Finding the right response

24th October 2016

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Mohamed Ibrahim Mostaffa

What lessons can the sustainability profession learn from the EU referendum debate and vote? Paul Suff reports

Thousands of words and many column inches have been devoted to analysing the UK vote to leave the EU. Environment and sustainability considerations have largely been absent from the discussion, mainly because they were rarely mentioned in the run-up to the referendum and so had little influence on the way most people cast their vote.

However, a group of IEMA members (panel, p17) has started a conversation on understanding the ramifications for sustainability and what the profession can learn from the referendum debate to better communicate messages about climate change, resource depletion and the need to move to a low-carbon economy. The main questions considered to kick off the discussion were:

Did voters reject arguments put forward by the ‘remain’ side because the focus was almost exclusively on the negative consequences of Brexit? Are environmentalists guilty of being similarly pessimistic in their messaging?

Was the outcome partly a rejection of expert opinion? If so, where does this leave the sustainability profession when much of what it does rests on scientific knowledge and evidence?

Did ‘leave’ triumph because mainstream politicians repeatedly failed to address local concerns? If that was the case, how can practitioners persuade people to think about global issues like climate change?

Project Fear

Everyone from the then prime minister David Cameron and Bank of England governor Mark Carney to US president Barack Obama warned that a vote to leave would seriously damage the UK economy. The Treasury forecast that the average household would be £4,300 a year worse off if the UK left the EU; the OECD estimated that leaving would be equivalent to losing one month’s income within four years; the IMF said Brexit would hit living standards, increase inflation and reduce GDP by as much as 5.5%; and Obama warned that the UK would be at the back of queue in negotiating trade deals with the US.

Leave campaigners also issued their share of scare stories, such as Turkey’s ‘imminent’ accession to the EU. However, it was the tactics of the remain camp that was labelled Project Fear, the term originally used to describe the Better Together campaign in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

It’s Good to Talk, a report published in September by the Electoral Reform Society, found that, as the referendum debate wore on, the view was that the campaign to remain had become increasingly negative. ‘By the final week before the vote, 51% of respondents felt that the remain campaign was negative, as opposed to 9% who thought it was positive,’ it said. The society also found that most of the people polled agreed that having a positive vision should be a key part of any campaign.

The IEMA panel felt this was a lesson environment and sustainability professionals must learn, particularly with regard to climate change when too often the message was of impending doom. Paul Toyne, a London Sustainable Development Commissioner and former group environment and sustainability director at Balfour Beatty, warned practitioners to be wary of pushing fear too far: ‘It’s a dangerous tactic and can leave people feeling powerless and insular.’

John Dale, director at Lime Tools, which develops and supplies behaviour change tools for businesses, said environment and sustainability professionals had a responsibility to know their audience and to refrain from being alarmist. ‘If you are trying to communicate about climate change, you have to know the level of technical and emotional intelligence of the audience, whether they’re in the boardroom or the school classroom,’ he explained. ‘The message should emphasise potential opportunities and steer clear of fear as much as possible. Too often we get that balance wrong.’ He appealed to the profession to ensure messages are digestible and to engage in targeted story telling: ‘We can make a difference but we’re failing to bring the environment to life.’

Independent consultant Lynne Ceeney agreed: ‘It is important to link people and the environment. That’s the best way to get your message across.’ Toyne said messages should centre on quality of life and public health issues. ‘There are lots of examples, such as improving air quality and cleaning up rivers, where we have had an impact and which improve people’s quality of life. We need to make our achievements more visible.’

Kirit Patel, environment manager at logistics firm DHL Supply Chain, urged IEMA to do more to help professionals improve how they communicate. IEMA engagement and policy lead Nick Blyth agreed that more positive messages that empower people to take action on climate change were necessary. He stated the urgency for change and the opportunity offered by real world incidents (climate impacts) for mobilising public acceptance for action.

