Until COP 19 started, everything looked quite promising. Intense preparations for heated debates, new and interesting publications on politics of climate change, even some social mobilisation could be felt in the air. Quite surprisingly for myself even the Lutheran church, to which I went, greeted international delegates from the Climate Summit with a sermon on God’s creation, presented by a protestant bishop from Norway. A chance to (finally!) discuss and question the stance of the Polish centre-right government on climate and energy issues on a broader scale seemed possible.
Well, think again.
Climate on the sidelines
Two issues contributed to the fact that COP 19 is now almost off the radar of the Polish media. The first is connected to a strange consensus amongst the political and journalist elites on the fact that ”There Is No Alternative” to coal power in Poland and that we should indulge ourselves in the everlasting love for the “Polish black gold” – even if it’s not matched with the love for the Polish miners. Those that dare to question this affection are being portrayed in a manner similar to the way the Law and Justice Party of Jarosław Kaczyński treated the protestors against the road through the environmentally precious Rospuda Valley. We hear that they/we represent foreign interests and are ideologically driven lunatics that want to kill jobs.
When such an argument is being put forward – even in circles seemingly open to discussion – the debate is finished. You can talk about green jobs potential in Poland and be told that you want to put people back in caves. You can state that neither shale gas, and definitely not nuclear, will in any way create jobs and enhance the quality of life in the countryside, and be informed that renewables drive energy prices up in Germany and are a “radically ecologist” idea. You can argue that Poland has much to learn from Germany regarding energy efficiency and hear that it’s not a relevant issue when comparing Polish and German energy policies. The list goes on and on.
It would be easier to answer to such opinion if they were limited , for example, to some right-wing, libertarian think-tanks – but it gets tougher, even people from left-wing or progressive circles not only embrace a nuclear or shale gas-powered future, but even question climate science altogether.
Just recently I bought one left-wing newspaper (let us spare the details which one) in which – on the business pages of course – I read through quite an odd article. The author argued, that for the last 15 years there has been no global warming, islands in the Pacific Ocean haven’t been flooded yet, so it shows that the work of IPCC is flawed, and even if there were to be a rise in global temperature, then it won’t be a problem. We can build dams like in the Netherlands, and last time there was a global warming, the glaciers melted and the human civilisation came into existence – that is why we may look forward to a brighter future for mankind!
Now please do keep calm. Breathe in. Breathe out.
This odd climate – looking a bit like Poland agreed on a climate-sceptical consensus, in which green energy and reducing greenhouse emissions is some sort of a plot by advanced economies against the development of the country – is felt in the air. When last Thursday I attended a side event on the positive examples of energy transition, I had to pass the stands of one of the Polish energy companies. “Area of Coal” and “Area of Nuclear Energy” were prominent parts of this stand. A friend of mine got gadgets from another “climate friendly” business, supporting COP19 – an oil refinery.
At conferences about climate change and green energy policies you can be sure of one thing – that the representatives of the Polish government (if they will show up, as it is not always obvious) will sound strikingly different from the rest of the panelists. Last month, during a conference on climate science the representative of the Ministry of Environment told the audience, that the Polish government assumes that the costs of the destruction, generated by climate change and weather anomalies and the renewal of destroyed infrastructure could be as high as over 80 billion PLN (~19,5 billion euro) by 2020 – but couldn’t present any coherent strategy on climate mitigation.
Last Thursday, we heard from the representative of the Ministry of the Economy, that Poland needs a “bottom-up” approach on emissions reductions and a “top-down” reduction target would be counter-productive to the economy and result in carbon leakage. From the looks on the faces of people gathered at the conference I’ve noted that I wasn’t the only person surprised to hear such statements, that looked really bad contrasted with the presentation of the German Ministry of the Environment, promising a 80 to 95% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050.
Of course the policy of the Polish government is in no way a fault of these officials – it’s Donald Tusk that declares coal a “national treasure” and it’s the government that creates a half-hearted proposal for a new law on renewable energy, with the aim to meet the minimal requirements of the UN climate and energy policy and not a transition to a green, decentralised energy future. Such an approach has been criticised both by ecological NGOs and by Agnieszka Grzybek, the female co-leader of the Polish Green Party, during the “Citizens’ energy for a good climate: a participatory debate about Poland and its future” conference.
A problem that needs to be solved
It’s hard to confront such backward-looking government policy, which of course influences similar climate policies, when there is little space for discussion. The first day of the conference coincided with the celebrations of the Polish Independence Day, which took a rather unhappy turn when the hooligans from the nationalist Independence March decided to attack two squats, burned a rainbow installation because of it being perceived as a part of a “homosexual propaganda” and a police booth at the Russian embassy. These disturbing events mark tensions in Polish society that have largely gone hidden and under the radar, especially the blocked aspirations of youth in smaller towns, and signal a crisis of democracy and legitimacy in the Polish political and media elites.
Even when these alarming events had passed, the COP conference didn’t gain bigger attention. The reason was simple – a political soap opera under the title of “Governmental Reconstruction”. To cut a long story short, the media for months speculated that there would be a change of ministers in Donald Tusk’s cabinet, which ones will be dismissed and who will be their successors (ed. On Nov 20th, before the conference had closed, Tusk announced a cabinet reshuffle which included the sacking of the Minister for the Environment). Policy changes were almost completely irrelevant to this post political discussion on power and politics.
In such a political climate it’s becoming increasingly harder to show political alternatives and different answers to the challenges of our times. When even the essentials of climate policy – such as the impact mankind has on global warming – are not agreed between the main political and social actors (and I would argue that climate denialism in mainstream discourse in Poland is almost as widespread as in the USA or UK), it is difficult to go further towards the green and just transition and broaden the discussion, ie. between ecologists and trade unionists. The climate of negligence around climate change gives the Polish government the space for idleness.
Resource conflicts? Drinking water shortages? Extreme weather? Possible expansion of tropical diseases? Rising water levels? What the hell! As a Polish modernist author, Stanisław Wyspiański, wrote in his play “The Wedding” in 1901 “Let there be a war the world over, if only the Polish countryside was peaceful, if only the Polish countryside was quiet”. I do hope that the Polish government will realise before it’s too late that in fact no countryside will be left behind untouched by climate change.