France, Poland and oth­ers in firm de­nial about cli­mate change

The Welland Tribune - - Opinion - GWYNNE DYER Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work)’.

“Out of the crooked tim­ber of hu­man­ity, no straight thing was ever made,” wrote Im­manuel Kant in 1784. It is still true.

On Sun­day the 24th ‘Con­fer­ence of the Par­ties’ — the 180 coun­tries that signed the cli­mate change treaty in Paris in 2015 — opened in the Pol­ish city of Ka­tow­ice. The Pol­ish gov­ern­ment chose the venue, and it pre­sum­ably se­lected Ka­tow­ice be­cause it is home to Europe’s big­gest coal com­pany. It was a thinly dis­guised show of de­fi­ance.

It’s not just Don­ald Trump who loves coal. It’s by far the worst of the fos­sil fu­els in terms of green­house gas emis­sions, but Poland gets 75 per cent of its elec­tric­ity by burn­ing coal and it has no in­ten­tion of chang­ing its ways. In fact, shortly be­fore COP24 opened in Ka­tow­ice, the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment an­nounced that it is plan­ning to in­vest in a large new coal-mine in the re­gion of Sile­sia.

1,500 km to the west on the same day, in Paris, mu­nic­i­pal work­ers were pick­ing up the de­bris af­ter the third and most violent week­end of protests against Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron. The demos are not as big as those of the great re­volt of 1968, but they are cer­tainly the big­gest for decades even in this cra­dle of rev­o­lu­tions.

And what were the pro­test­ers (known as the ‘gilets jaunes’ af­ter the flu­o­res­cent yel­low vests that French drivers must keep in their ve­hi­cles) protest­ing about? In Paris and in other cities, they were build­ing bar­ri­cades, torch­ing cars, and set­ting banks and houses on fire be­cause Macron’s gov­ern­ment has raised the tax on diesel fuel by 6.5 cents per litre.

This was on top of an in­crease of 7.9 cents per litre ear­lier this year, and most French ve­hi­cles run on diesel, but the pub­lic’s re­ac­tion does look a bit ex­ces­sive. The fact that Macron jus­ti­fied it as a ‘green’ tax in­tended to re­duce fuel use only seemed to make the pro­test­ers an­grier, and at least un­til the ex­treme vi­o­lence of last Satur­day the ma­jor­ity of French peo­ple sup­ported them.

Poles cling­ing to coal de­spite the fact that the fog of coal smoke that en­velops Pol­ish cities in win­ter kills thou­sands ev­ery year, and or­di­nary peo­ple in France ri­ot­ing for the right to go on burn­ing cheap diesel in their cars de­spite a com­pa­ra­ble death toll from at­mo­spheric pol­lu­tion there, sug­gest that the quest to cut green­house gas emis­sions be­fore global warm­ing goes run­away faces even greater re­sis­tance than the ex­perts feared.

Bear in mind that Poland and France are well-ed­u­cated coun­tries that be­long to the Euro­pean Union, the re­gion that has led the world in terms of its com­mit­ment to emis­sion cuts. Nei­ther coun­try has the kind of cli­mate-change de­nial in­dus­try, lav­ishly funded by fos­sil-fuel pro­duc­ers, that mud­dies the wa­ters and spreads doubt about the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence in the United States. Nei­ther the Poles nor the French are in de­nial. And yet ...

Now, it’s true that Poles have a large col­lec­tive chip on their shoul­der for his­tor­i­cal rea­sons (their en­tire coun­try was erased from the map for more than a cen­tury), so they of­ten re­spond badly to be­ing lec­tured by well-mean­ing for­eign­ers. It’s also true that Pres­i­dent Macron is ar­ro­gant and has a tin ear for pub­lic opin­ion. But nei­ther na­tion­al­ist re­sent­ment nor clumsy po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship are in short sup­ply world­wide.

Bear in mind also that the emis­sion cuts promised in the 2015 agree­ment will not ac­tu­ally come into ef­fect un­til 2020: we have a moun­tain to climb and we are not even in the foothills yet. Much big­ger sac­ri­fices than a few cents ex­tra on the price of diesel or an end to burn­ing coal will be re­quired be­fore we reach the end of this process, if we ever do.

If you were de­sign­ing a species ca­pa­ble of mak­ing this dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion, you would cer­tainly prefer to start with one that was wiser, more co-oper­a­tive, and less ex­citable than our­selves, the near rel­a­tives of chim­panzees. Some­thing a lit­tle less crooked, at least. But this is the tim­ber we have to work with. Good luck.

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