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Public Engagement around Article 50 will supercharge the UK’s environmental protection or sink it

By Jamie Clarke on March 29, 2017

March 29th marked the start of the biggest challenges ever faced by the UK’s environmental and conservation movement.

Triggering Article 50 is the starting gun for two years of conversations that have the potential to supercharge the UK’s climate ambitions and environmental protection, or completely undermine the decades of progress we’ve made. How the game plays out will have implications around the world both in terms of the deal reached but also the precedent it sets for other nations grappling with a rise in ‘populism’.

What is certain though is that the result will be disastrous unless those of us who care about our countryside and animals find common cause with those of us passionate about the global climate – and can connect to the fears and optimism that underpinned the Leave vote.

So what does ‘taking back control’ currently look like for the environment? Firstly we know that the political winds are not currently blowing in our direction: as Professor Andrew Jordan recently pointed out, Theresa May’s promise of a ‘red white and blue Brexit’ failed to include anything green, with climate change entirely absent from the government’s white paper on Brexit. But it’s not just climate change that is missing from the Article 50 bill – there are very few commitments to adopting the comprehensive environmental protections currently enshrined and enforced in European law, so how we’ll look after everything from our sewers to the sea and the air we breathe is all up for grabs.

Secondly, we know that the rules of the game have changed, so influencing policy and campaigning won’t work in the same way. No longer can we rely on considered policy lobbying backed up by public campaigns supported by the usual suspects. Indeed as we’ve seen across the Atlantic, it has been reasonably straightforward to tar those of us who champion environmental and climate protection as being part of the current bogey men, the liberal internationalist elite, the people from whom control needs to be taken.

Thirdly, we are way behind the curve when it comes to the public narrative. Whilst a focus on the policy arena is vital – and the Greener UK alliance has done a great job in rapidly pulling together a coalition in this space – the de-regulate, rip-up-the-red tape agenda is virtually unchallenged. There is yet to be significant public support for the few positive voices championing climate change or the wider environmental agenda at the highest levels of the political establishment.

We need a new rallying cry, a new vision of the UK we want to create, one that mobilises beyond our core supporters and embraces the concerns of the many. One that emphasises the importance of safeguards not just for the environment but also social and economic protection. How do we do this well? Years of grappling with climate change public engagement provides us with key insights.


1. Tell new stories to shift our concerns out of the policy and scientific arena and into front rooms

Climate change, and to a slightly lesser extent environmentalism, is saturated with technical and scientific language which is virtually guaranteed to turn off the unconverted. We know that people aren’t convinced by trotting out ever more facts and few are motivated by policy demands imbued with legalese. Instead people need powerful human stories they can relate to.
We’ve seen how the Climate Coalition’s ‘For the Love of’ campaign turned the traditional climate change story on its head by focusing not on graphs or fear laden green messaging but instead on the things that different people want to protect from climate change. This campaign has galvanised unprecedented support from wider groups such as the Women’s Institute and National Trust, opening the political door in a way few had hoped for just two years ago and re-energising veteran campaigners.
And the green movement needs to shrug off its sometimes ‘holier than thou’ persona and convey messages of hope (without bright siding the future) through realistic stories that resonate with the millions for whom Brexit is an opportunity to build a positive future.

2. Promote new voices to reach beyond the usual suspects

Relying on expert opinion to build public engagement is increasingly ineffective as we saw with the UK referendum. We are all wanting to hear from authentic voices and new stories need new messengers, ones who can speak beyond the choir. Using the same ‘green’ protagonists is most likely to only attract those who consider themselves environmentalists.
Creating a cacophony of voices from a range of backgrounds and communities across society is crucial and it helps if they are singing from the same hymn sheet. We’ve seen how this can be done for example around the UN Paris climate talks where we saw powerful authentic statements from Catholic and Muslim leaders that resonated with their communities. We’re so convinced by this approach that at Climate Outreach we’re supporting leaders from not only faith organisations but also centre-right audiences and migration organisations to speak out on why climate change is an issue for their communities.

3. Start where people are, not where we want them to be

It is impossible to separate the environment and climate change from the kaleidoscope of social, political, and economic issues that make up our lives. A values-based approach to communication and engagement, rather than a top down one, recognises this and uses it as an opportunity rather than a problem to be overcome. This doesn’t mean we have to throw the internationalist and environmental baby out with the bathwater and pander to every headline or take a parochial take on global issues, as a recent blog by Paul Kingsnorth appears to imply. It does, however, mean deep listening and connecting with people’s communal values rather than simply employing the traditional environmentalists’ communication handbook.

Our myriad of identities provide a range of entry points – local or national identity is just one one of these but disregarding people’s sense of place and history is likely to feed into a sense that environmentalists are removed from most people. Celebrating the closure of coal mines is rationally understandable if you care for the state of the planet, but if your family and community’s identity is wrapped up in the coal industry, the story feels rather different.

Our research with the University of Cardiff has demonstrated how starting from non exclusive national identity values statements (e.g. below) leads to much more positive support for renewables across the political spectrum.

“Democracy is the backbone of Britain, so decisions about energy technologies should be taken by the British people. We have to make the right choices for our children and grandchildren, and invest in clean energy technologies, which are a golden opportunity to rebuild our manufacturing base. Perhaps we cannot be completely self-sufficient, but we can do a lot better at producing our own energy, through British-made solar and wind technologies.”

Indeed we’ve a great deal to be proud of. The UK’s Climate Change Act remains in place, mandating a minimum of 80% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Secondly the Scottish Government – currently still part of the UK – is demonstrating strong political leadership in their pro-active approach to building broad and deep public engagement with climate change, showing that a national focus is not only progressive, but effective.

Many of the longstanding opponents of environmental protection have learnt these lessons and are bound to try and take advantage of the opportunity. Our greatest hope therefore of combating such forces is to build on the latent support throughout society for a safe, healthy future by widening, deepening and demonstrating that support.

By Jamie Clarke

Jamie Clarke was Climate Outreach’s Executive Director for almost 10 years, from 2013 to 2022. Under his leadership, Climate Outreach grew into an internationally acclaimed organisation. As a values-based leader, he provided strategic direction with an empathetic management approach. He is a proven international speaker and considered writer who feels as comfortable addressing the UNFCCC as co-authoring books such as Talking Climate. In his studies as a social scientist, he focused on participatory processes at the nexus of societal and environmental issues. Undertaking extensive research in the Pantanal region of Brazil crystalised his understanding of centrality of effective citizen engagement in change processes.  

Passionate about widening engagement with climate change, he previously worked for advocacy organisations including Amnesty International UK and Practical Action. In these roles he saw how difficult it is for many people to connect with climate change narratives, and how this often underpins apathy and opposition. Determined to address this and the largely under-recognised role that the wider public has in tackling climate change, he previously led a successful youth climate outreach programme that targeted marginalised students studying vocational courses. Jamie lived for many years on a canal boat but now lives on terra firma in Oxford with his family and is rarely off a bicycle.

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