Elaine Graham Leigh explains why everyone who cares about the environment should support Spain’s striking miners - and take a stand against austerity
Thousands of miners are on indefinite strike in Asturias and Castile. They are fighting to stop the Spanish government’s plans to cut subsidies to mining by 64%, putting 30,000 jobs at risk.
As we know all too well from what was done to the British mining industry in the 1980s and 1990s, job losses on this scale would see the destruction of whole communities. This is in a country where the declared unemployment rate is already 25%.
The miners’ fight has won wide support as part of the fight against austerity imposed at the behest of the European Union and the European Central Bank. When 400 miners marched from Asturias to Madrid to bring their protest to the government, they were welcomed to the capital by 150,000 people. Another general strike has now been called for 19 July.
For environmental campaigners, however, supporting the miners could seem rather more problematic. Coal is, after all, a key source of greenhouse gas emissions - and many greens have fought against new coal-fired power stations across Europe and called for the coal to be left in the ground.
So, if using coal is so bad for the climate, shouldn’t greens support any government moves to disinvest in the industry?
It is sometimes argued that Margaret Thatcher did the climate a favour when she destroyed the British mining industry. It’s true that the UK only had any chance of getting near to its Kyoto target for emission reductions because of the shift from coal- to gas-fired power generation in the early 1990s. But successive governments have failed to do anything meaningful to cut emissions.
It’s important to realise, firstly, that the result of the subsidy cut to Spanish mining would not be more renewable energy generation and a cut to coal burning. It’s just that the power stations would buy in coal from Czech Republic or Poland, where it is produced more cheaply because wages are lower.
Juan Jose Fernandez, a retired Asturias miner who has written an ‘open letter’ on the strike, describes how Czech and Polish miners working in Spain were blown away by how Spanish wages actually allowed them to live above the basic subsistence level, unlike their wages at home.
Secondly, it’s not that the miners are fighting for their industry regardless of the environmental harm it causes. The subsidies which the Spanish government is now trying to slash were part of a deal, supposed to take the industry to 2018, which also included a fund for a move to alternative technologies. Fernandez details some of the ways in which local governments have spent the fund on other things, none of which are the fault of the miners.
If the subsidy is cut now, it doesn’t bring Spain any closer to less polluting methods of energy generation. The miners are well aware of the need to create jobs in green infrastructure. It is the government whose austerity agenda is hitting plans for green technologies as well as the miners’ current jobs.
The truth is that austerity is just not green. The savage cuts to jobs, public services and infrastructure - from Spain to Greece to the UK - are attempts to shore up the free market system. It is this very system which is the root cause of climate change and the major obstacle to any possible solutions.
In recent years, we’ve seen the failure of a number of schemes in the UK aimed at (or purporting to aim at) more renewable power generation, from the closure of the Vestas wind turbine factory to the cancellation of the Ayrshire carbon capture and storage power station, because of market uncertainties and the lack of public funding.
The small-scale shifts to more renewable energy - which are the most we are ever likely to get from neo-liberal governments - can be cynically used as an excuse to throw miners out of work, but they won’t do jack for the climate.
The greenest thing for greens to do now is to fight the austerity agenda - and that means standing shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish miners.
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade, focusing on issues of climate change and social justice. She speaks and writes widely on green issues and is a member of Counterfire. Her book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, will be published in April 2015 by Zero Books.