Euro­peans rebel against mak­ing cli­mate sac­ri­fices

Waikato Times - - Opinion - Gwynne Dyer

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

This week 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.

About 1500km 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 French 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 7.9c 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 week­end, 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 rel­a­tively 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 . . . 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 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.

The ques­tion there­fore arises: can we re­ally ex­pect that the rel­a­tively large (al­though still in­ad­e­quate) cuts in emis­sions of car­bon diox­ide and other green­house gases promised in Paris at the 2015 sum­mit will ever gain the pub­lic sup­port nec­es­sary to make them hap­pen? If not, then our cur­rent global civil­i­sa­tion is doomed.

We are en­ter­ing this crit­i­cal pe­riod for deal­ing with cli­mate change – the next five years are make-or-break – just as the world’s econ­omy is un­der­go­ing a hugely dis­rup­tive trans­for­ma­tion that will leave many peo­ple per­ma­nently job­less. If you were de­sign­ing a species ca­pa­ble of mak­ing this dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion, you would cer­tainly prefer to start with one that was wiser, more co­op­er­a­tive, and less ex­citable than our­selves, the near­rel­a­tives of chim­panzees. Some­thing a lit­tle less crooked, at least. But this is the tim­ber we have to work with. Good luck.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work).


Steam and smoke rise from the Belcha­tow Power Sta­tion, the world’s largest lig­nite coal­fired power sta­tion, in Ro­gowiec, Poland. The Pol­ish Gov­ern­ment, which has been host­ing the United Nations COP 24 cli­mate con­fer­ence, has an­nounced plans to in­vest in a large new coal mine.

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