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Poland and climate change

The indifference of official Poland to climate change is rooted in its leaders' experience and reinforced by economic interest. A new generation will be needed for a stronger policy to emerge, says Krzysztof Bobinski.

The United Nations climate-change meeting at Cancún has been and gone. You wouldn’t think it if you followed the Polish media. Poland is not interested in climate change. When it does take any notice, it is to try defend its heavy industry and its mainly coal-fuelled energy-generators from the costs which a serious effort to do something would entail. The problem, as seen from Warsaw, is not global warming - but the European Union setting CO2 emission-reduction targets which, scream the newspapers, would be ruinous for Poland.

This is a pity, not least because Poland will hold the presidency of the European Union in July-December 2011 and thus coordinating EU policies - including climate change - before the next UN world summit in South Africa in November-December 2011. This is the last meeting before the Kyoto accord runs out in 2012, and something will have to put in its place. The EU needs Poland to be involved. The problem is that the country may stay semi-detached on climate.

A formative time

Climate change is a new challenge for the world. It far transcends the cold-war divisions and attitudes which still inform the outlook of the people running Poland’s post-Soviet society. You’d think that the cold war has been over for twenty years and that everyone should have got beyond it by now. Not so.

True, young Poles who are now studying at university or in their first jobs were born after 1989, and 40-year-old Poles have lived their entire adult life as free citizens in a post-cold-war world. But the people who are still making the running in Polish politics and in government had their formative experiences in the student protests of 1968 and in the dissident movement of the 1970s. Those involvements, plus the Solidarity period of 1980-81 and the underground movement which followed, formed their core political and social outlook. The benefits of all this engagement came after 1989 when they came to power in Poland. As a generation they are still there.

How do they think about their country and its role in the world? They regard Poland as still a poor country compared to western Europe or the United States; consequently, Poland needs and deserves help and in no sense should itself be asked to help others who are worse off.

In this variation of the “beaten-dog” syndrome, the fact that Poland now receives huge aid in the form of European Union regional funds is forgotten: there is still a lingering feeling that the outside world, and that includes the EU, is out to do the country down.

This makes it difficult to cope emotionally with an issue like climate change which goes far beyond any of the divisions and problems which faced the world before 1989. Climate change also forces the western world, including Poland, to come to terms with the fact that countries that once in effect could be told what to do (such as China or India) are now equal partners.

With all this in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising when Poland’s finance minister Jacek Rostowski says that Poland is too poor to be able to address climate change, and should itself be helped. Rostowski was born and raised in England, and foreign minister Radek Sikorski studied and worked as a journalist there in the 1980s. Both think that climate change is a “chattering classes” issue - an irritant which has to be dealt with only because the EU is obsessed about it. Poland’s prime minister Donald Tusk is even reported to giggle about climate change when his officials press him on the issue.

Poland’s environment ministry has a climate-change department, whose director Tomasz Chruszczow is one of five representatives on the European council who is talking to the rest of the world on behalf of the EU on climate-change issues. But the ministry is pretty low in the government’s pecking-order.

A new generation

The government does recognise that an effort has to be made to reduce CO2 emissions - but by as little as possible and at least cost to industry. There is self-interest behind this move. Poland’s power industry, still mostly state-owned, is overwhelmingly fuelled by coal. Both the power and the coal industries are very strong lobbies which together employ 300,000 people. A switch of generating capacity to gas would be a way of reducing emissions further, though Poland fears that it would then become dependent on Russian gas supplies. But in any event it is clear that the structural realities of the Polish economy - the predominance of coal in the fuel mix, and the lack of atomic energy - reinforce conservative social attitudes.

There is little prospect that Polish public opinion will force a change in the official attitude. The media see climate as a scare-story. Even when modest progressive measures are introduced - the introduction of housing-energy efficiency-certificates, the withdrawal of some types of conventional lightbulbs - there are no information campaigns from the government. It is rare for commercial companies to highlight the fact that their products are energy-efficient, and this message is almost non-existent in the real-estate market. The state-owned energy companies make no effort to stress energy efficiency, in contrast to foreign investors such as Vattenfall or RWE.

When the European Union was putting together a fresh climate package in 2008-09, Poland organised a group of post-Soviet EU member-states (which was backed by Germany) to weaken the proposals. This looks set to happen again. Poland is determined to resist the drive by Brussels to increase the CO2 emission target by 2020 from 20% to 30%, and is forging a coalition of member-states to this end.

Climate-change campaigners, and they do exist in Poland, argue that for the country to be involved properly in addressing climate issues it needs to alter the way it looks at itself and the outside world. But that may need a younger generation to come to power, and for these younger people to be free of the complexes and attitudes of their elders.

About the author

Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Warsaw correspondent of the Financial Times (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine. He served as co-chair of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum in 2013

Read On

Government of Poland, ministry of environment

International Centre for Climate Governance

Neal Ascherson, The Struggles for Poland

Real Climate

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

Krytyka Polityczna

Conference of the Parties (COP 16), Cancún: 29 November-10 December 2010

Jerzy Lukowski & Hubert Zawadzki, A Concise History of Poland (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Polish Cultural Institute, London

Nicholas Stern,  A Blueprint for a Safer Planet: How to Manage Climate Change and Create a New Era of Progress and Prosperity (Random House, 2009)

Gazeta Wyborcza

Poland.pl - news from Poland

Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

More On

Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Warsaw correspondent of the Financial Times (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski in openDemocracy:

"The Polish summer, 1989: a farewell salute" (2 June 2009)

 


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