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What Brexit teaches us about climate change communications

By George Marshall on June 29, 2016

The Remain campaign was an object case in bad communications, one from which there is much to learn. 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.

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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 

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.

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.

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

Coming this autumn: “Communicating climate change: five principles for public engagement”, a new book by Dr Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke.

9 responses to What Brexit teaches us about climate change communications

  1. Melanie Wakley says: says:

    I think George has some really valid points and I can definitely see what he means…. People are often too frightened to listen to information about climate change and see it disconnected from their future, their lives and their families. So the analysis is done – the logic is sound – next question …… how do you make them care? How do you drive climate change forward by making those ‘everyday’ people talk about it at work and in the pub? Who is going to write the ‘story’, create the buzz words, drive climate change forward? I don’t think the Government is going too – I think it is going to have to begin elsewhere…… Ideas?

  2. Indeed. In a time of fact free politics it is all about your choice of words, and the right way of framing the issue. We could also learn a lot from the way the Irak war was sold.

    But how do you convey that facts exist, and count? How to get the media to be more open to facts?

  3. It’s not often that we at Climate Scepticism agree with opinions expressed at Climate Outreach but Paul Matthews, who alerted us to your article in a comment at

    is undoubtedly right (and so are you) in highlighting the similarity in the campaigns for Remain and climate action in their counterproductive nature of their appeals to expert opinion.

    However, as an analysis of the campaign, your article suffers from the fact that it clearly asumes that one side (Remain) was right, and the other wrong. This is shown by your peculiar use of the word “fact”.

    “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.”

    Now the headline statement in the Treasury report that the average family will be four thousand pounds worse off in 2030 following Brexit, like the statement that temperatures will be 2-4°C higher in 2050 or 2100 is not a fact. It may be a prediction or a projection or an outright lie designed to frightening the ignorant masses into obeying their intellectual superiors, but it can never be a fact. At least, not until 2030.

  4. Martin Parkinson says: says:

    an object case in bad communications

    It sure was – I noticed it at the time. An interesting question, which you don’t really ask though, is why on earth such bad mistakes are made – mistakes which, to anyone interested in communication issues, are pretty obvious. A possible answer which occurs to me is as follows.

    In order to even start thinking about how other people might view matters requires a certain humility because there is some sense in which you have to start imagining *what it’s like to not be me*. Attempting to put oneself in someone else headspace first requires that one steps outside onself by temporarily suspending ones own assumptions, beliefs and ways of thinking. This is scary to do because, if done properly, (1) one has to accept the possibility that one might change one’s mind and (2) it also involves, in imagination, suspension of ones elite status.

    I would also further argue that even if one tries to avoid this worrisome ‘stepping outside oneself’ by relying entirely on research (and thereby fancying oneself entirely ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’) then one will not understand how to apply the research, or even understand what it is suggesting.

  5. Paul M says: says:

    I don’t normally agree with George but a lot of what he says here is correct. Anyone with experience of the climate debate from either side could see the blunders the Remain side were making.
    This is what I wrote somewhere a couple of weeks before the vote, which is much the same as what George says at the start of his article:

    Appeals to elitist institutional authority – “This organisation of expert scientists/economists says… “. This shows no understanding of the nonconformist mindset of many of those leaning towards the Leave side.

  6. Liz Hodgson says: says:

    Thanks, makes huge sense. I’ve been telling people that you lot know about how to talk with and really hear those who don’t agree, and find common ground. Very happy you’ve applied that understanding in such detail to the referendum.

  7. Great summary George! Keep it coming.

  8. John Petheram says: says:

    To me in Oz, Brexit looks a sad and dissappointing, backward move for Britains and also Europe. Could it be that the Remain campaign neither acknowledged the problems of EU membership, nor offered visions of solutions that would only be posible by remaining in the EU and working towards a better world: i.e. two early principles derived from COIN and Marshall research.

  9. Neil P says: says:

    A very thoughtful analysis which I generally agree with. Gove’s deliberately repeated but meaningless phrase “take back control” (up to 30 instances in one interview) amounted to subliminal advertising and conveyed a positive message. Who doesn’t want to be in control? In reality the UK Parliament had never lost control and has always been sovereign throughout our membership of the EU. However this meaningless slogan was never exposed as such by the Remain camp. Hillary Benn was haplessly incompetent as the main spokesperson for the Remain camp. What is now liable to happen of course is that we will have less control over the regulations we trade by. Instead of EU regulations we played a very large part in devising, we will default to WTO regs which will allow all kinds of stuff we are presently protected from by EU regs. Thanks for nothing Mr. Gove.

By George Marshall

George is the co-founder of Climate Outreach and now works as an independent consultant. He has 35 years experience at all levels of communications and advocacy – from community level protest movements, to senior positions in Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation, to advisory roles for governments, businesses and international agencies. He is an award winning documentary maker and writes regularly on climate change issues including articles for The Guardian, The New Statesman, New Scientist and The Ecologist.

He is also the author of two books, Carbon Detox (Hamlyn Gaia, 2007) and Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, listed by Esquire as one of the ’15 essential books on climate change’. Go to George’s Wikipedia page for more information about him.

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