Climate Change, Tuition Fees and the Cuts
I know exactly what you’re thinking. Well I don’t know, but I can guess. “WTF? You’re expecting me, the highly intelligent reader, to buy into a bunch of bollocks linking climate change to the Coalition cuts and to the tuition fee rise? Haven’t we heard enough about climate change already? And anyway, what has it got to do with education?”
It’s a great question. Thank you for asking these questions, fictionalized reader created for literary purposes. What I’m going to do in this blog post is discuss the links between the two movements and to evaluate the Climate Justice movement and its relevance to the biggest youth movement in Britain of my generation.
The student occupation at UCL is, in many ways, a mini Climate Camp, with consensus-based decision making and several working groups to keep the site running (media, security, outreach, kitchens, process, etc.). As one girl put it, the only difference is that the students at UCL don't have to use compost toilets. And I might add that the food in the kitchen isn't vegan - hooray for tea with real milk!
It's worth pointing out that the majority of participants in the student anti fees movement are experiencing direct action for the first time. Climate activists are very familiar with police procedures to deter public protest, the legal issues associated with nonviolent resistance, and a diverse range of demonstration tactics. Occupying a space brings a whole new set of dynamics and requires a ton of organization. The climate camp model, designed as a means to efficiently and sustainably organize an occupied space, just made sense in this situation.
But why are climate activists so interested in this new movement? What do the cuts and climate change have in common?
First of all, both movements have been disappointed by the Coalition government. In the weeks running up to the election, there was a split between the environmentalists who intended to vote. Traditionally, we view the Green Party as the most closely aligned to our values. But many saw a strategic opportunity in voting for the Lib Dems: they were more likely to get in and Nick Clegg constantly lampooned Labour’s inaction on climate change and the irrelevance of their measures for dealing with the issue. The policies of the Coalition government are more likely to exacerbate climate change than stop it – and many environmentalists are feeling just as betrayed by Nick Clegg as the nation’s youth.
Secondly, at the root of climate change, the recession and the cuts is the enforcement of an economic system that benefits the few at the expense of many. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that environmentalists are some of the most vocal opponents to the cuts. A recent solidarity statement issued by Climate Camp London notes how the Browne Review was chaired by a former director of BP and made up of bankers and management consultants. In the Guardian, the radical environmentalist George Montbiot wrote:
“It's arguable that the UK government does not have a spending crisis; it has a tax avoidance crisis… HMRC's inability or unwillingness to pursue big tax avoiders means that taxation shifts from the rich to the poor. As corporate payments fall, either the poor must pay more or services must be hit even harder.”
Monbiot’s article (highly recommended) was written as a response to the UK “Uncut” campaign, which was created by and is largely made up of experienced climate activists. Since October, the Uncut campaign has mobilized hundreds of individuals to shut down Vodafone stores because the government supposedly reduced an unpaid tax bill issued to the company from 6 billion to 1.25 billion around the same time that cuts of 7 billion to public services were announced.
Turning to the issue of climate change, it is important to note a crucial shift in climate activism: the rise of the Climate Justice movement. For many environmentalists, climate change is no longer just an ecological issue. It is now also a humanitarian issue, particularly in reference to the poor.
The forces that create climate change also exacerbate poverty. There are many examples of the devastating impact the fossil fuel industry can have on local communities such as poisoned water sources, rare cancers and public health hazards. The discovery and development of vast oil resources in Nigeria has made the people living on the land poorer as politicians grow rich from oil money. The extraction and transformation of bitumen from the tar sands in Alberta into gasoline has undoubtedly caused a disproportionate spike of rare cancers among the indigenous First Nation peoples who live close to the oil fields. And all over the United States, urban coal-fired power stations are placed in poor African-American and Latino communities, endangering the health of people with very limited access to health care.
The global recession is being used as an excuse to justify an assault on the welfare state. As for climate change, the recession is a convenient excuse to continue business as usual – at the expense of millions (potentially billions) of people living in poverty in the developing world.
