We all know that austerity is a ‘social justice’ disaster. This morally reprehensible policy is forcing ordinary people – particularly the poorest and most vulnerable – to pay for the economic crash caused by the reckless speculating of unaccountable banks in deregulated financial markets. In its most extreme the cuts to disability benefits, the NHS and a vindictive regime of benefit sanctioning have led to thousands of deaths. Austerity kills.
On top of this, the economic justification for inflicting all this misery has been completely discredited with most economists agreeing that by shrinking the economy austerity has harmed growth, prolonged the effects of the recession (even the IMF is issuing proclamations against it) and utterly failed as an apparent strategy to reduce national debt. Austerity is revealed to be not an economic necessity but a repackaged conservative ideology to undermine the welfare state. The financial crash is being used as a smokescreen to implement the same brand of neoliberal policies (cuts to public spending, privatisation and de-regulation) that led to it in the first place.
All this is grounds enough for why austerity is wrong and why we must fight against it, and large protests like the 250,000-strong June 20th Demo in London and the ones in Manchester in October this year (co-organised by the TUC and The People’s Assembly Against Austerity, to coincide with the Tory Party Conference) are crucial in building this struggle against a great social injustice. Nonetheless, within these debates and protest movements we must be sure to argue that austerity is also a huge obstruction to the aims of environmental justice and directly threatens attempts to mitigate climate change.
For one, if Britain is to transition to a sustainable carbon neutral economy it is going to need massive investment in infrastructure, housing and renewable energy. As well as stopping us from destroying the environment and the habitability of our planet, this could both provide jobs for millions of people and the fiscal stimulus needed to get the economy going again. But austerity takes us in completely the opposite direction. As long as we have a Conservative government pursing ideological austerity, determined to reduce state spending at any cost (whilst shamelessly cutting taxes for the rich and large corporations), arguments for investment will always fall on deaf ears.
Each year in the UK 25,000 people die from the cold, and at least a third of these deaths are due to living in cold homes. This is because the UK has some of the worst insulated homes in Europe, with expensive energy bills putting millions in fuel poverty. Under the coalition, home insulation was a disaster, with loans for insulation (the so called Green Deal) taken up by so few that new cavity wall insulations fell in 2013 to a quarter of previous levels. Under our new majority Conservative government the home insulation budget has been cut by another £40 million in the first round of departmental cost-cutting and the Green Deal loans completely scrapped (along with a decade-in-the-making plan to make all new homes carbon neutral by 2016). And it’s the same across the board.
Under Austerity the government is not only completely unwilling to embark on the investments our communities and our planet so badly needs, but is actually cutting what few vital green initiatives we already have. As well as backtracking on its home energy-efficiency and insulation programme, it is slashing the subsidies for biomass, aerobic digestion and biogas, as well as solar, onshore wind and even tidal power. So far the only renewable energy source that isn’t being cut is offshore wind (much more expensive than its onshore counterpart), and even its future seems uncertain.
The Green investment bank, which has increasingly played a pivotal role in providing start-up capital to the environmental industry (and one of the Coalition’s few positive achievements) is being privatised in the largest ever sale of state assets. Green taxes like fuel duty are being cut. Even the incentives to buy less polluting cars (through differential rates of Vehicle Excise Duty) are being scrapped from 2017. However, the cuts to the Environment Agency and flood defence programs have caused the most headlines after they spectacularly highlighted the – contradictory – long term costs of austerity, by contributing to the massive flooding that hit southern England (especially the Somerset levels) over the winter of 2013-14.
The ‘dirty’ economy rolls on…
What’s more, whilst environmental programs and renewable energy are being cut left right and centre, subsidies for the fossil fuel industry continue unabated (this is primarily in the form of tax breaks for oil companies and government funding for exploratory oil drilling), amounting to several billion pounds a year. As fossil fuel reserves decline (unfortunately not fast enough to stop us destroying the planet as more than two-thirds of current reserves need to be left in the ground to avoid catastrophic warming), the government experiments with riskier unconventional extraction methods, from offshore deep water resources, to the now infamous ‘fracking’. Everywhere we look the short-termism inherent in austerity is taking us the wrong way in the fight against climate change.
Outside of the arena of state action, by reducing people’s incomes as the cost of living increases, austerity is further encouraging environmentally harmful consumption. Austerity has seen the longest and sharpest decline in living standards in the UK since Victorian times, driving the demand for (among other things) cheaper food – which can currently only be provided through ecologically harmful processes. Food production is a major source of carbon emissions and ecological damage, but as our current economic system privileges ecologically damaging production norms – making the green choice the more expensive choice – people have no option but to take what they can get in the age of austerity. When people are struggling to put food on the table, they’re less inclined to worry about the environmental impact of that food or of green issues in general.
Join the movement!
For all these reasons and more austerity is an environmental disaster. If we want to make sure the UK does its part in ensuring we don’t warm the planet by more than 2 degrees by the end of the century (the internationally-agreed target we’re all very close to making impossible), then austerity has to end. We already know we owe it to the most vulnerable in our society and our wider communities in general, but now we also owe it to our planet to end austerity now. Anyone who cares about climate change has a duty to join the movement against austerity (The Green Party is an official affiliate and supporter of The People’s Assembly Against Austerity) and take to the streets to protest these policies that are having such a disastrous effect on both our society and our environment.
That’s why I hope you’ll join us on the streets of Manchester for the huge march on Sunday 4th October, and in the public spaces, faith centres and community halls for the ‘festival of resistance’ Mon 5th – Wed 7th (encompassing everything from workers’ rights, to welfare, to TTIP, to climate), where we can create the broadest possible demonstration of defiance to this government and a huge public debate about austerity that the Tories don’t want to have!
Transport details for #TakeBackManchester: http://www.thepeoplesassembly.org.uk/transport_to_manchester http://bristoltoryconfdemo.eventbrite.co.uk/