Over the past five years, the UK climate movement has grown and diversified. With the election now looming, we’ve invited climate activists to comment on whether or not political parties seem to be listening.
The responses say a lot about the climate movement itself. As a campaign issue, climate change is embedded within a range of other grassroots concerns, be it austerity, access to affordable energy, international trade agreements or health. These overlapping issues also help build the climate movement as activists focused on climate change come together with campaigners of all stripes—from trade unions to student groups, from health professionals to inner-city renters.
The consensus regarding the party manifestos is that, unfortunately, very few envision the kind of transformation needed to effectively tackle climate change. Only the Greens along side some of the devolved nations’ parties, like Plaid Cymru in Wales, get positive reviews. The overall conclusion is that, while all parties are not equal on climate change issues, the elections are not the decisive moment; real change will have to come from outside Westminster.
Contributing to the discussion are:
Kathryn McWhirter from the No Fracking in Balcombe Society
Laura Hill from Fuel Poverty Action
Nick Evans from Campaign against Climate Change
Alistair Wardrope from Healthy Planet
Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik & Raoul Martinez from Join.The.Dots.
No Fracking in Balcombe Society - Kathryn McWhirter
Our fight against fracking in Balcombe began as a nimby affair in late 2011 when we read in a national newspaper that an oil driller was all set up with permissions and permits to frack in our village. Few of us had ever protested before about anything. It’s a very Conservative place! For some in Balcombe, the objective remains to keep the oil and gas industry out of the village. But for others it has been a political awakening, and our objective is now to keep unconventional oil and gas out of Britain, Europe the rest of the world. Beyond the threat these extreme extraction processes pose to our environment and health, we recognise that they will lock us in to fossil fuel reliance and infrastructure for decades to come. The village energy co-op, RepowerBalcombe is the smiley face of Balcombe’s awakening!
We want a ban on all unconventional fossil fuel extraction in Britain – not only shale gas and oil, but also the equally undesirable coal bed methane extraction in the former coal mining areas, and underground coal gasification, proposed all around our coasts. We do not want regulated fracking. Regulations in the UK are poor. Monitoring is vestigial – companies are largely left to self-monitor. For now we would settle for a moratorium, but our objective is a ban.
Balcombe became famous in 2013 for the protest camp beside our road down by the drill site. It was a combination of campaigning and activism that crossed social divides, brought new friendships, generated headlines (sometimes negative, but never mind!) and spread the word. There are now over 200 anti-fracking groups around Britain, and we are linked, meeting up in person, not only on social media.
Like other groups, we in Balcombe have fought planning applications. Within the village, around our region and beyond, we’ve disseminated information, raised awareness and argued against pro-fracking propaganda from government, industry and ‘frackademics’. We’ve developed press contacts. In Westminster we’ve attended select committees and inquiries and all party parliamentary groups; we’ve submitted evidence; we’ve met MPs and parliamentary candidates. Some of us have attended conferences in Europe. We’ve linked with parallel groups – for instance campaigns against TTIP, and Global Justice Now.
The environment in general is being shockingly ignored in current canvassing. Fracking has slipped off the agenda, except in constituencies most immediately affected. The Coalition strategically delayed until after the election the announcement of the next round of petroleum licences, fearful of anti-fracking reactions at the ballot box in new areas that will be opened up to unconventional oil and gas.
In England, only the Green Party is clearly against fracking. They have been a wonderful support to our campaign – as have Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, and some unions such as PCS. Parties in Scotland and Wales are all for caution, moratorium or ban, urged on in part by nationalistic reaction to energy policies imposed by Westminster.
UKIP supports fracking blindly.
Labour is for regulated fracking. Many of us in the anti-fracking movement can therefore not vote for Labour. The regulations they proposed for fracking in the Infrastructure Bill (IB) were weak even before the Coalition cut and weakened them further. Labour could have supported the vote on a moratorium last January, but most Labour MPs abstained, influenced, we think, by pressure from certain unions (although the TUC and some unions would like to see a ban). Labour’s new Green plan includes promises to protect the climate and the environment while fracking. If they did some more homework, they would realise that is not possible. Our local Labour candidate here in Sussex has declared himself anti-fracking. If elected I suspect he would vote with the whip. This leaves many of us sceptical.
