british flag with brexit written is roadway through green countryside

photo credit kostasgr via shutterstock

There has been significant talk around the A\J offices about the consequences of the Brexit vote with our concerns over immigration, trade deals, about larger cultural themes of belonging and nationalism, but also about the Brexit’s impact on the environment. But what exactly will the impact of the Brexit vote be on environmental policy in the UK and in the European Union?

A quick google search will give you a plethora of pundits who believe the exit will usher in a new age of environmental doom and gloom, while others are more optimistic in their analysis.

Michael Le Page over at New Scientist outlines five ways Brexit could be good for the environment, arguing that a separation will allow for Britain to make more concrete and stronger environmental laws without having to “water them down” for the EU.

Ian Johnson at The Independent disagrees saying that the EU has some of the most comprehensive environmental initiatives in the world and that leaving it will do nothing to encourage Britain to develop their own.

The Institute for European Environmental Policy has a 104 page analysis of potential outcomes of Brexit on the environment, and if you have a few hours, it is definitely worth a read.

One of the more foundational concerns about the Brexit  is why people voted to leave the EU in the first place. The mainstream media coverage of the issue would suggest that there were economic motivators that really pushed the country to vote ‘leave’. Additionally  it was tied to a deep sense of nationalistic pride - a belief that you need to take care of your own before you take care of others.

However, that is where this discussion becomes uncomfortable. Whenever a political movement starts talking about ‘their own’,there is always a thinly veiled implication about who isn’t their own. It would seem, those who belong, specifically in Britain, are white and those that do not belong, are not white. And so it is people of colour who are experiencing the brunt of the violence, intolerance and dog whistle rhetoric telling them to leave. They are being told everyday, whether subtly or not, that they do not fit into the idea of what a Briton looks like and they never will.

When a group of people is made out to be outsiders and that they do not belong with the hegemonic norm, they become Othered. They are ‘not like us’. When someone is othered, it is easier for them to be blamed for problems, to be treated badly, to be rejected from institutions and denied human rights. They become ‘less than’; they become ‘different’ and they become the ‘problem’. When you are not seen as a full human being, it is easy then for the masses to turn you into a scapegoat. ‘You are not part of the collective, you do not belong, therefore all our problems are because of you and if we get rid of you, the problems will be resolved.’

Brexit was a vote based on intolerance, xenophobia and racism. It was a vote to make Britain white again. It was about getting rid of the scapegoats.


Society likes to blame someone for their problems, we don’t like to look at ourselves, ‘we could never be part of the problem, it has to be them, over there’. The problem with scapegoating, is that it deflects attention away from the real problem makers. Immigrants are not responsible for these problems we have as a global society, as Zack Beauchamp outlines over at Vox as it relates to Britain, but clearly they are being blamed for it. This belief has resulted in an increase of racist hate crimes since the Brexit vote, all stemming from that undercurrent of dog whistle rhetoric.

Scapegoating requires people to stick their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge the evidence that is put in front of them. Uncertain times breed the desire for a scapegoat, and a push-back from those who are used to the world being a certain way and are afraid of change. This results in violence, hatred, and bigotry.

In a recently published research study, Brendan Nyhan and a his team from Dartmouth College have identified this as the ‘Backfire Effect’. They hypothesize that even when we are presented with concrete, irrefutable evidence of something, if that evidence goes against a deeply-held belief, we will do everything in our cognitive power to reject that evidence. We want our understanding of the world to stay true, we don’t like it to be knocked off-kilter by irritating things like “facts”.



“Giving people factual information isn't as convincing as people often think.” - Brendan Nyhan


But facts are what we have here. Facts say immigrants are not the cause for the economic recession, that immigrants are not responsible for a rise in crime, that immigrants are not something to be afraid of.

And yet, collectively, we have decided to ignore these facts.

When we ignore facts, we get ourselves into trouble. As President Obama said on Wednesday in his address to Parliament,”this is the only planet we’ve got, and this may be the last shot we’ve got to save it”

To draw a behavioural correlation between the fact-deniers of Brexit (and the fact-deniers that support Donald Drumpf’s run for US President) and those that deny climate change or environmental degradation is not a difficult correlation to draw.

So whether or not Brexit actually impacts  environmental policy, the real concern is that enough people have so firmly put their heads in the sand and rejected facts, voting based on fear, denial, and intolerance. That is the real lesson to learn from the Brexit vote. Whether your issue is the environment, social justice, humanitarian aid, or anything that requires people to listen we seem to have a global case of willful ignorance on our hands.  

We need science and facts to tell the story of the environment, to learn how we’re affecting it and how we can work to repair the damage. If we, as a culture, have opted in to a mindset of willful ignorance, how are we ever going to start repairing the planet?

And that, given the climate consequences of willful ignorance, is truly horrifying.



‘Why Brexit Has Broken My Heart’ by Bim Adewunmi at Buzzfeed

‘Brexit Victory Boosts Climate Skeptics’ by Lorrie Goldstein at The Toronto Sun




























Teghan Barton is a self-proclaimed Crackerjack Canadianist, having earned both an BA and MA in Canadian Studies where her focus is on issues of belonging, nationalism, and cultural policy. She is very passionate about social justice and working towards creating a safe and healthy future for the planet. 

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