One month on and questions are still being asked about how we got here. The only thing that’s clear, it seems, is that Brexit suggests a deep division between inward- and outward-facing worldviews: control our borders and attempt to reduce the strain on our resources, or embrace a spirit of international collaboration that recognises the interconnected and increasingly interdependent world we live in. Coupled with the mind-boggling developments within our main political parties, the struggle to unify British society will be momentous.
Not nearly as momentous as another struggle, however. According to NASA 2015 was the warmest year on record. 2016, it says, is set to be even warmer. Arctic sea ice is declining at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade (with fears there may soon be none left) as sea levels rise 3.4mm every year. While we in the UK were immersed in pre-Brexit rhetoric the citizens of the Solomon Islands were seeing their homes disappear into the ocean.
Closer to home, extreme weather events such as the floods that hit the UK in December 2015 are likely to become more frequent. Comparing the demographics of leave voters with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s research on climate change and vulnerability, it is clear that some of the same groups who voted Leave are the most vulnerable to the impacts of these events, as well as those most likely to struggle to recover from them. The impacts are likely to increase social instability unless the root causes of Brexit are addressed. Those causes, principally, are inequality, resilience and disadvantage.
But that’s not the only reason to be worried. Should Brexit and the resulting divide continue to absorb our attention, the UK risks inactivity on the massive and rapid decarbonisation required to avert runaway climate change. Organisations are already actively trying to remedy this risk, with 30 leading NGOs and trade bodies calling on the Prime Minister to remain committed to the EU 2020 carbon emissions reductions targets.
The question, then, is not how to unify British society, but how to bring about mass unified action. And not just on climate change. Equitable, just and sustainable development must also be part of the conversation. Could the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer us a solution?
Looking to the SDGs
Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs are universally applicable. High-income countries must reach the same goals as middle- and low-income countries. The SDGs’ crosscutting message of ‘leave no one behind’ underpins its goals and targets. As Andrew Norton of IIED suggests, Brexit places even more emphasis on this mantra nationally.
Unfortunately, the current Government appears to neglect this notion of universality, choosing instead to park the SDGs with the Secretary of State for International Development – despite a recent report from the International Development Committee calling for leadership across government. We will need to wait to see the implications of PM Theresa May’s newly formed Cabinet and how the new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel MP, chooses to respond to the IDC recommendations.
Thankfully, other actors are considering the SDGs’ domestic importance through the newly launched UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development. Composed of businesses, civil society organisations and academics, this group is trying to form the partnerships and solutions required to address SDG implementation and exceed the ambition of the framework.
Coherent policymaking to implement the Goals affords the UK an opportunity to start to right some of the wrongs that led to Brexit. This is because the Goals provide an integrated framework that recognises the interdependent world we live in, and the relationships between social, environmental and economic concerns.
The SDGs also present an opportunity for the government, and indeed all actors in British society, to unify and not just knit together post-Brexit recovery, but cement it and turn it into positive action. Institutions and mechanisms that enable participation in implementing the Goals are necessary, but the shock and scare tactics of both sides of the referendum campaign demonstrate the risk of mass engagement in political debates if rational discourse is neither ensured nor widely accessible. The SDGs can help frame that dialogue but this opportunity requires us to use a common language and speak to shared values.
Lessons from the private sector
There are lessons to be learnt here from the private sector, which understands that consumer trust is essential for success. Creating Shared Value is a relatively new concept, but business is quickly recognising that traditional CSR is no longer up to the job. Instead, businesses need to demonstrate a direct relationship between its operations and the positive impact on society of its products, supply chains and operations. It is essential that they communicate this in a way that talks to people’s values. Business is excited by the SDGs because they offer one way of doing this. It is how to communicate the impact they are having that is important to creating shared value, and where significant questions remain.
While measuring progress against the targets is going to be a challenge it does not stop us from identifying messages in the framework to speak to shared values.
This does not mean we need to prioritise one goal or target over another. In the same way that businesses are recognising a need to take customers on a journey and respond to purchasing power, we can nurture shared values by turning connected and linked goal areas into messages and communications mechanisms that translate across demographics, localities and income levels.
The New Economics Foundation is challenging the government to use five headline indicators that go beyond GDP to inform better policymaking. The SDGs offer us a similar challenge: to use a wide-angle lens and collaborate on a broader spectrum of issues, with a greater range of actors, that crosscut all sectors of society. When we do this it will bring out our similarities and shared values, offering a way to constructively manage critical issues and bring about change in an inclusive and unifying manner.