The Libdems, within an otherwise impressive green manifesto, are silent on fracking, but their national policy is to support it. They (with very honourable exceptions, parituclary Tessa Munt and Norman Baker) sold their soul to the Conservatives on unconventional fossil fuels.
Here in the Conservative heartland of Sussex, we give the Tory candidates a hard time at the hustings. The Conservatives, clearly in the pocket of the oil and gas industry, pushed their fracking policies through the legislative system in their last moments in government, at indecent haste, with no time or inclination to read or debate the evidence – no time even to consider the call for a ban on fracking published by the Environmental Audit Committee on the morning of the final IB vote. They have changed the definition of fracking (so that smaller fracks no longer count), changed the definition of ‘high public interest’ in local planning decisions, and issued new advice for authorities dealing with ‘unauthorised encampments.’ Everything is being done to streamline permitting and facilitate operations for the oil and gas industry. The Conservatives stand ready, if elected back into power, to push firmly on with fracking, underground coal gasification and coal bed methane.
The ‘safe’ fracking of the Conservative election manifesto does not exist. The Conservatives have hurtled into the fracking race. Spurred on by industry, they have strapped on their blinkers and simply refuse to look at the growing scientific evidence that, on grounds of environmental damage and human health, demands a u-turn on fracking.
Fuel Poverty Action – Laura Hill
Fuel Poverty Action is a grassroots campaign group that works with people directly affected by fuel poverty to take action together to fight for the systemic change of our energy system, making it affordable, renewable, democratic and not-for-profit.
Eradicating fuel poverty and building resistance against the ‘Big Six’ has always been at the heart of Fuel Poverty Actions campaigns. Unlike other fuel poverty campaigns, our direct action and mutual support approach has enabled individual experiences to directly lead our work, spearheading the creation the Energy Bill of Rights - an eight-point charter of fundamental energy rights we should all have.
The Big Six hold a monopoly over power within Westminster; they lay down policy and prevent the systemic change required to mitigate climate change and eradicate fuel poverty. Indicative of this, most party manifestos fail to offer the policies necessary for a radical overhaul of our energy system that will bring down the bills and fight climate change. After the election, many of the pledges outlined in each of the near 100 page manifestos will remain unfulfilled, never to be looked at again by the elected party (or parties).
Their inadequate solutions, promise to deal with fuel poverty through increasing the level of competition in the market – both the Lib Dems and Tory’s commit to cutting switching time to one day and Labour promises to break up the generation and supply businesses of the Big Six - whilst not disputing the profit maximising nature of the energy market.
This has been symptomatic of the self-proclaimed ‘greenest government’ ever. Surpassing even our wildest expectations, over the last 5 years, they have pandered to the whims of the Big Six, reversing policies - such as the green levies – and giving the green light to fracking. UKIP have taken this a stage further by pledging roll back the green levies, one of the only implemented policies to both lift people out of fuel poverty and fight climate change.
The dominance of the Big Six is only called in to question in the Green Party manifesto. Within their manifesto they promise to phase-out fossil fuels, implement progressive energy tariffs, insulate 9 million homes and transition to a not-for-profit completely renewable system. However, without spelling the end of the Big Six, can the Green Party really deliver a systemic change in the energy system?
Instead of waiting for MPs to notice and fix these urgent issues, we will look towards the burgeoning housing movement for inspiration and direct action.
Campaign against Climate Change – Nick Evans
This December the newly elected UK government will be represented at the UN’s COP21 climate summit in Paris. Climate activists have mixed feelings about Paris. The indications are that nothing remotely suitable will be agreed. Many hopes were pinned on the COP15 talks in Copenhagen in 2009 and the ensuing fiasco demoralised the movement for several years.
People are emphasising that we can’t afford to wait for global agreements – we need to start breaking the power of big energy corporations now. But we can’t afford to ignore December either. If we get another rotten deal, we need a movement that comes out fighting. That’s why the big demonstration in Paris will be on the day after the end of the COP21, on 12 December. Plans for bike trains to Paris are focussed on making connections that will strengthen the movement beyond December. Meanwhile students around the world are talking about coordinated university occupations to send a message that business-as-usual cannot continue.
