top of page

COP 24: Poland's Cultures of Coal

By Karl Dudman (@dudman_karl)

‘Karliku, Karliku, co tam niesiesz w koszyku…?’

So began song number two in a special performance by folk ensemble ‘Śląsk’. In a bid to delight and entertain the world’s delegates at the start of the 24th annual Conference of the Parties (COP24), the Polish Presidency had laid on an evening of cultural fare, featuring the many sounds and sausages native to this part of the country. Decked out in flouncy shirts and technicolour pinnies like a shelf of folk art dolls, the choir grinned their way through the classics of their eponymous region (‘Silesia’ in English), while vegetarians from every continent poked sadly at their plates of cabbage.

‘…mam gołąbków po parze (hej, po parze!)
chodźcie to wam pokażę (hej, hej, pokażę!)’

I squirmed with recognition and nostalgic excitement. It was a song my mother used to sing to me as a child, about a boy of my name and his empty basket. In a later verse, little Karlik finds a pyrlik (a mining hammer and symbol of the region) with which he strikes the wall and fills his basket with coal. When I fondly recounted this to colleagues, they were amazed by the brazenness of this cutesy celebration of fossil fuels at a global climate change conference. It was just one of many seemingly tone-deaf choices made by the host nation. In the conference centre, what countless disbelieving tweeters condemned as a ‘shrine to coal’ promoted alternative uses for the ungodly rock, from soap to jewellery. The number of coal companies featured among COP’s sponsors drew ire from across the globe, and perhaps most confounding, the choice to host the conference itself in the industry town of Katowice, a European capital of coal production (Poland produces approximately 40% of Europe’s coal). Many delegations travelled thousands of miles for a chance to save their countries from climate disaster. Commuting to Katowice each day from neighbouring coal towns, on trains that weaved between proud chimneys, must have felt like a slap in the face.

My own 90-minute shuffle from coal-town accommodation to the conference centre and back provoked more ambivalent feelings. I awaited the same 06.33 bus every morning, and saw the same characters stand in the same places each time, choosing the same seats when the bus’s unblinking headlights eventually broke the frozen darkness. A young man, my age, sat opposite me every day in an orange coat. Could this be Karlik, my Polish counterpart, still filling his basket routinely after twenty years? He certainly didn’t look like the villainous architect of a warmer world.

Indeed, I found the contrast between the focused intensity of the windowless negotiations - with their political posturing and righteous indignation - and the quiet continuity of mundane life outside it quite affecting. Were these ordinary people really the subjects of our anger? In a history redolent of America’s ill-fated company towns, communities in the Śląsk region burgeoned in the 19th and 20th centuries with the discovery and development of rich coal reserves. That coal was - and has continued to be - the reason these towns exist. Little wonder that their inhabitants have developed a cultural vocabulary around the stuff. In a national survey, miners garnered more public respect than doctors and teachers, because miners represent energy security, and energy security represents independence. For a nation that has spent much of its history fighting for the right to exist, that is no insignificant desire. I am only half-Polish, can stutter a mere handful of esoteric words in the language, and have no association with the mines of Upper Silesia - but even for me, the crumbly black rock has found some personal significance in the form of a children’s song. For the people who built their lives and histories on it, whose flags bear the hammer of industry, and whose hometowns are pitched like tents by smoking towers, coal is nothing short of their identity.

Inside the conference centre, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) spoke without ambiguity: we have 12 years to decarbonise global society before a whole catalogue of ‘tipping points’ sends us nosediving into climate chaos. The 80% or so of the Polish energy mix currently serviced by coal would therefore have to go. This is not, however, just a technical question, a case of moving some numbers around, but also a moral one. Putting a plug in the Silesian Coal Basin would disallow Poles their primary source of economic development (a cost never imposed on the western powers who bear the greatest responsibility for climate change). But more than that, it means telling people that their cultural attachments and identities are, in essence, wrong.

"...[I]t means telling people that their cultural attachments and identities are, in essence, wrong"

I understood this moral conundrum better with every commute. It lent some sudden context to the diorama of smoke stacks and abandoned factories. As my train passed distant chimneys blooming giant flames over fields of hoar frost, I began to wonder: was this setting a deliberate piece of political theatre from our Polish hosts? The story of Androcles came to mind, in which the escaped slave is approached by a lion, roaring furiously, not with a view to tearing his head off, but to proffer an injured paw, in search of help. By bringing the world to the coal basin of Śląsk, could the Polish presidency have been telling them, "this is what we have. What can we do with it?"

