Has climate change become the new Brexit?

About the author

Paul Cahalan is Head of Communications at chapmanbdsp. He wrote this piece as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment studying with PR Academy, and we publish it here with his permission.

Image by Sonia Mertens from Pixabay
Image by Sonia Mertens from Pixabay

‘Trump Versus Greta’ screamed the front pageboiling climate change, one of the most urgent issueof our time, down to three words. 

Paul Cahalan

With more than a decade’s experience as a national newspaper journalist, I really appreciatethe subtle genius of this simple headline, which came the day after the leader of the free world exchanged views with the young climate activist at Davos.  

Firstly, it employs the powerofthree, a writing device that says three words together are more memorable than other combinations. Then, it sparks conflict and conversation by simplifying the most controversial of subjects and inviting you to pick a side. Finally, the symbolismbig versus small, young versus old, right versus wrongis just irresistible. 

But while the headline neatly framed the debate it also perfectly articulatea growing concern; has climate change become the new Brexit? 

The parallels are striking; The polarisation of left and right, the divisive use of language, fake news and personal smears. There are now even calls for the UK’s netzero law to be put to a referendum. 

Recognising the huge role the built environment  which is responsible for emitting about 40 per cent of carbon emissions in the UK  has to play in moving the country toward a net-zero economyProperty Week deserves huge credit for teaming-up with the UK Green Building Councilthe industry’s conscience on climate changeand launching the ‘Climate Crisis Challenge’. 

But while it is laudably encouraging for industry to share knowledge and adopt more sustainable solutions, it is hard to deny a huge ‘perception gap’ on the issue remains. This was perfectly illustrated in Property Week magazine poll showing just 24 per cent of respondents felt their business was doing enough to tackle the crisiswhile 20 per cent felt the issue wasn’t a priority.  

Now, with major projects like Heathrow and HS2 now facing delay or legal challenge because of climate concerns, calls to abandon or soften that net-zero target will growpolarising an industry even further as its perception of the issue becomes clouded with the need to secure business.  

So, ahead of next year’s UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, what can PR professionals and advertising creatives do to close that perception gap and avoid the years of bitter fighting that defined Brexit 

And what else can we all do to ensure the property industry doesn’t turn the United Nations’ decade of climate action into a decade of distraction? 

Let’s start by stopping. By understanding the similarities between the Brexit and the climate debate we might see we are complicit in sleepwalking along the same path  on an issue where the stakes are much higherThenas an industry, we need an honest conversation about our division and failings. Only then can we really get the industry to commit to meaningful action.

Like Brexit, whatever side you take on climate change it is very hard to shift your view. That is because, as evolutionary psychologists have proved, facts rarely change our beliefs when we have taken a view. Confirmation bias – how, when we want something to be true, we believe it to be true – means we are hard-wired to put emotion before reason.  

It helps explains why some readers were annoyed with the very first sentence of this article because I stated climate change is one’ of the most urgent issues of our time – and why others will have been annoyed by me describing the issue as ‘urgent’. 

Our preconceptions are strengthened because we now rarely leave our echo-chambers and have our views challenged. More on that later, but for now consider this. 

Like the Brexit remainers, climate change believers whole-heartedly assert the moral imperative of their case on global warming. We have moved from climate crisis to emergency, they say, quoting science that shows we only have a few years to save the earth from runaway climate change and mass extinction.  

They accuse non-believers of being flat-earthers, climate deniers who have vested interests (yes, think of Donald Trump who once described climate change as ‘an expensive hoax’) and repeat their mantras in friendly media (The Guardian newspaper changed its house style to refer to the issue as the ‘climate emergency’) loudly preaching to a congregation already converted to the cause.  

They view the other side as backward, introverted and lacking in a common sense – much in the same way many remainers believed, and likely still believe, that 52 per cent of Britons are racist because they voted for Brexit. 

On the other side, the Brexit ‘leavers’ are the climate sceptics who earnestly doubt climate change science and question the established facts. They accuse the eco-warriors of being virtue-signalling hypocrites (think of plane-happy royals Harry and Meghan) and say the messages are pious and preachy (think David Attenborough and the BBC, which has said its next nature programme, Green Planet, will be less ‘pious’ about climate change). They even accuse their woke’ leaders of being mentally ill (yes, claims levelled against the schoolgirl Greta Thunberg who was described by several media commentators as a mentally-ill Swedish child). They are cautious about cause and severity of the ‘crisis’ and accuse other of being shrill alarmists, prone to hyperbole and generating panic – not dissimilar to the ‘project fear’ allegations with Brexit. 

