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Climate and Energy

Black Tradition, Green Future

By Adam Ostolski

In November 2013, we shall witness another climate conference (COP) – this time in Warsaw. It’s not hard to see the plan of Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk: it’s stopping the possibility of a global agreement that would force Poland to switch to renewable energy sources. Is there a chance that we can stop this? Yes, but only if we create a broad alliance against neoliberalism and for a just energy transition. In this endeavour, a crucial partner for ecologists could be miners.

Climate policy is the one policy area in which Donald Tusk’s right-wing government is impeccably consistent. Poland vetoed plans for a more ambitious climate policy of the European Union, is hesitant to implement the EU legislation on green energy or energy efficiency, and hampers global agreements regarding this issue. Talking climate to the Polish government is a Sisyphean task.

There is a good side to this – ecological circles seem to now understand that there is no use in trying to make the government change its mind. In effect they are starting talks with the miners. One striking example was a conference held in March 2012, called Black-Green Round Table, organised by Zielony Instytut (Green Institute) and the Trade Union of Miners in Poland (ZZG). Experts from both sides talked about Poland’s climate policy – a discussion which found some common ground.

An unlikely alliance

I believe that an alliance of miners and Greens can be something more than just a compromise somewhere “in between” our current stances. A common ground can be achieved that is not a result of moderating ones opinions, but on the contrary – in their mutual radicalisation. To make this happen, we need to remove the ways of thinking that are preventing such an alliance. This implies serious intellectual effort on both sides. Here I would like to focus on the ecological side, with which I am more familiar with. In our way of thinking, I discern three strongly rooted dogmas which need to be overcome if this alliance is to succeed.

Mining is about more than jobs

Jobs are one of the main topics of discussions related to climate policies. The opponents of EU climate policies argue that reductions in CO2 emissions would mean an end to tens of thousands of jobs in coal mining. Enthusiasts reply that this process will mean new working opportunities in the green economy: energy generation from renewables, insulating family homes etc. They also focus on the fact that Poland already imports coal, so limiting the reliance of the Polish economy on coal imports wouldn’t have any short-term effect on the levels of employment in the national mining sector. The money saved in this way could be invested in job creation.

We are all children of the coal-based civilisation, and we should not make ourselves its adversaries.

From the green point of view jobs are probably the only virtue of mining. Otherwise coal extraction means health problems, accidents at work, landscape destruction, pollution etc. But from the perspective of miners and their communities, mining gives them an identity from which they have a sense of dignity. It’s a type of work that bonds people together and makes them responsible for one another and their common safety. It’s a way of life and a coal-based civilisation.

Greens like to underline only the dark sides of this civilization, and too easily they forget about its accomplishments. Not so long ago it was coal that allowed people to rise from misery, allowed workers to organise and fight for their rights. Theirs was the struggle that gave us all voting rights, social insurance, work safety legislation and other labour regulations. We are all children of the coal-based civilisation, and we should not make ourselves its adversaries.

We have good reasons to make this type of civilisation history. There is no doubt that further reliance on coal poses a danger for our future. But painting this civilisation only in dark colours does not help us with finishing our addiction to coal. If we want to see a green shift we should have gratitude for its achievements, feel pride in them and allow people to mourn the world that is starting be a thing of the past.

The EU stance on climate change leaves a lot be desired. It represents a narrow, technocratic vision of ecology, all too often conceived as separate from social justice issues.

Renewable energy = democracy?

A promise of more democracy is one of the strongest arguments in favour of a switch to renewables. They allow energy to be generated in a decentralised fashion, uniting the role of a consumer and a producer and giving independence from big energy companies. But the vision of “energy democracy” – appealing as it is – is also risky because of its technological determinism. It’s strikingly similar to the discussions related to the internet and “network democracy” in the 1990s. Then, it was the internet that was supposed to bring genuine democracy into politics and social life almost automatically. We were also told that the internet era will, by definition, be a time of full freedom of speech. It was presumed obvious that censorship on the internet was impossible.

The reality has been much more complex. Today, we know that the internet generates both new opportunities and new dangers for us and our fellow citizens. It turned out that it can be censored after all, and even used to track us by governments and corporations on an unprecedented scale. The democratic potential of the internet is not a mere fantasy, but we have to struggle for it. The emergence of the Pirate movement was a sign that the concept of web democracy just came of age. We realised that democracy is not a child of technology; it only comes with people rising to struggle for their rights.

The same is true with renewables. The enthusiasts of energy democracy put a lot of faith in a “smart grid” that would allow a decentralised production of energy. Households and workplaces connected by such a network would be both consumers and producers of energy and would be independent from one, central energy source. This network can become both ways of empowering the independence of people and an instrument of control and spying on them by the state or energy companies. They give us just a chance – not a guarantee – of more democracy. The same comes from energy decentralisation – it doesn’t exactly equal democracy. Decentralisation can both decrease and increase the power that the state can have on our lives. It all depends on the bargaining power of people – workers, consumers, and small entrepreneurs – vis-à-vis the state and corporations.

In a coal-based economy the bargaining power of miners is large, and they may use it in the interest of labour as a whole (of course it’s not always the case). What will be the sources of bottom-up political power in the era of decentralised energy generation? What will be the aims and tasks of ecological movements, when the vision of energy democracy will be as mature as network democracy already is? We don’t have to abandon our dreams, yet it is advisable to start thinking about problems.

Beyond EU energy policies

In discussion, green-minded people have a tendency to act as advocates of EU climate policies. It’s understandable in a situation, where the Polish government, with a part of the opposition, ignores the reality of the climate crisis and the threat that it poses to Poland, and when it is so intent on ignoring how green modernisation would be a chance for the country. The problem is that from the point of view of green ideals the EU stance on climate change leaves a lot be desired. It represents a narrow, technocratic vision of ecology, all too often conceived as separate from social justice issues.

The alternative to simply supporting the EU climate policy in its current form could be a demand for its democratisation. The issues of social justice are not an add-on to ecology, but constitute an integral part. Climate policies need to include some guarantees and obligations, e.g. regarding preventing fuel poverty, investing in social development of regions transitioning from coal extraction, guarantees of workers’ and social rights, right to privacy for users of smart grids etc. The list is far from finished – new ideas may arise only along with an in-depth, open discussion. Both in ecological and social policies the Polish government will only give us what we will fight hard for. Together, we may achieve more.

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