Violent response: a woman demonstrating against the Soma mining disaster flees riot police tear gas, 22 May. Photo: Getty
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When safety gets privatised: Soma marks a new low for the Turkish government

Despite Erdogan’s claims that the disaster was on a par with any other international mining accident in the world since 1862, Turkey’s rate of mining deaths is shocking. 

Much of the anger that has enveloped Turkey since the Soma mining disaster has been directed at the government. “Prime minister, resign!” shout the crowds of protesters marching all over the country. In Istanbul, the day after the blast, I saw a young woman with a coal-smeared face holding a placard that read: “So it seems coal isn’t free.”

Here was a cynical message that got to the heart of Turks’ anger. It referred to something deeper and more serious than the spectacularly botched PR job of the prime minister’s visit to Soma, his insensitive cataloguing of 19th-century European mining disasters, his alleged slapping of a Soma local, the use of force by riot police on mourning relatives and the absence of apologies, resignations or explanations.

“Coal isn’t free” is a darkly significant statement in today’s Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has made itself popular over its 11 years in power by declaring itself the champion of the masses and giving out bread, macaroni and coal to poor families – often in the run-up to elections.

At the same time, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has thrown itself into an accelerating programme of privatisation. While government spokesmen boast of the billions of lira generated by these sales, the party’s critics accuse it of selling assets cheaply and strategically to sole
bidders and failing to check on workers’ standards afterwards. A statement from the four main Turkish unions shortly after the blast accused the government of complicity, for even privatising “the safety supervision in the workplace”.

The Soma mine was sold off in 2005 and Soma Holding now pays royalties to the government in the form of 15 per cent of its coal production. The mine still technically belongs to the state, which guarantees it will buy all the coal it produces, giving every incentive to ramp up output while cutting costs. In 2012, the owner of Soma Holding, Alp Gürkan, reportedly boasted that he had reduced the cost of extracting coal from £77 per tonne to £14. This was achieved through measures such as making electric transformers on site rather than importing them. Miners also say that the company employed cheap technical specialists who were not union members and failed to replace outdated equipment. When asked why the mine did not have a refuge chamber, Gürkan replied that it was not required by law.

Two weeks before the blast, the AKP majority rejected the opposition’s parliamentary proposal to look into safety standards at Soma, saying that the mine was perfectly satisfactory: “God willing, nothing will happen – not even a nosebleed.” The energy minister, Taner Yildiz, visited the Soma mine nine months ago and branded it “an example for other mines in Turkey”.

Despite Erdogan’s claims that the disaster was on a par with almost any other international mining accident in the world since 1862, Turkey’s rate of mining deaths is shocking: seven lives per million tonnes of coal, compared to China’s one life per million tonnes. In terms of general workplace deaths, Turkey is the third worst in the world.

The Soma disaster has been compounded by Erdogan’s clumsy response to public anger and the AKP’s zero-tolerance approach to criticism. A Turkish lawyer, who asked not to be named, said: “What has Turkey become? It feels like living in a central Asian dictatorship. It feels like Borat.”

Alev Scott is the author of “Turkish Awakening” (Faber & Faber, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.