This brings me to my next point: those most affected by the recession/cuts and by climate change are not responsible for them. The cuts mean that single mothers will lose access to childcare, that a large number of working class kids will not be able to finish school, that the disabled will be deprived of the right to go about their daily lives with dignity. None of these people are responsible for the financial crisis, many of them were victims of the recession before the cuts were announced and the ‘austerity measures’ will only push them further into poverty. The practice of dodgy banks in the US (Wells Fargo, for example) targeting low-income, African American homeowners with low-interest mortgages – the banks being fully aware that many of these individuals would default on their payments – exacerbated the divide between rich and poor. Whole neighborhoods in American cities are boarded up, but Goldman Sachs was able to make a massive profit from the crisis.
We have a plethora of studies to choose from that outline how climate change will create (and is creating) a global humanitarian catastrophe. Just today, the Guardian printed a story about a recent study claiming that a billion people will lose their homes in the next 90 years as a result of climate change. A risk analysis firm called Maplecroft recently published an index of the vulnerability of individual countries to the effects of climate change. Of the top ten, all are in the developing world. They are: Bangladesh, India, Madagascar, Nepal, Mozambique, the Phillippines, Haiti, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Myanmar. Not one of these countries is responsible for the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that is causing climate change. It would take a large emission output over several decades – even centuries – for countries like India to catch up with the historical contribution of the US. So my country has gotten rich off of a carbon-intensive economic system and the world’s poorest is going to end up footing the bill.
But this plight isn’t restricted to the developing world in the years to come. It has been estimated that one in six British households is “fuel poor”, meaning that families must spend more than ten percent of their household income on gas/electricity “in order to maintain an adequate level of warmth” in addition to other domestic electricity use. A New Economics Foundation report on poverty and climate change in the UK (January 2009) noted how low-income households “tend to be housed in less energy-efficient homes and are less likely to have gas central heating.” Moreover, “customers who use prepayment meters for gas and electricity are generally those on low incomes and they pay much more than those paying by direct debit or online.” All of this occurs against a background of increasing prices and higher profits for the energy industry.
The families affected by fuel poverty also represent the proportion of the British population that is most affected by the cuts and the recession. Mothers will be forced out of full-time work by reduced access to childcare. The abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance will force children from poor families to drop out of school. Forget about the furor over tuition fees – these kids can’t even think about going to university if they know they can’t afford to stay in school.
My generation, along with my sister’s “Harry Potter generation”, is not responsible for the climate crisis, although we did grow up in the midst of the economic system that created it. But we are the ones who are going to have to deal with it. We will have to pay for it and raise our children with the knowledge that they are going to inherit a less fair and more chaotic world than the one that we were born into.
Many of us are only just beginning to question the judgement of our parents’ generation. At the same time, many of us are questioning the morality of a type of capitalism that puts the welfare of the market above the welfare of the people. It has encouraged us to question why ‘positive growth’ is such a good thing if it lulls ordinary people into a sense of security and makes them less prepared to endure recession and the poverty that comes with it. If growth is so good, then why didn’t it protect all of us? The ecological crisis has encouraged us to challenge the logic of a fossil fuel economy. It has encouraged us to challenge the logic of infinite growth on a finite planet with limited resources.
In the case of both climate change and the recession, we are here because for generations our governments have instructed us to “go forth, consume, consume, consume and ye will prosper!” So people spent more money than they had, on stuff they didn’t need: cheap goods manufactured in the third world with a high carbon (and moral) footprint. For a while, it worked and life was good. It was convenient to ignore the poverty of others around us. But the repercussions have hit us like a hangover on the morning after a hedonistic night out.
I’ve already written way too much here, and I could probably write another thousand words fairly easily. But I hope that I’ve made it clear that resistance to the cuts and resistance to climate change are part of the same struggle. Moreover, climate change and the global recession should be viewed as symptoms of a broken economic system. Our society has become addicted to a destructive economic model and it is time to break that addiction. It’s going to be hard and we will have to join forces with other movements. But it is essential that we do this – and I do believe that we can! It’s time to start thinking about the kind of society we want to live in, a new “Big Society” that truly is fair and equal for everyone.