The steelworks at Port Talbot. Photo: Getty Images
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The government and Tata Steel are sleepwalking into the first steel strike in decades

The emphatic ballot in favour of industrial action at Tata Steel must serve as a wake-up call.

The Port Talbot steel works in my constituency is owned by Tata Steel, a Mumbai-based company that employs almost 17,000 steel workers across the length and breadth of the UK. There are 4,000 steel workers in Port Talbot, and more than twice that number of jobs in my constituency depend on the steel works through its supply chains. The Port Talbot steel works has been the beating heart of our community for generations, and its output is of critical importance to the local, Welsh and British economies.

On Saturday 9 May a thousand steel workers from the Tata works in Port Talbot gathered in the Princess Royal theatre in central Port Talbot. The auditorium was packed to the rafters, and I was proud to have the opportunity to address the rally from be on the platform, alongside Aberavon Welsh Assembly Member David Rees and trade union representatives of the workforce. There was just one item on our agenda: Tata Steel’s proposal to close the British Steel Pension Scheme. Following the rally I joined the workforce and their families on a march through the centre of town. It was a strong show of unity from a community whose fortunes are intimately bound up with those of the steelworks.

This display of strength sent a clear and defiant message to the leadership at Tata Steel: hands off our pensions. Unfortunately that message was not heeded, and so the trade unions were left with no choice but to ballot their members.

On Friday the ballot papers were counted, and the result could not have been more emphatic: in total 88 per cent have voted in favour of strike action nationally, and that number went up to 96 per cent in Port Talbot itself. National turn-out was 76 per cent, and in Port Talbot that number went up to 84 per cent.

The workforce is not planning to strike over pay or conditions, but over the withdrawal of a pension deal that the older workers have been promised for decades.

If the resounding vote in favour of industrial action is a first in the steel industry since the 1980s, it should come as no surprise that the move was so popular. The proposal to raise the pensionable age for Tata employees from 60 to 65 shows a lack of understanding of the reality of what it takes to produce steel. The fact is that the tough physical labour involved in steel working makes it incompatible with advancing age.

Tata Steel employees, working long shifts in challenging conditions for decades, have always been able to look forward to the prospect of retirement at 60, should they wish to take it. Those workers rightly feel let down by Tata Steel’s proposal to close the pension scheme that has formed the basis of their retirement plans since they joined the company.

The typical steel worker works a 12 hour day, often in precarious settings whether at the top of a crane or in extreme heat. Caster operators have to wear heat proof jackets, gloves and face shields for the entirety of their shifts in case they come into contact with the high temperatures or asbestos which was used as a heat proofer in the original construction of the works.  They operate around dangerous chemicals; instances of lung cancer are higher among steel workers than in the general population. The mental strain of much of the work is just as serious as the physical strain; industrial accidents are often the result of momentary lapses in concentration and can mean death. This is high-risk work, which deserves certain pension guarantees. Allowing these workers to choose to retire at 60 is not only reasonable, it’s necessary if Tata are to avoid injuries and potential deaths among the workforce. I will open myself up to accusations of ageism here and say that there is an age at which is too old to safely work in certain positions at a steel plant.

The Port Talbot steel works is one of the largest in Europe, and is central to the UK’s manufacturing sector. It is therefore vital to our national economy that this conflict is resolved, but unfortunately there is a real risk that Tata Steel will continue to sleep-walk into the first steel strike since the 1980s. My fervent hope now is that this thumping vote in favour of industrial action will act as a wake-up call that will bring Tata Steel management back to the negotiating table in good faith.

The Tata Steel workforce has demonstrated its readiness to compromise, including a cap on future earnings growth in exchange for keeping the early retirement clause. This represented a real sacrifice on the part of the younger workers who have already been barred from the pension scheme that includes the early retirement clause.  But it was a sacrifice that I know the younger workers in Port Talbot were happy to make, in solidarity with their older colleagues.

Steel underpins a vast range of other industries, and as such it is truly a Foundation Industry. Just look around you: from power generation and transmission to rail, shipbuilding, construction, white goods, automotive, consumer products, all depend on steel. It is no exaggeration to say that the quality of our national infrastructure and economic growth goes hand-in-hand with the future of the steel industry.

Our steel industry is also crucial to our prestige as a nation; without a steel industry would we even qualify as a leading industrial nation? What would the loss of this strategic industry mean to our membership of the G8?

I therefore urge the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to act now. The PM should be encouraging the leadership of the Tata Group in Mumbai to engage more actively with this crisis, and the Secretary of State should be exhorting their colleagues in Tata Steel Europe to return to the negotiating table. There is still time to pull this conflict back from the brink.

Sustainable industrial strength in the 21st century requires us to have a motivated, healthy, confident and productive workforce. The Port Talbot steel works is a beacon of high quality manufacturing. It is British industry at its best.

Let’s resolve this conflict and get back to business.

GETTY
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The view from Google Earth is magnificent - but there's a problem

Google Earth is spectacular - but it can give a misleading impression of the planet and the threats we face from climate change. 