But the message from the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems is that the status quo must not be challenged. The Tories are committed to expanding fracking, and to scrapping subsidies for onshore wind farms. They are vague about what a ‘strong global climate deal’ at Paris would mean. Labour gives more detail on the latter but does not explain how to make targets binding. Labour’s approach to growth produces incoherence. It promises a million low carbon jobs (the slogan, if not the substance, derived from the Million Climate Jobs campaign), but also wants to ‘safeguard the future of the offshore oil and gas industry’. It promises to freeze gas and electricity prices until early 2017, but reproduces the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda about ‘green gas’ and ‘clean coal’, and does not rule out fracking. The Lib Dems boast about their five new green laws and talk about binding targets: but their concrete proposals combine triviality (charging 5p for plastic bags) with suspicious silences (e.g. fracking).
The contrast between all of the above and the Greens is sharp. They recognise talking about climate justice (tackling fuel poverty) means taking on the big energy companies, they promise to ban fracking and to phase out all fossil fuel-based energy generation and nuclear power. Their plans for mitigation and adaptation give the impression of being actually designed to address the reality of climate change. Also breaking with the Westminster consensus, nationalist parties such as Plaid Cymru and Sinn Féin pledge to oppose fracking, and the SNP pledges to prevent further building of nuclear power stations.
And then there is UKIP: repealing the 2008 Climate Change Act, gunning for fracking, expansion of coal mining, withdrawal of funding for renewables… If their ostentatiously regressive shtick will have any appeal at all, it will be because of the blatant bad faith of the Tories, Labour and Lib Dem. If they’re going to let us burn, then why don’t they drop the finger-wagging?
As Naomi Klein says, only social movements can save us now. The French coalition, made up of 100 organisations, including trade unions, NGOs, youth groups, faith groups, and local campaign groups, has been meeting since early 2014. It has now called for demonstrations around the world on 28/29 November, and in Paris on 12 December. Meanwhile we have been visiting university occupations in Amsterdam and the UK, international meetings in Brussels, and the Blockupy protests in Frankfurt, linking up with activists who want to see international climate occupations in November/December. We’ll be at the Reclaim the Power camp in Didcot this spring, and we’ll be hosting conferences at universities across the UK this autumn. To help us make mass, radical action happen, and to build a movement that will come out stronger after Paris, get in touch at time2actstudent@
Healthy Planet – Alistair Wardrope
Healthy Planet is a student group working at the intersection of ecology, climate change, and human health. Climate change presents one of the greatest threats to global health of the 21st century, through direct impacts such as natural disasters, droughts and heat waves, and indirectly through changing infectious disease distributions, worsening food insecurity, forced migration, and conflict. Mitigation, meanwhile, presents a tremendous opportunity for public health improvements through reduced air pollution, better transport, and healthier diets.
The good news for 2015 is that the idea has clearly taken root that voters care about things like air pollution (which causes 29,000 premature deaths in the UK every year), active transport (which if managed properly could save the NHS £17 billion by 2030), and water management (vital in a warmer world to mitigate the physical and mental health impacts of flooding); all are referenced in most manifestos. The bad news is there’s a major failure to join the dots between these issues and the policies that affect them.
It is hard to take seriously the Conservatives’ commitment to ‘tackle’ air pollution and protect the local environment alongside, for example, their proposal to decarbonise through carbon capture and storage (CCS) and fracking. IEA as well as government assessments suggest neither of these are effective ways of reducing global emissions. CCS is liable to increase particulate air pollution while health professionals have repeatedly warned about the potential for fracking to exacerbate air and groundwater contamination. (The Lib Dems, Labour, and UKIP share this enthusiasm for shale; the strongest opposition comes from the Greens with many devolved nations’ parties also proposing a moratorium). The Tories’ promise to support renewables only where cost-competitive (a promise echoed by UKIP) neglects the externalities of fossil fuels; it is estimated that the health burden of the Drax coal power station alone cost the UK as much as €8bn from 2008-2012.
On transport, promises to support cycling are undermined by both Labour’s and the Conservatives’ commitment to preserving the high-carbon status quo with heavy investment in road infrastructure. The £200m earmarked by the Tories for cycling is dwarfed by the £15bn proposed for increasing road capacity. Labour at least considers environmental impact in this expansion but ignores that by far the most important determinant of health and climate outcomes here is simply increased traffic volume. The Lib Dems and Greens fare better here, offering commitments to increase infrastructure spending toward Dutch levels and to introduce 20mph urban speed limits. In this way, they recognise a healthier population does not simply emerge out of exhortations to move more but rather requires cities built for walking and cycling.
