Connecting the dots is a phrase those of us in the climate movement often use when talking about climate disasters. Last week we had a reminder that the most glaring dots out there are often issues to do with social justice. In fact, for the people involved, a climate justice framework is often the only relevant way to talk about climate change. The explosion and subsequent fire in a coal mine in the town of Soma, in Western Turkey on May 13 was a particularly sad and rage inducing reminder of that. So, lets begin connecting the dots.
Most people know very well by now that whether suddenly or slowly, coal brings death. And with it’s dramatically increased exploitation of coal and abhorrently lax labour safety laws, Turkey was always a prime suspect for the next coal disaster. In fact, the opposition party brought the terrible working conditions in Soma before the parliament only two weeks before the accident – and was promptly overruled by the government. But there was still shock at the scale of this man made disaster. Grief and shock multiplied with every increase in the number of dead miners. The final toll reached 301.
But what really transformed grief to anger was the total lack of respect displayed by the government in the face of the disaster. Prime Minister Erdoğan went so far as to say that miner deaths are “ordinary, usual”.
Trying to shrug away hundreds of deaths as something “normal” is not a smart move for a politician. But strangely enough, the Prime Minister has a point. While it is obviously much more dangerous in places like Turkey where labour rights and workers health are trivialized, underground coal mining is extremely perilous business even in the best of conditions. It is dangerous for those who work the mines, and it is certain death for the planet unless it can be stopped. However, imperviousness to life aside, what makes this attitude even more sickening is the readiness of those in power to accept and even enforce the perpetuation of this inherently dangerous business.
For the huge majority of miners, their vocation is not a choice. Here is the testimony of a young miner M. M. — who lost 301 comrades and who did not want to be interviewed for radio because he feared that his voice would be recognised and he would lose his job — illustrating this point: “I have to return to the mine… I have to pay off debts at the bank.”These are, in the words of Belgian commentator Dirk Vermeiren, “Not debts connected to holidays, expensive hobbies or bad habits, but debts connected to what can be considered basic things: food, housing, clothing.”
In Turkey, following a recent round of legislative changes, a mining licence holder can apply to the Ministry for Energy and Natural Resources to open agricultural areas or even national and natural parks for mining. Once mining starts, residents of the area can usually have only one viable vocation. The coal produced in those mines are then burned in nearby power plants or distributed to the poor as a form of social subsidy (the implication being the expectation of continued electoral support for the government). It is seemingly a vicious cycle.
Only, it is not. The simple truth is that Turkey could have been on it’s way to quit coal long ago. According to Eurostat data, Turkey’s energy efficiency ratio has not improved for at least 10 years (And improvement in this area could result in savings in the range of 20-25% – around the current share of coal in electricity production). And the role of climate friendly energy (excluding controversial hydro projects) in total electricity production is so low as to be almost invisible in a pie chart – in a country with abundant reserves of those no less. A transition to clean energy would provide enough jobs for every miner and more (here is a call to do just that).
This is why the flippant remarks by those in power demonstrate something at least as sinister as the total disregard for workplace safety standards. Yes, whether suddenly or slowly, coal kills. Knowing this, having access to the tools to rectify it, and not acting is criminal neglect. Increasing coal use despite this knowledge on the other hand, is simply criminal: The Ministry for Energy and Natural Resources declared 2012 as the “year of the coal” and the current policy is to increase the share of coal in electricity production to over 30% by 2030.
Our addiction to fossil fuels is interlaced with a plethora of social justice issues. The indignation at these injustices should be a major part of the framework for the struggle to solve the climate crisis. And also, one of the most important reasons for which we must win.