issues have failed to understand the way that people form their opinions.

Facts alone are not enough to win the argument

As is so often the case with climate change communications, many Remain campaigners often failed to understand the way that people form their opinions.

A key mistake of the Remain campaign was the assumption that the EU debate could be settled by statistical models and elite expert opinion. The materials from the Remain campaign were overwhelmingly dependent on dry economic statistics and intangible claims from international bodies about economic costs.  

When these failed to work, the campaign simply laid it on thicker, hoping that stronger data, more elite experts and fatter reports (the Treasury analysis of the economic impacts of leaving the EU was over 300 pages long) would produce a stronger argument.  

In reality, though, facts alone are not enough to shift attitudes. Climate change communicators know this all too well. Despite twenty years of reports, documentaries, and increasingly outspoken expert warnings, the public has never fully accepted the scale of the scientific consensus on climate change. In recent polls, 37% of people in Britain say that “climate change has not been proven by scientists” and around 60% of people maintain that it is partly or entirely due to natural processes.

Major Brexit backer Aaron Banks – who supported Nigel Farage’s campaign – understood this. Describing the Leave communication strategy, he said: “It was taking an American-style media approach. What they said early on was ‘facts don’t work’ and that’s it. The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”

Relying on expert opinion to build public engagement can sometimes backfire

The Leave campaign made effective use of anti-establishment messages which portrayed the experts and elites as a self-serving group who do not understand the concerns of ordinary people. This approach has also been used to promote climate scepticism

There are many common features between climate sceptics and Leave supporters. In polls, supporters of Leave were twice as likely to disbelieve climate change than supporters of Remain. They also share a common demographic, being disproportionately older, male, conservative, and white.

In a recent article, environmentalist Nick Mabey and psychologist Kris De Meyer observe a common ideological thread in the presenting of both issues as internationalist, left-wing state intervention in national sovereignty and personal freedom.

As the investigative journalism website, DeSmog UK has doggedly revealed, many of the leading figures in the Brexit campaign are also opponents of action on climate change (and vice versa) –  including Nigel Lawson, Nicholas Ridley, Nigel Farage, James Delingpole, Owen Patterson, John Redwood, Matt Ridley, and, depending on how the wind is blowing, Boris Johnson. A single building in Tufton Street, Westminster houses six leading eurosceptic and two leading climatesceptic organisations.

It was hardly a surprise then to find that these two campaigns share tactics – challenging the authority of expert opinion, playing on uncertainty, and launching ad hominem attacks on their opponents.

The prominent climate sceptics have never sought to communicate the science – they start with core values of independence, freedom from government and prosperity and building convoluted narratives within which the enemy (left leaning environmentalists and the corrupt scientific establishment) conspire to defraud the public. 

Climate change scepticism was the dry run for Brexit which tested and refined language that enabled Leave to speak to broader values and identity.

Ironically, this anti-science approach is well supported by actual science. There is a large body of academic and practical research that shows that people seek positions that align with their values, their identity and the views of their peers.

This bias is especially marked for issues, such as climate change and leaving the EU, where outcomes are uncertain and lie outside peoples’ personal experience.  Although people claim that they reach their decisions through a careful evaluation of the evidence, they are actually far more likely to apply a “confirmation bias” through which they actively cherry-pick the evidence, however unreliable, that could support their existing view.

The Leave campaign understood these principles from the outset and played a much more effective and responsive game.

Leave was blithely dismissive of overall expert opinion, though it recruited enough expert outliers to claim some authority for its claims. Instead it focused its messages on people’s core values and identity – patriotism, independence and cultural purity.

It created catchphrases that rapidly became social memes, repeated between peers at work and in the pub, about “defending our borders” and “taking back control”. And it skilfully wove these into wider themes of national and cultural identity.

Tell a good story

The exact extent to which a change of wording can shape how people feel and act towards an issue remains the subject of intense debate. Nonetheless, it is beyond doubt that in the world of politics, language matters.