A report last year from consultancy Futerra underlined the apparent failure of environmentalists to communicate effectively. It urged sustainability practitioners to find the ‘sizzle’ to communicate climate change. ‘For years, we’ve tried to “sell” climate change, but a lot of people aren’t buying. Despite a strange recent resurgence in denial, the science is unequivocal. So climate change is no longer a scientist’s problem – it’s now a saleman’s problem,’ it concluded. The consultancy explained how in the 1940s so-called ‘supersalesman’ Elmer Wheeler had advised US businesses to sell the ‘sizzle’ not the ‘sausage’. Wheeler maintained that the secret to successful selling was to focus on the sounds and smells that stimulated people rather than the sausage itself.

Futerra compared climate change to the sausage. It also noted that most messaging on climate change was that the world was going to a hell, consisting of rising seas, scorched earth, failing food supplies, and millions of starving refugees tormented by wild weather. ‘Although these armageddon climate scenarios might be accurate and eye-catching, they haven’t changed attitudes or behaviours nearly enough. Threats of climate hell haven’t seemed to hold us back from running headlong towards it. Hell doesn’t sell,’ it said. Futerra advised environmentalists instead to build a visual and compelling vision of low-carbon heaven.

We know best

When Cameron advised voters in the run-up to the referendum to heed the warnings of economic experts, such as the OECD, the IMF and the Bank of England before deciding which way to vote, the retort from leave campaigners was to ask why. They pointed out that each organisation had failed to predict the 2008 financial collapse. Meanwhile, leading leave campaigner and Conservative MP Michael Gove declared: ‘People in this country have had enough of experts.’

A YouGov poll in early June found that 68% of those planning to vote leave agreed with the statement, ‘It’s wrong to rely too much on so-called experts and better to rely on ordinary people’. Joe Twyman, the polling organisation’s head of political and social research, told the Washington Post: ‘What we’re seeing is a rise in the number of people who are dissatisfied, disapproving, distrusting of political institutions, political parties, the establishment, the media and, wrapped up with that, the experts.’

Alan Knight, general manager for corporate responsibility at steel company ArcelorMittal, is concerned that an apparent willingness to ignore expert opinion could be damaging to the sustainability profession and efforts to address environmental and social issues: ‘The demise of the expert is really scary when a lot of what we do is about deep science.’

Panel members thought the seeming disregard for expert opinion came back to the issue of poor communication, in particular an inability to listen so that solutions to environment problems reflected people’s concerns. ‘We can sound arrogant when we tell people they must do this and they should do that, particularly if we do not know their personal circumstances,’ said Ceeney. ‘How can you tell a parent struggling to feed three children they must insulate their home? It may save them money in the long term but it is not their priority.’

Sustainability facilitator Penny Walker said the fault lines in the country exposed by the referendum indicated that people in some areas had failed to pay attention to those in others. ‘We need to get out and listen more,’ she said. Knight agreed that, if the profession is to be effective in changing people’s behaviour, its messages must be relevant and accessible.

Environmentalists had to overcome the ‘so-what test’, said Ceeney, when an expert offered advice. She gave the example of a doctor recommending that a patient loses weight to avoid developing Type 2 diabetes, but is ignored because the benefits are not immediately visible or the initial pain is too great. ‘It’s the same with solving environmental issues. We point out the problems and expect people to act. But if the costs outweigh the benefits or the payback is too far away they’ll turn a blind eye.’

Sunny Pawar, founder of consultancy Green Collar, said practitioners had to improve their portrayal of the ‘big picture’. ‘Often we focus on one aspect of the agenda because that’s our specialism and people struggle to understand the relevance. We need to show where that knowledge fits with the wider scheme of things and how many issues are linked.’

The panel identified two factors that sometimes hindered whether expert voices were heard above the general noise that accompanies issues such as climate change. The broadcast media’s desire for what it perceives as balance was one. Knight said such coverage often created a false debate about the science, and that spread confusion. Attributing scientists and campaigners the same status when debating the science of climate change was criticised in a report in 2014 from the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee: ‘Some editors appear to be particularly poor at determining the level of scientific expertise of contributors in debates, putting up lobbyists against top scientists as though their arguments on the science carry equal weight.’

Peter Sharratt, head of strategic consulting at WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff, said arguments about the science made people switch off.

