Why should climate campaigners be involved in the battle against austerity? We are as likely as anyone else to be moved by the plight of disabled people whose support is being slashed, or to campaign to protect our NHS. But austerity is also taking us in the wrong direction in another fight. A fight that involves everyone on the planet and places our generation at a tipping point in human history: the last-ditch attempt to avoid catastrophic climate change.
To see why, imagine a government that took on board the science of climate change and was determined that the UK would do its fair share to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. The One Million Climate Jobs report from the Campaign against Climate Change sets out what that could look like – a programme of massive public sector investment in jobs to transform the UK into a low carbon economy. This would be a million Government jobs in renewable energy, in increasing energy efficiency by insulating homes and public buildings free of charge, in hugely expanding cheap public transport to get people and freight onto cleaner forms of transit, and in developing the skills needed through education and training.
Now contrast that vision with our current government’s approach of cuts at all cost. In theory, the UK should be a world leader in tackling climate change. The 2008 Climate Change Act (which was then supported by politicians from all parties) commits us to legally binding emissions targets. But without sensible policies to achieve these targets, the Climate Change Act risks becoming a meaningless piece of paper.
Nowadays, voices within the Conservative party who would take climate change seriously are all but drowned out by the unconcerned and cynical. And the ideology of austerity is in itself a huge barrier to action – how can we invest for the future if we are forced to cut?
Onshore wind, the cheapest form of clean energy, has been targeted not just for money-saving cuts but the likely complete removal of subsidies. This is a deliberate attempt to destroy the industry in order to appease anti-wind backbench MPs in shire counties. It will mean one of two things – either the abandonment of our climate targets or meeting them through more expensive means, pushing up fuel bills.
With the poorest-insulated houses in Europe, thousands die each winter in the UK from cold homes, as we waste energy and money burning fossil fuels just to heat the air around our homes. Under the coalition, home insulation was a disaster, with Green Deal loans taken up by so few that new cavity wall insulations fell in 2013 to a quarter of previous levels. Now, in the first round of departmental cost-cutting under the new government, the home insulation budget has been cut by £40 million.
Local authorities, with their budgets slashed, are less able to deliver on climate action plans, or to protect their communities from the impact of climate risks such as floods. And the Department for Energy and Climate Change itself has had its staff budget cut by 90%.
But not all types of spending are facing the same squeeze. It is well established that the majority of fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground if we are not to wreck the climate. But Osborne always seems to find money for tax breaks for oil and gas companies to extract every last drop, whether from the North Sea or fracking Lancashire shale.
New roads of dubious benefit? £15 billion available on tap. How about a new runway at Heathrow for £5.7 billion? Cameron seems poised to do a spectacular U-turn to give this the go-ahead, avoiding some awkward facts: that it would blow a hole in our legally binding climate targets; that flying for business travel is actually falling; and that London airports other than Heathrow actually have spare capacity.
While billions are spent on these climate-wrecking projects (and of course on Trident), and inheritance tax is cut, the children losing tax credits today are the same whose whole future is imperilled by climate change. It can feel impossible to fight on so many fronts, but the battles are all linked together.
Trade unions have an important role to play: the One Million Climate Jobs report is supported by eight major unions, including PCS, Unite and the NUS. ‘Climate Justice’ means recognising that the poorest countries, who have contributed least to climate change, stand to suffer most. It also means that we need a just transition to a low-carbon economy, respecting workers’ rights, including those employed in the fossil fuel industry.
On 19th September a conference for trade unionists in Sheffield will bring together three strands of climate campaigning. First is the campaign for climate jobs, nationally and internationally. Second is divestment from fossil fuels. If effective action is taken on climate change, fossil fuel reserves will lose value dramatically. How can trade unions ensure pension funds are not invested in a carbon bubble?
The third strand is the UN climate talks in Paris this December. The 2015 talks have been planned for years to be the final stages in agreeing an international deal to save our climate. But like austerity economics, the maths don’t up add up – the pledges on the table are nowhere near what is needed. And, also like austerity, the whole process is captured by corporate interests at the expense of ordinary people.
On 29 November there will be a demonstration in London – the biggest ever in the UK on climate change. Along with millions of others in cities around the world, we will call on our governments to make a break with previous faltering attempts and commit to saving our climate. On 12 December, campaigners from around the world will head to Paris – if our leaders let us down, we will fight on! Join us for these protests and say no to climate catastrophe and an economy run for the 1%!
Article Written for the People’s Assembly by Claire James, Campaigns Coordinator at Campaign Against Climate Change