In her guest blog , Ruth London of Fuel Poverty Action, argues the Reclaim the Power camp marked a sea change for climate politics.
The Reclaim the Power camp this weekend has been a bit of a breakthrough against the divide and rule which has so long cut off people concerned about climate from people in poverty, students from pensioners, “activists” from “residents”.
Three years ago Climate Camp disbanded, after five annual camps. We had taken direct action against coal fired power stations, expanding airports, and banks for jeopardising all of our futures by investing in fossil fuels instead of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Many of the people organising the Camps — huge, sustainable, educational, and beautiful events requiring many months of unpaid, self-organised hard work — wanted to focus on the economic survival issues as “austerity” began to bite. Climate change, as threatening and urgent as ever, seemed remote from most people’s daily lives.
Some of us went on to form Fuel Poverty Action, because the same energy choices, the same fuels, policies, and companies that were destroying the climate were also pushing up the cost of heating people’s homes. As fossil fuels dwindle, and become harder and more dangerous to extract, they are becoming more and more expensive. Energy prices have gone through the roof, just as wages and benefits are being slashed, jobs are being lost, support services vanish, and landlords feel free to let window frames rot. The result is over 7,000 deaths a year from fuel poverty here in one of the richest countries in the world.
The main argument advanced for fracking is that it will bring down fuel bills. Even the church has waded in, claiming fracking is needed because we “mustn’t forget the poor”. But the claim that fracking will reduce fuel poverty is a lie. Even Cuadrilla admits that fracking would bring down UK bills by “a very small percentage . . . basically insignificant” (http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/cuadrilla-pr-man-admits-george-osbornes-shale-gas-revolution-wont-cut-energy-ills-8656246.html). In the US, where extraction is easier and cheaper, gas costs have indeed gone down — at source — but have doubled for consumers since the 1980s or ’90s. Meanwhile, while fracking is incentivised with tax breaks and subsidies, the chance is being lost to invest in renewables that really could bring down bills, in a country with some of the best wind and wave resources in Europe. “Green measures” are marked out on our bills as the culprit for rising prices, but actually account for only 10% of recent years’ price rises (and that includes nuclear and biofuels, hardly “green”!). The percentage down to profiteering and price fixing by the Big 6 energy companies has never to our knowledge been quantified. But 60 percent is down to the rising cost of gas.
Like climate change denial, the lies about fuel bills are a critically important part of the fossil industry’s defence plan. Just like the lies about welfare and immigration — also designed to divide and rule. Those trying to maintain a murderous and visibly unsustainable economy must take their lying work seriously. Check out Stratfor (http://www.mintpressnews.com/stratfor-strategies-how-to-win-the-media-war-against-grassroots-activists/166078/) , now involved in supporting the fossil fuel industry, which in an earlier incarnation brought us the good news that smoking doesn’t really cause cancer. Their strategy, helpfully spelled out in a speech, is to “isolate the activists”, turn around the realists, plant doubts among idealists, and not to worry about the opportunists (they can always be counted on to come onside). Hence protecting the climate — and the natural environment generally — are portrayed as luxuries for the well-heeled and professional trouble-makers, and people who have to worry abut fuel bills are told we can’t afford to care.
In Balcombe,we have not been so easily divided. The stage was set by No Dash for Gas at West Burton when they made fighting fuel poverty one of their key messages, not forgetting the pensioners, disabled people and others who were not in a position to climb chimneys. Then, we had the No Fracking in Balcombe Society (No FiBs) refusing to say fracking should be done in somebody else’s back yard instead of their own, stunningly beautiful, countryside. It was not No FiBs but gas lobbyist and Osborne adviser Lord Howell who said that the “desolate” north of England should be fracked instead. And when the Reclaim the Power camp started, it was, as the Times reports (20 Aug), a good mix of “climate-change activists, anti-fracking protesters, trade unionists, Greens, disabled groups, hippies, anti-capitalists, youth groups and anti-austerity campaigners”. I would add Occupiers – veterans of St Paul’s were very much in evidence, and in action.
It also had a good mix of people from communities in danger of fracking, not only from around Sussex but from Wales, Ireland, Somerset, Lancashire, and more. There were all sorts of accents, and all ages. News from similar struggles in Colombia, Nigeria, Ghana, Algeria was an integral part of the workshops, which far from being abstract educationals were consistently focussed on how we could work together, how to win. The direct action was deliberately planned and carried out in a way which could give everyone present a chance to take part in the way, and at the level of confrontation that they chose. If the police undermined this with their unusually arbitrary arrests at the big blockade, everyone seems to have understood that this was not the fault of the protesters, and many, Balcombe residents and others, said they came away empowered, nevertheless. Many actions were planned and fronted by women, as was much of the camp’s organisation, and the local anti-frack organising as well.
The division between climate campaigners and so-called “ordinary” (“working class”, or “grassroots”) people has been lethal for our chances of preventing an apocalypse. It is a grotesque slander against most of the population to pretend that those of us who can’t pay our fuel bills don’t care about nature, animals, or the climate — which in fact is already a day-today survival issue, hitting poorer people harder than richer people, including through the rising price of food. Fuel Poverty Action includes and works with single mothers, asylum seekers, people with disabilities, and pensioners confronting the government’s lies and killer policies. Offered a chance, people readily put together the issues the industry is so anxious to separate. See for instance, the resolution passed recently at the AGM of the Greater London Pensioners Association (http://fuelpovertyaction.org.uk/2013/04/22/pensioners-say-no-dash-for-gas/).
There’s still a long way to go for the climate movement to make itself consistently accessible and relevant to everyone. The breakthrough is that it’s now not just Fuel Poverty Action that sees these connections as a priority. Climate Camp is coming of age.
Ruth London, is from Fuel Poverty Action http://fuelpovertyaction.org.uk/