After Brexit, greens must not jump on anti-immigration bandwagon
Published in The Ecologist
After Brexit, green organisations will inevitably do some soul searching.
Most green groups backed the Remain campaign. Most of the big green organisations pointed to everything the EU has done for the environment. Others pointed to joint European action on climate change. But clearly many people found green appeals about EU membership unmoving. England and Wales voted conclusively for Brexit. Green groups will now be asking themselves why they were out of step with the wider public.
This is not an uncommon place for green and climate change organisations to be. Climate change is frequently an issue at the bottom of the public’s list of concerns. For the green movement to be asking questions about why it hasn’t galvanised public support is a regular event.
My fear is that in an attempt to appear more relevant, green organisations will go somewhere nasty on immigration. This is an appeal to green organisations to do the opposite.
Immigration: the defining issue of the Leave campaign
Immigration was the defining issue of the Brexit campaign. It was consistently the issue Leave voters said motivated them the most. It might seem odd to suggest that green organisations would reach for immigration as an issue at the moment. But I think this is a genuine risk.
Green organisations in the UK have struggled to engage people outside a narrow demographic. Green NGOs have been good at galvanising support among educated urban people and higher earners. They’ve often struggled to engage anyone else. Greens are often lumped into “the metropolitan elite,” accused of ignoring the concerns of the majority and promoting lofty and irrelevant ideals. During the Port Talbot steel crisis, UKIP picked its villains carefully. The culprits — they argued — were climate change legislation and the EU. Both — they claimed — the domain of detached urban elites.
Any organisation that has found itself on the losing side will now be wondering what to do next. Green and climate organisations will be too. How can they shake off the reputation of being part of the dreaded “political class”? How can they prove their green agenda is in tune with the concerns of the majority? Some will turn to immigration. Popularity — they hope — might lie in tapping escalating anti immigration feeling.
Green immigration arguments
Green groups will not need to invent new “environmental” anti-migrant arguments. They have already been well rehearsed. Some green organisations have flirted with anti-immigration messaging over the years. The arguments are not new.
Green groups sometime claim immigration creates new pressure on the environment. More people means more houses, roads, infrastructure and energy. All this puts pressure on nature and landscapes. It also means people moving from low emitting poorer countries, and adopting high emitting lifestyles. Some green groups have argued that restricting immigration is good for the environment.
Another common argument is that climate change will create mass migration. Sea level rise, drought and famine will create new waves of migration. Millions of people will head for the UK. Some green groups hope to make a case for action on climate change, by stoking fear about immigration.
In an attempt to reach beyond their current audiences, some green organisations may deploy these arguments. They have in the past. My fear is that given the circumstances, they are now likely to do it again.
But the arguments are deeply flawed. No organisation can credibly make them. Migrants tend to have low carbon footprints. Low wages leave little room for the high spending lifestyles that produce high emissions. Climate change will re-shape patterns of migration. But it is likely to produce short distance internal migration. People are not likely to cross international borders.
The Brexit vote was fuelled by anti-migration feeling. But this fear was misplaced. Millions have legitimate grievances about unemployment, reduced health services and lack of housing. But these fears about jobs, health and housing were all — wrongly — laid at the door of immigration.
Green organisations have always had coherent proposals that address concerns about jobs, health and housing. It was green organisations that raised concerns about the link between the environment and public health. And climate organisations that proposed creating new, well paid work through renewable energy.
Climate change and green organisations must stick with these proposals. And must steer well clear of the flawed and unethical arguments about immigration.