‘Slash and burn’: Britain unprepared for environmental disaster after science budget cuts

Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader David Cameron (L) walks with Chancellor George Osborne © Leon Neal
Austerity could see Britain unable to cope with environmental disasters as government cuts leave the country without key scientists and destroy national treasures such as Kew Gardens, a leading trade unionist has warned.

Speaking Monday, Leslie Manasseh, TUC president and deputy general secretary of the engineers’ union Prospect, warned that Tory ministers are “vulgarians of the highest order” who are ripping the heart out of Britain’s public sector. 

“It’s depressing, because they may only have a majority of 12, but imbued as they are with this incredible, male upper-class confidence, they don’t think that’s fragile at all,” he said.

Since the previous Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010, official figures show that 400,000 public sector jobs have been axed. A further 500,000 are expected to be cut before 2020, as Chancellor George Osborne plows ahead with his austerity agenda.

Among those who have faced job losses are scores of scientists at Kew Gardens, otherwise known as The Royal Botanic Gardens. Founded in 1759, the UNESCO World Heritage site is one of London’s most popular visitor attractions and has made countless contributions to the understanding of fungi and plants.

Kew Gardens’ work in the field of science and conservation also safeguards Britain’s biodiversity and promotes the sustainable use of plant species.

Manasseh warned that Tory cuts risk reducing the UNESCO site to a theme park.

“If you think back to the [winter of 2013-14], floods and ash die-back and consider the kind of problems that are likely to face the country in years to come, [the government] is just not going to be very prepared, because of the view that the only thing of value is if you can make a profit,” he said.

Critics have also hit out at the government’s decision to close Britain’s Forensic Science Service in 2011. The specialist service provided expertise to government agencies and police forces across England and Wales.

Manasseh warned that the 1 percent pay freeze public sector workers must contend with is reckless and short-sighted. “There are very many senior voices in the public sector and the civil service who know that it’s really creaking at the seams and could fall over frighteningly quickly,” he said.

“Public sector staff are under enormous pressure,” he added. “They face another five years of pay restraint.”

Manasseh is to step down at the close of 2015 from the Prospect union, which represents 30,000 scientific, technical and professional public sector staff.

Despite declining union membership in recent years, he argues that opportunities exist for unions to grow across the public sector.

Earlier this month, Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn said Tory environmental policy is plundering natural resources and geared toward a marginal elite.

Corbyn stressed the global climate crisis cannot be cast “out of sight and out of mind.” He argued that fracking and shale gas drilling are regressive, environmentally destructive and should be opposed.

Alan Simpson, who served as Labour MP for 18 years, added to Corbyn's criticism, saying that Britain’s energy industry is run by “a corrupt cartel” and concrete solutions to a complex climate crisis are paramount.

Simpson said Britain must follow the lead of German and Californian policymakers, who are legislating to cut carbon emissions and build productive, green economies.

Writing in the New York Times in early August, US economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman said the only fiscal crisis Britain must contend with is in the imagination of a deluded section of UK society. He said is austerity is akin to fantasy economics and is a political choice, not a necessity.

In late June, a report predicted that the world has 10 years to tackle climate change, or humanity could lose 50 years of progress in global health.

It was authored by experts from around the world and is backed by Margaret Chan, head of the UN’s World Health Organization.

The study said a lack of political will to combat climate change is a major barrier to creating a low-carbon economy and the knock-on improvements to health, which would come about as a result.

It called upon governments to phase out coal power plants, improve pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in urban spaces, promote greener lifestyles and insulate more buildings to cut energy use and prevent cold-related deaths.