“Would you become Belgian?” various French television channels asked me as the threat of Brexit loomed. As a French-speaking British journalist living in Brussels my family and I became the go-to source to find out what, in Theresa May’s words, “the citizens of nowhere” were thinking.
“Bien sûr que non,” I replied in my naivety. Born and bred in the north of England, I read French and German at university, moved to Paris, then settled in Belgium and had two “anglo-belge” kids. I was British and European. Nothing more, nothing less.
Brexit came as a massive shock. Immediately after the vote, my neighbours knocked on the door to commiserate, parents hugged me at the school gate and my daughter cried and asked if it meant we would have to move across the Channel.
Since then, report after report proves that Brexit has brought nothing but heartache, extra red tape and increased costs. The British public was sold a lie. And it is about to be sold another by the same troupe that brought us Brexit.
The five W’s — “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why” — are supposed to help journalists address the fundamental questions every story should answer. An article published a few years ago in the New Yorker suggested that this list of fundamental questions might need updating for the 21st century. “Are you kidding me?” is one proposed addition. That was my reaction to Brexit, its consequences and the idea that the same political forces are now insidiously trying to derail the race to net zero.
To try to work out how this has happened, we’ll use the basic five W’s.
There is no end of posh white men we could cite as responsible for Brexit, but let’s stick to a few main characters.
The Ukip founder Nigel Farage probably did more than anyone to turn Brexit into reality: he advocated for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership and then convinced a proportion of the public to vote leave by inflaming fears about immigration and foreigners pinching British jobs.
Climate action appears to have become his new whipping boy. Rumours abound that Farage plans to launch a national campaign for a referendum on pursuing net zero. “Just like the European question, just like the open door immigration question, just like so many things, these [net zero actions] are imposed upon British people,” he said this week.
Farage hopes for support from “co-conspirators” who for ideological reasons campaigned for the UK to leave the EU. Two high-profile politicians who campaigned for Brexit were the Tory MPs Steve Baker and Craig Mackinlay (once the deputy leader of Ukip). They, too, have adopted opposition to net zero as their new standard, launching the Net Zero Scrutiny Group in 2021. Climate scientists have accused the group of opposing climate action, but supporters insist they are only opposed to the cost of reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
The group is small with only around 19 MPs, but so was the European Research Group, which was also chaired by Baker; it was nevertheless successful in campaigning for a hard Brexit.
Leave politicians were aided and abetted by the right-wing media. The Daily Mail and the Sun with strong support from the Daily Telegraph, the Express and the Sunday Times provided readers with an anti-EU narrative and a fantasy of a Great Britain unshackled from the apparent ties of Brussels, leading the world in some sepia-coloured reproduction of the 1950s that never was.
These same newspapers are now leading the charge against climate action, printing misinformation or playing with the truth to suggest that the green agenda, rather than gas, is responsible for the energy crisis, and casting doubt over everything from wind power to electric vehicles and heat pumps. Just as with Brexit, the business and economic case for net zero and other basic facts are cast aside in the name of dogma.
Behind the public face of Brexit was a murky band of strategists, PR experts and financiers. A survey from 2020 found that more than two-thirds of the British public wants the UK to lead on climate change and believes that in the long-term climate change is as serious a crisis as Covid. However, the public is also clear that the government should push for a transition to a net-zero economy. Should Westminster fail to bring forward clear regulation and support to help people make their homes more green, for example, a kettle of former-Brexit supporting hawks will try to assure politicians that a net zero strategy should wait.
Brexit was won by a campaign largely based on misinformation and half-truths. Craig Oliver, the former director of policy and communications for David Cameron, wrote in his Brexit memoir, Unleashing Demons, that for people who felt detached from politics and the world around them, “the referendum was more than a straightforward question of whether or not it made sense to remain in the EU… Instead it was a cipher that…allowed them to put whatever was worrying or angering them on the ballot paper: immigration, feeling let down, ignored, betrayed, a life that didn’t turn out as it should have done.”
As energy bills and the cost of living rockets, the anti-net zero brigade see a similar opportunity to perpetuate a pessimistic narrative, in which the “rich” and the “elite” reaping the rewards of change with little regard for the ordinary men or women trying to eke out a normal, decent life.
This narrative wins because it spreads faster and is more personal. The pro-EU campaign failed because it focused on the macro-economic benefits of being part of the European club rather than personal advantages of border-free travel, trade, and the ability to retire to warmer climes.
The prospect of a net-zero referendum might now seem remote, but the same could have been said of a Brexit referendum, which, in 2011 was rejected by parliament. History could repeat itself; instead of focusing on how renewable energy offers a way out of the cost-of-living crisis, politicians and climate campaigners might frame their defence of net zero around emissions targets and potential temperature rises, concepts that set nobody’s heart racing.
On 23 June 2016, a majority of the British public voted to leave the EU. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision at the eleventh hour to support Brexit likely changed some voters’ minds. For all his faults Johnson has, in his own fashion, kept net zero at the top of the UK political agenda. If, or rather when, Johnson goes it is not clear if his replacement would continue to champion Britain as a climate leader.
The suggestion this week that the Chancellor, and potential next prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is pushing for approval of six oil fields in the North Sea is not reassuring. “We have got to a position where 25 per cent of our electricity bill is a green subsidy to foreign companies and rich landowners, but we have had no debate in this nation at all and Rishi’s people are just smelling the wind,” claimed Farage on Wednesday 9 February. “They know there is going to be a campaign launched here that’s going to get widespread support from the public.”
The hub of all these anti-net zero movements is Tufton Street, London. For the past 10 years or so, the London townhouse has hosted lobby groups and think tanks related to Brexit and climate change. One of these groups is the UK‘s principal climate science denial group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, led by the former UK chancellor Nigel Lawson, a photo of whom hangs on the wall of Sunak’s office.
Britain’s love-hate affair with Europe is a long story. But the short version is that most British people never had any real affinity with the EU and never fully understood how it worked or the benefits membership brought. British politicians (and they are not alone) for years used Brussels as a political scapegoat for unpopular domestic polices. When the Brexit referendum was announced, the Remain campaign was starting from the blocks in terms of garnering support and empathy.
Those who believe urgent climate action is vital for the future of humanity, to protect nature or for economic and business reasons, need to start shouting and acting now. This call for action includes politicians, industry and finance leaders, and the general public. Waiting until Farage launches a referendum will be too late.
The New Yorker article also suggests ditching “who”, as in, “Who is responsible?”, insisting: “The answer to this question is the same in every story — it’s all of us. We all did it. No one’s hands are clean.” This is true of Brexit and will be true if the UK abandons net zero.
But while there are many similarities, there is one significant difference between Brexit and climate change. Brexit is a costly annoyance, but I was able to become Belgian (and remain British). Other people have been forced to leave adopted homes and lose their jobs, but hopefully no-one has died because of the vote. If the anti-net zero brigade win, however, it would have global repercussions including death and destruction.
This is not a game. We have all been warned.
[See also: Big Oil is living on borrowed time]