Individual words can operate as powerful frames that embody complex meanings. The Leave campaign established a single word, ‘control’, as the dominant frame in the referendum and mobilised people around the slogan, emblazoned on posters and the battle-bus of “Let’s Take Back Control”.

It did not seek to explain who would be in the collective “us” which would be allowed to take control, and the line-up of interests behind the slogan was hardly egalitarian. However, the Leave campaign calculated, correctly as it turned out, that the frame of “taking control” would speak strongly to a disaffected and disempowered electorate.  

The Remain campaign did not talk about control, but the clear implication of its elite endorsements for the status quo was “keep us in control because we know what we’re doing.”  

Finding the right language is about more than just words and slogans – these elements need to be put together into a story that people can relate to.

Compelling stories are invariably built around the same formula: a struggle to overcome an external threat that leads to a restoration harmony and a validation of cultural values. The Brexit storyline was complete and compelling: our core values are under attack by foreign tribes (whether immigrants or Brussels Eurocrats) but we are a strong and plucky nation and we can defend our borders and reclaim our independence.

The Remain storyline was far less coherent. Like climate change, it lacked a clear external enemy. In the case of climate change the problem is caused by all of us, however hard we try to project blame onto oil companies or high carbon polluters. In the referendum the ‘enemy’ (opponents of Remain) were also all around them – their political colleagues, workmates, neighbours and often spouses and family members.

The Leave campaign enthusiastically focused its energies on the resistance to continental and foreigner out-groups. Remain adopted the far less compelling defensive position of challenging their facts and figures.

Identify messages of hope

The discussion of future impacts in the referendum shows clear parallels with climate change, an issue where, like the Remain campaign, communicators hope that people can be motivated to act in anticipation of predicted future disaster.

In the case of climate communications there is strong evidence that messages dependent on anticipatory fear are often rejected. Those disposed to believe them may actively ignore them in order to defend themselves against anxiety. People who are more sceptical see them as fear mongering, just as Brexit campaigners dubbed the Remain campaign “Project Fear”.

Project Fear was hardly a fair accusation; in the referendum debate both sides used fear-based messaging and were widely criticised for doing so. However, the Leave campaign incorporated fear within a more positive narrative of independence, national strength and renewal.

Our research at Climate Outreach confirms that people will embrace the threats and solutions for climate change as part of a larger more positive vision of health, quality of life and new opportunity.

Remain failed to create any positive vision. There are many positive reasons for staying within the EU, and Remain could have constructed appealing narratives around the frames of choice, freedom of movement, diversity, opportunity, solidarity and fairness. However, many Remain campaigners from both left and right could not bring themselves to endorse the European project.

Not only did they damn it with faint praise, they praised it with faint damns – with frequent asides that the Union is feeble, flawed but probably better than nothing. Hardly inspiring.

What can we learn from the EU referendum campaign?

The first lesson confirms that effective communication creates narratives around people’s values and identity. In particular, as Climate Outreach has always argued, political change requires mobilising support across boundaries of class and politics. Top down information-driven media cannot compete with personal contact and peer-to-peer communication.

A second lesson re-iterates the importance of peer-to-peer communications for complex technical issues. Although it had the usual panoply of media outreach tools, the ultimate success of the Leave campaign was down to its ability to organise a mass movement that reached deep into neighbourhoods and communities and could initiate conversations.

A third lesson is that public silence around an issue can be broken by effective communication focused around a ‘moment’. The Leave campaign generated a political moment of debate and attention around an issue that had previously been of little public interest.

Like climate campaigners, advocates for leaving the EU have always struggled to overcome public apathy and indifference. In a poll taken just two months before the referendum, scarcely 15 percent of people rated “Europe” as a major issue facing the country. The referendum broke this silence and made EU membership a salient issue, around which people were required to have a position.

Climate change is another long term issue that struggles to demand public attention or political priority. Forcing a debate is always a high risk strategy but maybe we require a similar moment of broad-based public scrutiny to break the climate silence and obtain the mandate for a truly effective response to climate change.

A version of this article was originally posted on Climate Outreach.

Photo: David Holt via Flickr

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