Skip to main content

Brexit, trust and the future of global environmental governance

Post-Brexit vote, we are posting some blogs from our Cabot Institute members outlining their thoughts on Brexit and potential implications for environmental research, environmental law and the environment.  
------------------------------------------------

Is Brexit the canary in the mine for global environmental governance? 

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has troubling implications for global environmental governance. Water pollution, air pollution, and climate change have no regard for political borders. The world needs supranational political institutions to facilitate a coordinated response to these challenges. The EU is a relatively effective supranational institution for progressive environmental governance. EU nations have enjoyed major improvements in recent decades in areas like air quality, bathing water quality, nature preservation, and acid rain. The EU is one of the most constructive voices in global climate governance.

The decision to leave is therefore likely to present some setbacks with regard to regional environmental governance. But more importantly it signals broad disenchantment with supranational political institutions more generally. People resent and distrust them as distant and undemocratic. And it’s not just the British public that feels this way. The impulse to withdraw and disengage is increasingly evident across Europe and the USA.

This trend is all the more worrying when we look at the profile of the average Leave voter. A recent YouGov survey of British voters found that Leave supporters are deeply distrustful of just about everyone. They don’t much trust academics—as Vote Leave's Michael Gove put it, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Nor do they trust the opinions of think tanks, economists, or international organisations like the UN. Just 8 percent trust British politicians. By contrast, a majority of Remain voters generally trust academics, economists, business leaders, and international organisations. (Neither group trusts journalists or, perhaps more positively, celebrities.) But, as we now know, voters for Remain are in the minority.

This ‘trust deficit’ is at the root of the post-factual politics that seems to have taken hold across much of the Western world.

Without trust in ‘experts’ such as environmental scientists we will not be able to build an informed consensus about the nature of the problems we face, let alone go about solving them. Without trust in politicians we will not be willing to accept difficult decisions with short-term costs but long-term benefits, including for younger and future generations. Without trust in supranational institutions, such as the EU and UN, we will not be able to coordinate our efforts in addressing many of the greatest threats to human welfare, all of which are supranational in nature. 

There has been much commentary about the generational divide in the Brexit vote, perhaps offering some hope for the future. Younger people supported Remain by a wide margin indicating a willingness to remain engaged with Europe. But younger generations turned out in much smaller numbers and low youth turnout is consistent with the evidence that millennials are less politically engaged than previous generations. They are also less trusting. (See evidence of mistrustful millennials here and here).

In short, young people appear to be more open to international cooperation, but disinclined to engage with domestic politics. In the worst case scenario, this could be a recipe for divisive politics in which motivated minorities on both sides of the political spectrum seize the centrist vacuum to promote their worldviews through formal political institutions.

What then does the future hold? The cacophony of narratives of next-steps is almost unprecedented in British history. No one appears to have a clear plan with an emergent consensus. But there is one potential ray of hope in this political drama. If young people—and millennials in particular—are shocked into engaging more actively and passionately with formal political institutions, the Brexit vote might well turnout not to be the canary in the mine so much as an important moment of political awakening.

Let us hope this is the case. For the future of environmental governance is ultimately in the hands of our worldly but politically disengaged youth.

--------------------------------------------
This blog is written by University of Bristol Cabot Institute members Dr Sean Fox (Political Economy of Development & Urban Geography) and Dr Malcolm Fairbrother (Global Policy and Politics), both from the School of Geographical Sciences.

Sean Fox
Malcolm Fairbrother















Read other blogs in the Brexit series:
The EU, Brexit and nature conservation law
Brexit: A climactic decision?
Why is populism popular? A psychologist explains
Sharing routine statistics must continue post-Brexit when tackling health and climate change


Popular posts from this blog

Are you a journalist looking for climate experts? We've got you covered

We've got lots of media trained climate change experts. If you need an expert for an interview, here is a list of Caboteers you can approach. All media enquiries should be made via  Victoria Tagg , our dedicated Media and PR Manager at the University of Bristol. Email victoria.tagg@bristol.ac.uk or call +44 (0)117 428 2489. Climate change / climate emergency / climate science / climate-induced disasters Dr Eunice Lo - expert in changes in extreme weather events such as heatwaves and cold spells , and how these changes translate to negative health outcomes including illnesses and deaths. Follow on Twitter @EuniceLoClimate . Professor Daniela Schmidt - expert in the causes and effects of climate change on marine systems . Dani is also a Lead Author on the IPCC reports. Dani will be at COP26. Dr Katerina Michalides - expert in drylands, drought and desertification and helping East African rural communities to adapt to droughts and future climate change. Follow on Twitter @_k

Urban gardens are crucial food sources for pollinators - here’s what to plant for every season

A bumblebee visits a blooming honeysuckle plant. Sidorova Mariya | Shutterstock Pollinators are struggling to survive in the countryside, where flower-rich meadows, hedges and fields have been replaced by green monocultures , the result of modern industrialised farming. Yet an unlikely refuge could come in the form of city gardens. Research has shown how the havens that urban gardeners create provide plentiful nectar , the energy-rich sugar solution that pollinators harvest from flowers to keep themselves flying. In a city, flying insects like bees, butterflies and hoverflies, can flit from one garden to the next and by doing so ensure they find food whenever they need it. These urban gardens produce some 85% of the nectar found in a city. Countryside nectar supplies, by contrast, have declined by one-third in Britain since the 1930s. Our new research has found that this urban food supply for pollinators is also more diverse and continuous

#CabotNext10 Spotlight on City Futures

In conversation with Dr Katharina Burger, theme lead at the Cabot Institute for the Environment. Dr Katharina Burger Why did you choose to become a theme leader at Cabot Institute ? I applied to become a Theme Leader at Cabot, a voluntary role, to bring together scientists from different faculties to help us jointly develop proposals to address some of the major challenges facing our urban environments. My educational background is in Civil Engineering at Bristol and I am now in the School of Management, I felt that this combination would allow me to build links and communicate across different ways of thinking about socio-technical challenges and systems. In your opinion, what is one of the biggest global challenges associated with your theme? (Feel free to name others if there is more than one) The biggest challenge is to evolve environmentally sustainable, resilient, socially inclusive, safe and violence-free and economically productive cities. The following areas are part of this c