Probably not. With announcements of cuts to onshore wind subsidies and regular odes in celebration of ‘black gold’, Poland’s far-right populist government has done little to prove its commitment to ending coal. Speaking to miners in the nearby town of Brzeszce during the second day of the COP, the Polish President Andrzej Duda set the bar for ambition relatively low by reassuring them that he would not allow anyone to ‘murder Polish mining’. Nevertheless, it is this moral tension that has provoked a significant debate within environmentalist circles regarding how to effect system-wide change without punishing the working class communities whose livelihoods depend on the fossil fuels industry - how to produce what has been dubbed a ‘just transition’.

The just transition discussion was a prominent backdrop at COP24, with the Polish presidency even proposing a ‘Solidarity and Just Transition Declaration’, in which the world’s nations were called on to safeguard workers’ rights during the transition to a greener economy. A series of special Polish-hosted side events explored and promoted the notion further, offering a wealth of international case studies and strategies, as well as ‘just transition’ branded mugs and tote bags to take it all home in. Polish representatives spoke of ‘a second Solidarity’ in a deliberate reference to the Solidarność movement of the 1980s, in which Polish workers’ unions banded together to take on the communist government over unfair wages and political censorship. The invocation of class struggle here was more than just a rhetorical maneuver. It was a call to recognise the very real social justice considerations at the heart of the just transition. I thought of Britain’s own decidedly unjust transition from coal - in which sweeping mine closures from the 1960s onwards left countless working class families reeling - and understood. Discussions on climate justice typically foreground the inherent vulnerability of indigenous peoples, women and developing nations to the impacts of climate change. With its emphasis on economic and social equality, the ‘just transition’ narrative makes a case for extending that justice to the foot soldiers of the fossil fuels industry - a more nuanced, but clearly less comfortable addition to our definition of climate vulnerability. Climate change policy is a complex and deeply political exercise. It entails dictating where compromises must take place, and who suffers as a result. Coal is on the blacklist, and this cannot be helped, but policymakers must at the very least consider the social repercussions of those political choices.

The debate over what constitutes a just transition is just one of many thorny questions that emerge upon entering a more nuanced view of environmentalism. One step towards progress seems forever to be followed by new dilemmas and choices. (To take another example: veganism is undoubtedly the low carbon diet choice, but one soon runs into new ethical puzzles when looking for alternative sources of sustenance: how far have these pomegranates travelled? How much Californian water went into growing these almonds? Is western demand for these avocados taking food off Mexican plates?) Designing solutions that avoid (or at least minimize) those trade-offs takes time and careful consideration, which can be frustrating because we need climate action now. Nevertheless, in the Polish case as elsewhere, it is certainly worth doing. And not just for the sake of social justice: paying heed to the social costs of an energy transition can actually help catalyse greater public engagement, by constructing new associations around the costs and rewards of climate action - from something that ruins livelihoods to something that creates new ones.

In many respects, COP24 ended without the lustre of ambition. It seems likely that the Polish ‘Solidarity and Just Transition Declaration’ was less a self-appointment as champions of climate justice than a clever, climate-y way of saying ‘we’re probably not going to do anything’. Nevertheless, the prominence of the ‘just transition’ narrative, for the delegates and attendees who hadn’t heard of it, introduced a new vocabulary for negotiating a very real concern. While it is perhaps too much to hope that Karlik will be filling his basket with solar panels in fifty years’ time, we can hope that the international climate community at COP24, with lungs full of Katowice’s acrid air, might just go home whistling his tune, and working towards a future that is not only sustainable, but fair.


Art by Jess Baker

Karl Dudman (@dudman_karl) is a recent graduate of the MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance programme at the University of Oxford. Karl has worked for the climate change communication charity Climate Outreach, and as a youth delegate for the Seychelles Climate Change Ministry. A freelance writer, researcher and photographer, Karl has a particular interest in cultural relationships with climate change and the environment. In an upcoming exhibition of his photographs in London, he explores the many representations of New Mexico's desert landscape over centuries of habitation. Aside from his academic interests, Karl is passionate about natural history, ethnomusicology and indoor gardening.


This article appears in the print edition of Anthroposphere Issue III.

If you like what you've just read, please support Anthroposphere by buying one of our beautifully designed physical copies here. All proceeds go towards printing, designing and maintaining our publication, and your contributions will help keep our climate journalism interdisciplinary and accessible for all.


bottom of page