Social media was seen as both a blessing and an obstacle to communicating knowledge. ‘Suddenly everyone is an expert and can say what they like. If you have enough “likes” and “followers” you get heard,’ said Ceeney. ‘Having a measured debate on Twitter is very hard.’ However, George Crone, partner at Novus Consulting and a member of IEMA Futures, said social media provided opportunities for environment and sustainability professionals: ‘YouTube and Twitter are excellent tools to connect with a wide audience.’

Think global, act local

In the aftermath of the referendum, some commentators concluded that, by voting leave, the electorate, especially in former industrial heartlands and parts of the country that had experienced recent rapid change, had taken the opportunity to give the so-called ‘elites’ a kicking. Many had acted this way because they felt their voices were not heard and their communities had missed out on economic success from globalisation. Church of England priest, journalist and broadcaster Giles Fraser wrote in The Guardian: ‘They had simply been left profoundly unattended by the political process. Taken for granted, patted on the head – by the Labour Party as much as the Conservatives – and dumped upon by a financial services industry that never paid the price for its own recklessness.’

This is not unique to the UK and may partly explain the popularity of Donald Trump in the US, whose denialist position on anthropogenic climate change is tempered only by his blaming of what there is on China. A 2014 study published in Perspectives on Politics looked at the relative influence of US political actors on policymaking. It found that, compared with economic elites, average voters had a low to non-existent influence over policy. ‘Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions, they have little or no independent influence on policy at all,’ the authors concluded.

The panel was concerned that support for environmental goals could suffer if people were alienated from the political and policymaking process, which would make it harder for practitioners to win over those with little interest in green issues. Environmental policy, particularly measures to tackle climate change, which is the issue that attracts most attention, is often ridiculed in parts of the media and portrayed as a burden. Whereas policymakers and environmentalists see renewable energy as necessary to achieve climate goals, some customers tend to associate it with higher energy prices. Green policies, such as the carbon price floor, are blamed by some in business, including the Energy Intensive Users Group, for damaging the steel and other industries, which tend to operate in areas already struggling economically.

‘Where people feel marginalised their focus tends be on short-term issues, meaning we struggle to get traction on environmental issues, which are seen as being long term,’ said Carl Brooks, head of sustainability at property management company MJ Mapp. ‘Some politicians claim action on climate change poses a direct threat to the livelihoods of people, which taps into these immediate fears. The profession needs to find a way of taking back ownership of the issues and of their benefits in the short as well as the long term.’

One issue highlighted by voters in areas affected by rapid change is the strain on resources, from school places to access to medical services (see panel, below). Walker said this had parallels with the resource scarcity highlighted by environmentalists: ‘The resentment some people feel towards migrants is a symptom of the resource squeeze we talk about. People are likely to only get more scared and angry as we get squeezed as a species for water, food and shelter.’

Knight homed in on people who consider themselves marginalised, asking: ‘How do we reach people who feel powerless and believe policy is being foisted on them and their communities?’ Several panel members said practitioners should adopt an approach that recalled the 1970s environmental slogan of ‘thinking globally and acting locally’ that was used and popularised at the Rio Earth summit in 1992. Toyne said Agenda 21, the sustainable development plan that came out of the summit and which championed local community input, was one of the best initiatives he had been involved in. ‘It consisted of a set of sustainability principles and people discussed how they affected their community and what they could do about them,’ he said. ‘The then government [1998] set a target for every local authority to have an Agenda 21 strategy by 2000.’

Although it acknowledged problems with the policy, a study published in 2003 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that, when Local Agenda 21 practitioners had linked their work with regeneration programmes, there had been examples of delivering social, economic and environmental improvements. Knight recalled how one of his previous employers, DIY

business B&Q, had been involved: ‘Store managers sat on Agenda 21 committees and provided assistance for community initiatives, such as donating products for use by local schools and offering help from staff.’

The drive for devolution, including the creation of powerful mayors in England as well as the devolved national administrations, was an opportunity for more local decision-making, said Sharratt. ‘There is a mistrust of big government, and political responsibility is increasingly being transferred to regions.’ He also wondered whether sustainability practitioners should no longer rely on legislation to achieve environmental goals.

