On ecology without ecologists

Michał Olszewski sees the Polish hosts of the upcoming COP24 as afraid of open debate: new legislation gives the police broad powers, including surveillance of attendees.

image of lettering on top of a building reading katowice, seen from below in the dark

COP24 will take place under the shadow of a scandal, as Poland surveils its attendees (Photo by EwkaC, edited, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Will the approaching climate summit in Katowice be ground-breaking? That is what the officially expressed hopes of the main climate players seem to suggest, as they declare that in the December meeting they will hammer out the details for the Paris Agreement’s Implementation Package, the key agreement to combat global warming.

This is not the place to be sowing the seeds of defeatism so long before the first speeches have even been made, but in the interests of honesty it must be remarked that politicians have spoken about each climate summit of recent years with the same optimism. Sadly, this has usually ended with righteous declarations, while binding decisions are put off to some indeterminate future (for which, read “the next climate summit”).

I want to be clear here: I know what delicate and complex matters the politicians who negotiate climate agreements have to deal with: the particular interests of individual countries are utterly divergent on such issues. It is easy to agree on generalities, but the problems start in working out the details when it transpires that the interests of China or India are at odds with those of Sweden or Canada. This does not change the fact that climate negotiations in recent years have principally been exercises in the art of deferment. But time is running out.

Poland will host the COP for the third time (climate diplomats have previously met in Poznań and in Warsaw), but this time the meeting will take place in a symbolic location. Katowice is the coal capital of Poland, the capital of the province of Upper Silesia, which is slowly changing its image. The landscape of pit heaps, chimneys and mine shafts is undergoing a slow transformation – Silesia is becoming an ever-greener and more resident-friendly place.

But it is also a place that shows, as if through a lens, the problems of Poland’s coal economy – even the recently improved prices for coal will not change Poland’s coal companies’ difficult situation as they manage frequently inefficient mines with over-employment and high extraction costs.

But something else is more important: in recent years Polish delegations have specialised in delaying the negotiation process. That standpoint seems to be somewhat pragmatic, since the longer the decarbonisation process lasts, the milder social changes will be in places like Upper Silesia. Polish mining is slowly disappearing, shrinking and melting away, but politicians fear that excessively brusque actions will cause a union spill-over onto the streets with rocks being used in place of arguments.

As regards the tasks for Michał Kurtyka, secretary of state at the Ministry of Energy and representative for the COP presidency, considering the work of Polish diplomats in recent years, it is clear that he must effect a tortuous evolution: on the one hand Poland has long indicated that its energy raison d’État is coal and that it is in no condition to bear any further burdens, while on the other it is declaring that it will help in building a global agreement.

Polish politicians are also very happy to emphasise that Poland has made huge leaps since 1988, while at the same time reducing emissions by thirty percent and doubling GDP. They are convinced that in terms of climate protection, Poland has already done its share. This is a fundamentally flawed and destructive conviction – measuring the fight with global warming in terms of actions undertaken in the last few decades would show that the Germans, Danes or Swedes need not attend climate summits, because they have put their economies on a decidedly green track in recent years. Michał Kurtyna, a respected official in Berlin and Brussels, has a very tough task ahead of him.

Ahead of the Katowice conference, the number of question marks is great, but there is also one certainty: the Polish government is afraid of ecologists and open debate. COP24 will take place under the shadow of a scandal. Under the guise of the fight against terrorism the government has forced through legislation giving the special services very broad powers, including the monitoring of all registered participants. This gives the police very broad powers, including surveillance of people’s private lives.

And it does not end there: although the summit lasts from the 3rd to the 14th of December, there is a ban on unannounced gatherings across the whole of Katowice from the 26th of November until the 16th of December. This is an unambiguous and excessive blow to events accompanying the climate summit, which attracts ecologists from all over the world.

The law has already been criticised by UN experts, who accuse its authors of a human rights violation and impeding non-governmental organisations’ right to act. As the website oko.press reports, the law is referred to at the Ministry of the Environment as “Anti-Greenpeace”, which clearly describes its character and aim: the Polish government would like to discuss without the presence of those organisations that put things clearly and don’t defer them.

This may of course mean that the meeting will go ahead in a pleasant atmosphere of mutual understanding. But that isn’t what climate summits seem to be about.


Michał Olszewski (born 1977) – journalist, reporter, writer. For more than twelve years he worked for Gazeta Wyborcza and Tygodnik Powszechny, where he concentrated mostly on environmental issues. He is engaged in a Krakow-based campaign against air pollution.

1 Comment

  1. I’m sure Greenpeace are planning a riposte. They took on Russia and France and got away with it. I’m not a huge fan – the Leninist structure is profoundly undemocratic – but it’s what you need for planning risky stunts in complete secrecy.

    The post suggests that the great innovation of the Paris Agreement has not sunk in: ama et fac quod vis, to quote St. Augustine. The Agreement ditched the impossible search for binding global deals on emissions, and its only binding elements are the stabilisation goal and the peer-review procedure. The political function of the global gatherings is entirely to put pressure on national governments to act according to their rhetoric and promises.

    The pressure comes both from expert peers – we did this, so can you – and from civil society. A fiasco for the Polish government (nothing much agreed on paper and lots of TV footage of protesters being dragged away by riot cops) will not be a disaster but the process working as intended. Other countries will draw the lesson that trying to hold back the tide is embarrassing and costly. Tht’s the lesson that King Canute was teaching his courtiers in the famous legend – he’s the hero not the patsy.

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