Caution: COP26-related sustainability campaigns could be as big a failure as ‘Remain’

Should the future be decided by nations, or between them? Are international treaties a threat to sovereignty? Does elite moralising reflect elite behaviour? Who gets to decide our future – and do they have a right to?

We cannot afford for sustainability campaigns to fail like 'Remain' did, warns Mark Lowe
We cannot afford for sustainability campaigns to fail like 'Remain' did, warns Mark Lowe

These are all questions raised in 2016 during the Brexit referendum, but you can easily see the same things being asked about the more urgent debate right now, about the future of the planet.

Those of us who supported both the anti-Brexit cause and the sustainability agenda should reflect on why Remain was such a dismal failure; not least because it will prepare us for the new battle ahead.

Whatever the shortcomings of the campaign, it wasn’t the failure to answer these questions in 2016, but rather the failure to do so over the preceding three decades that caused the political upheaval of Brexit.

This is, ultimately, a story of elite accountability.

Successive governments saw fit to enjoy the advantages of EU membership without making a case for it. Meanwhile, the edicts of the European Commission and associated institutions felt distant from the lives of most people.

Then, when people made what they saw as a democratic choice to leave the EU, elites in Parliament and the legal profession sought to reverse it.

It’s not hard to see the parallels. Individuals can play their part, but the prime movers in combatting climate change and creating a more sustainable planet will be multinational companies and global institutions.

Where does accountability lie for this elite cadre?

For companies, it is and always has been with shareholders, particularly institutional investors. The good news is that these groups are embracing ESG and tying chief executives' remuneration to it, but it is incredibly difficult for individuals to make sense of these efforts – and they certainly can’t vote for them. Employees remain a hidden and hitherto untapped force and could hold the key to change, but we’re not there yet.

Meanwhile, the legal framework for the net zero debate is being decided not at a national level but an international one, another miasma of weak accountability. Decisions will be made at COP26 next month that will ripple out into our daily lives but, as individuals, we will have little or no control over them.

Clearly, the challenge goes way beyond communication, but it’s clear to me that the emerging discourse of ESG is alienating for most people. It speaks of long-term threats that seem too huge to overcome and hides behind a Davos-lite jargon that is difficult even for comms professionals to understand.

So the future for ESG communicators looks tough. The saving grace in the UK is that we have a broad cross-party consensus for action against climate change, but if we don’t get the communication right, the political space will rapidly open up for populist anti-green politics.

In the US, this is already embodied by President Trump, whose chances of re-election in 2024 are massively under-rated. Were it to happen, it would be the biggest setback imaginable to the global climate agenda; which is why we really do have to get it right this time.

Mark Lowe is founding partner at Third City

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