Doyle said environment and sustainability practitioners had to identify how to engage people on global issues in ways that suited them. Knight wondered whether, as a movement, environmentalists should consider no longer making climate change the main topic of debate and whether they need to reframe the problems of a warming planet in a local context. In the UK, that could focus on how best to prevent flooding in areas likely to experience an increase in such incidents. ‘The reason why people alter their behaviour tends to be close to home,’ Ceeney said, adding that Hurricane Sandy, which was one the most destructive recorded when it battered the US eastern seaboard in 2012, enabled her to engage people on climate change in ways she had never been able to before.

Let’s keep talking

The thoughts and contributions outlined here are intended as the start of a conversation about the lessons that environment and sustainability professionals can draw from recent political trends such as the referendum debate and vote. The participants plan to keep the discussion going. If you would like to join the conversation, add your comments at or contact [email protected]. The discussion is just one aspect of IEMA’s work on Brexit. Workshops, hosted by chief policy advisor Martin Baxter, have been held across the country over the past two months for members to share their views on the implications of Brexit for environment and sustainability policy – see below.

Dissecting the vote

More than 17 million people voted for Brexit and they did so for a myriad of reasons. Researchers have identified some possible explanations for why some areas voted to remain and others to leave. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation think tank identified six key factors in how people voted: living standards, education, migration, culture, social cohesion and geography. For example, a ten percentage point (ppt) rise in the proportion of students in a constituency was associated with a 5ppt fall in the leave vote, while a similar increase in the ratio of over-50s to under-50s was associated with a 0.7ppt increase in the leave vote.

Polling organisation YouGov found similar fissures. Every region of the country except Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted to leave, and age and education were strong barometers for how people cast their vote. Some 70% of voters whose educational attainment was GCSE or lower voted leave, while 68% of voters with a university degree voted remain. Those with A-levels and no degree were split evenly. Under-25s were more than twice as likely to vote remain (71%) than leave (29%), whereas over-65s voted 64% to 36% in favour of leave. Among the other age groups, voters aged 24 to 49 narrowly opted for remain (54%), while 60% of voters between 50 and 64 chose leave.

Low-income groups and people in areas ravaged by de-industrialisation tended to vote out, at least in England and Wales. Ahead of the referendum, labour market economists Brian Bell and Stephen Machin published findings linking the lack of wage growth with rising electoral support for the anti-EU UK Independence Party (Ukip) at the 2015 general election. They found that, between 1997 and 2015, the median weekly wage in the UK overall had increased from £269 to £426. Although the 58% rise covered the 43% increase in prices over the same period, the improvement in wages amounted to less than 1% a year. The aggregate figure also masked that, in 62 of 370 local authorities, median wages fell in the period, with some experiencing double-digit falls. Ukip prospered in many of these areas in 2015.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) reported that the poorest households, with incomes of less than £20,000 a year, were more likely to support leaving the EU than the wealthiest, as were unemployed people, those in low-skilled and manual occupations, people who felt their financial situation had worsened, and those with no qualifications.

Migration was a major issue in the referendum debate. JRF found that, after controlling for factors such as education, age and the overall level of immigration, communities that over the past ten years had experienced an increase in migration from EU member states were more likely to vote for Brexit. ‘Even though areas with relatively high levels of EU migration tended to be more pro-remain, areas that had experienced a sudden influx of EU migrants over the last ten years were often more pro-leave,’ it said.

Roundtable participants

Nick Blyth, policy and engagement lead at IEMA

Carl Brooks, head of environment and sustainability at MJ Mapp

Lynne Ceeney, independent sustainability consultant

George Crone, partner at Novus Consulting

John Dale, director of Lime Tools

Alan Knight, general manager for corporate responsibility at ArcelorMittal

Kirit Patel, environment manager at DHL Supply Chain

Sunny Pawar, founder of Green Collar

Peter Sharratt, head of strategic consulting at WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff

Paul Toyne, London Sustainable Development Commissioner and independent consultant

Penny Walker, facilitator for sustainability


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