 

Google Earth wants you to “get lost” in its updated interactive map. Collaborations with new media partners mean you can now climb Mount Everest, swim with sharks or visit Afghanistan with Zari the purple muppet. No, really:


Source: Google Earth

Yet as Trump slashes support for the science behind satellite imaging, is Google’s emphasis on spectacle leading us down the wrong path?

Google Earth's new look all starts well enough. Opening the new site on your browser takes you to an image of a blue earth floating through the blackness of space. Back in the 1970s, similar images taken from the Apollo space missions helped kickstart the modern environmental movement. As the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle put it: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”


Source: GETTY and Google Earth

And it gets better. Enter a destination in the search bar and you are greeted with the option to link directly out to the Wikipedia page: nerds of the world, rejoice! 

A guided tour from NASAearth is also on hand for anyone whose nerdery is in need of a prompt: “Geostationary satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Greenhouse gases and global warming. Glaciers... going, going, gone,” says the Bob Dylan-esque entry on its "ABCs from Space".

You can then choose to orbit your landmark of choice in 3D. And let’s face it - who doesn’t want to glide around the top of Mont Blanc, pretending to be an eagle? It’s almost as good as the BBC’s actual eagle-cam

But then it hits you. This is no soaring eagle, buffeted by wind currents and having to constantly adjust its flightpath in the face of real-world obstacles. This is a world surveyed at a safe and sanitising distance. Tourism for the Trump age – focused on providing “a consumption experience”. Certainly it is the opposite of “getting lost”.

In fact if anything has been lost or downplayed, it is the principles of scientific enquiry. The program is littered with human choices. Local versions of Google Maps, for instance, have shown different national borders depending on where in the world you log in. And while new, open-data imagery from America's Landsat 8 program is helping bring many regions up to date, other high-resolution imagery comes from commercial providers, such as Digital Globe. And as this Google 'help' page implies, there are issues of time-lag to face. 

You can’t even be sure what you’re looking at still exists. In 2015, Bolivia’s second largest lake vanished - a combination of climate change, El Nino, and irrigation withdrawal caused 2,700 square kilometres of water to evaporate into a dry salt pan. (It has not recovered, and seems unlikely to do so.) Yet on the new version of Google Earth the lake is still a healthy green:


Source: GoogleEarth

The much lauded film clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth II are similarly short on context. As I've argued before, David Attenborough's latest TV series did little to explain the stories behind the spectacle – there was no mention, for instance, of the arctic anthrax outbreak which caused thousands of reindeer to be culled, nor the role of climate change in worsening locust swarms. 

Finally, the new update actually shows you less of the world than it did before. Gone is the “Historical Imagery” tool that allowed you to see how a place had changed through time. Now, the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria is only visible as a bombed-out ruin. A surreal street-view reveals two women cheerily taking a selfie – with debris all around and their legs spliced out of shot:


Source: GoogleEarth

So why do these omissions matter? Because they take users further away from the evidence-based approach of earth science. It turns out that satellite images on their own are of limited use when it comes to quantifying change. Instead researchers must turn the raw pixels into numbers, which can then variously represent everything from forests to cities, glaciers and farms.

As Dr France Gerard at the UK’s Centre for Hydrology and Ecology explains, this process enables us to live in a better managed environment – be that by measuring air pollution or the impact of fertiliser on soil. The centre's landcover map, for instance, has been mapping British land use since 1990. Similar methods allow Sam Lavender’s company to provide Ugandans with a Drought and Flood Mitigation service, as part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme.

Sadly, the need for public engagement has never been more urgent. Brexit and austerity have cast doubt over important projects in the UK. While in Donald Trump’s America, funds for earth monitoring are set to be slashed. Two missions already under the knife are PACE, a spacecraft set to track global ocean health, and CLARREO, which would have produced highly accurate climate records. Trump has also called for the earth-viewing instruments on the DSCOVR satellite to be turned off. Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama, describes this decision as “baffling”.

So what can be done to reverse this trend? Experts I spoke to believe that collaboration is key. With government programs being squeezed, the earth monitoring industry may come to rely increasingly on the trend towards smaller, commercial satellites. These are great for increasing the quantity of data available but their accuracy needs to be constantly checked against the data from the larger and more reliable state-launched equipment.

There’s also still more data out there to share. As Bronwyn Agrios from Astro Digital points out, many countries have been gathering region-specific data – which could, in future, be made open source. “The neat thing about space is that there’s no border,” she concludes.

To help this process, Google Earth could do far more to raise public awareness of the science behind its special effects. Yet at least in one way it is already on the right path: its own new range of collaborations is impressively large. As well as the BBC, you can take interactive tours with The Ocean Agency, the Wildscreen Arkive, and the Jane Goodall Institute – all of whom put conservation up front. The Goodall journey to Tanzania’s Gombe National Park even describes the use of satellite imagery to measure conservation success.

 

More links with other citizen science projects around the world could turn the program into something truly ground-breaking. If it can incorporate these, then desktop-tourism may yet save the planet from Trump. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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