There is a broad tendency to think that all health policy is health care policy. Labour’s approach to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) demonstrates this. Their NHS exemption, while welcome, does nothing to counteract the threats of environmental contamination and antibiotic resistance from the removal of energy extraction and farming regulations (and the prospect of law suits to oppose future legislation). Their limited opposition is at least better than the Lib Dems’ Panglossian belief that the Treaty already shelters the UK from negative health implications, despite warnings to the contrary from major public health bodies including the Faculty of Public Health. The Greens are the only larger UK-wide party to acknowledge the risks of such deals, and oppose TTIP in its entirety as a result. The Lib Dems do, however, fare better in making other connections between health care and environmental health, with innovative measures for a more sustainable NHS including review of the tariff funding system that rewards intervention for intervention’s sake. The Greens also make progress here, incorporating carbon costings into NICE’s evaluations of medical interventions. The NHS currently accounts for 40% of public sector carbon emissions; measures like this are required to make it fit for the future.
A healthier planet needs more than rhetoric; it needs a re-evaluation of priorities that puts health and wellbeing first. While this election has been strong on the former, there are thus far only glimpses of the actual commitment.
Join.The.Dots - Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik & Raoul Martinez
Our world today faces three major overlapping crises: an epidemic of extreme inequality, a gaping democratic deficit, and an international economy rapidly destroying the planetary conditions necessary for human survival.
The scale of these concurrent challenges renders typical single-issue campaigns and reformist strategies insufficient. More than ever, we need to develop a tangibleand inspiring vision for a better world that addresses these crises and unites our atomised movements to push for system change.
Join the Dots is a new project working with others to fill that vacuum. We want to demonstrate that the major problems we face have common causes and solutions, raise awareness around the real alternatives that exist, and help ignite a public dialogue on the fundamental changes we need to embrace as a society.
On the 28th of March, we collaborated with Occupy, Friends of the Earth, War onWant, Brick Lane Debates and the Young Greens to organize This Changes Everything UK. It brought together a thousand people in London, including Naomi Klein, Russell Brand, and Natalie Bennett, to discuss how our diverse movements can bring about the systemic changes we need to deal with the systemic crises we face. Join the Dots is now working on similar projects to help build a movement strong enough to effect political change.
The importance of activism is all the more obvious given the ‘solutions’ currently on offer within mainstream politics. Reading the party manifestos, it is evident that any mention of systemic transformation is taboo.
Instead, our parties enumerate vague pledges and piecemeal policies that pale next to the bold changes required. The response to the climate challenge perfectly illustrates the problem. If we want to avoid the catastrophic consequences of further global warming, we must bring about a profound transformation of our economy. We need to keep 80% of fossil fuels in the ground, phase out dirty energy, heavily invest in renewables, institute an equitable global cap on resource use, rapidly build up low-carbon infrastructure, encourage sustainable agriculture, strategically degrow high-carbon sectors of the economy, and institute major financial reform. These structural changes however are nowhere to be seen.
Other crucial issues barely even register across the manifestos: corruption, workplace democracy, a citizen debt audit, campaign finance, ending welfare for corporate polluters, media democratisation, and addressing institutional racism and sexism. Also ignored is the pressing need for new metrics of economic and political success. Though we must urgently reconfigure the ways we think about prosperity and well-being, the sacred goals of economic growth and GDP remain articles of faith for all the main parties.
Exceptions to the rule of inadequacy are however provided by Plaid Cymru, who present reasoned pledges around renewables and green infrastructure, and by the Green Party, whose manifesto is arguably closest to advancing proposals that respond to the magnitude of the problems we face. It’s an exciting programme containing ambitious initiatives around energy, the living wage, transport, migration, diversity, civil rights, and social housing. Unfortunately, the Greens remain a minority voice, subdued by a disproportionate parliamentary system, yet their surge in membership is a source of hope and their message has begun to impact the mainstream.
Nonetheless, it is essential that these ideas and propositions move from the periphery of politics into everyday debate. Now is the time to stop denying our system’s failings, and start building something different. Judging from the manifestos, the chances of such necessary audacity coming from our leading parties remains unlikely. Real change will have to come from beyond the voting booth.