These battle-lines are already clearly defined and rarely challenged because of the way we consume news. Traditionally, newspapers were trusted as the eyes-and-ears of the public. Yesthey took an editorial line on stories but were guardians of the facts, backed by oversight from regulation. A pluralistic media encouraged an exchange of views, but we’re not in Kansas anymore. 

The latest figures from Ofcom reveal 49 per cent of UK adults now say they use social media for news, with just 38 per cent saying they get news from printed newspapers. Data from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) shows the internet, including social media, is now the most common source of news consumption – ahead of TV and newspapers. 

These major tectonic shifts in the media sector have happened quickly and created fertile new land for powerful echo-chambers and fake news to grow. 

We tend to get our news on social media through content which is curated for us, via Facebook or Google, and from ‘friends’ liking and sharing content that algorithms prioritise in our news feed. It means we are more likely to hear our own views repeated and amplified (the bubble or echo-chamber effect) and we have to work harder to hear differing views. In an ever-widening circle of polarisation, the more we share and like the more we get fed similar content – and the more powerful our echo-chamberbecome.  

This is important because psychologists have proved that what our friends and colleagues think strongly influences our perceptions. We all, perhaps, underestimate the pull of that sub-conscious power of persuasion. All, that is, except Facebook and Google. 

Todaywe are exposed to many more versions of ‘the truth’, with social media the wild west of content. And, sadlylying does work, because, again psychologists have provedwhen you hear something two or three times your brain becomes faster to respond to it and your brain eventually giveit credence.

The dynamic of ‘fake news’, propaganda and distraction is not new, but social mediawhich is not regulated like newspapers and TV, has made it easier, and faster, to mislead.  

Sowhat does all this mean for the built environment industry? We must understand the root of this polarisation and inspire colleagues and peers to go beyond it with the climate debate. 

One of the many challenges in my role as head of communications for building engineering and design consultancy chapmanbdsp, is understanding how the climate issue is affecting all areas of our businessIt has made us totally re-think our offer – through the rapidly changing regulatory landscape, for instance – and embed the issue even more closely into our strategy, culture and values. 

We try to demonstrate how our good design principles benefit people and planet and feed that expertise into an industry response through brilliant organisations like the UK Green Building Council, which advocateat Government level. This is a similar approach to most of our peers, who, like us, have now declared a ‘climate emergency’. But honestly, who cares?  

Putting my journalist hat on, the building industry would declare an emergency wouldn’t it? Don’t these firms stand to gain from the billions of pounds of taxpayer money that will be needed to adapt to the new environment? Doesn’t our response involve little more than planting trees and paying carbon offset charges to assuage any guilt – is our industry just greenwashing? 

Currently, the industry is too fragmented on the issue and its response to the climate crisis risks being exposed by opponents. So, to stop climate change mirroring Brexitwe need to totally reimagine our thinking and encourage people to do three things – think, feel and act.  

Firstly, Brexit has showus we are becoming more insular and that we need to persuade friends and colleagues – too busy violently agreeing with their in their own bubbles – to meet and debate. Somewhere that offers different views, flags fakes and prevents a situation where people, as was often said to me during Brexit, feel like they live on different planet’ because they couldn’t comprehend why nearly half the country had an opposite view. We need to burst those bubblies and create a new space to think. 

Secondly, we need to make people feel the issue. The consequences of climate change are often too big and complex to compute, so let’s break it down with a language that is accessible. How can we move people beyond ‘climate fatigue’ and better articulate that the planet is speaking to us? The messaging and tone must be consistent and sophisticatedly simple.  

Finally, we need consensus on a course of action and get people and businesses to publicly commit to coming on the journey. History has taught us that action without mandate on big issues creates confusion and distrust – think of the negative headlines around the controversial Dementia Tax or the law giving 0.7 per cent of GDP to foreign aid projects, for example.  

The UK has committed to being ‘net-zero’ by 2050, yet most of the country, and the property industry, remain unaware why. It should, therefore, not be surprising that the Sunday Telegraph recently ran a comment piece titled ‘Why it is time to put netzero to a referendum’, or why a petition to scrap the target has attracted 5,300 signatures (at the time of writing)As big construction projectsin all parts of the building sectorface more legal challenges those referendum calls will grow louder.

As an industry we need to admit we are exposed and conflicted on the issue, say that we don’t yet have all the answers, but that we’re working on it. This requires true leadership and the bravery to be vulnerable. It also requires the ideas, creativity and energy of PR and advertising professionals 

At chapmanbdsp, we aim to make a start by organising an event aimed at bridging that perception gap, to help people meet and think. The evening might have an opening theme up for discussion, something like this: 

Science has showwe have to act quickly to save our planet from runaway climate change. If the science is wrongso what? What’s the worst that can happen?  

Where is the shame in uniting over a perceived threat to our existence and way of life?  

After Brexit, wouldn’t that be nice?