Katowice, Poland

At the opening ceremony of the 24th UN Climate Conference, President Andrzej Duda of Poland presented a draft proposal of a text to be adopted by the conference: “The Silesia Declaration on Solidarity and Just Transition.” “We are referring…to the heritage of Solidarity,” said Duda, recalling the revolutionary workers’ movement that fought against Poland’s communist regime in the 1980s, because it shows that “Poland and Poles understand perfectly well what great social change means.”

Well-intentioned though it may seem, Duda’s speech was a thinly veiled threat—a warning signal to the 30,000 delegates, activists, observers, and journalists watching on simulcasts all over the conference center: Don’t get too ambitious. Poles understand what great social change means—and, by implication, they understand the backlash it can incur. A looped video in the main entrance hall, which depicts a “just transition” as a train riding smoothly toward a station marked “renewable energy,” makes this explicit. “A badly managed transition could mean widespread and unplanned job losses,” says the narrator. The film cuts to an image of grim, scowling, coal-smeared miners: “Social unrest could derail the train.”

That message—a warning against the radical change that scientists now say we desperately need—has set the tone for the climate conference, known as COP24. At a moment when the world needs to accelerate its response to climate change, Poland has roped conference attendees into a debate over whether to apply the brakes. To pull this off, the host nation has relied a triad of symbols: Katowice, a city that runs on coal; coal miners, ready to revolt if negotiators take away their jobs; and, of course, coal itself.

It is a bait-and-switch strategy, and for the moment it seems to have worked. Outside the closed negotiating rooms, people appear less interested in the conference’s task—drafting the important but unsexy “rule book” for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement—than in its symbols. A conference on climate change has become a conference on coal.

Coal remains integral the identity of the region. (Meghan M. Shea)

Coal is everywhere in Katowice. This is the capital city of Silesia, which is the largest coal-producing region in Poland, which is the largest coal-producing country in Europe. Though only two of Katowice’s 14 coal mines are still in operation, the city remains notorious for its smog and its smell. And indeed: In an alleyway just blocks from the conference center, the unmistakable scent of burning coal wafts from apartments. Also blocks away stands the Silesian Museum, a former coal mine. The defunct headframe looms over the conference center, a spaceship-like behemoth called Spodek, which is itself built on yet another mine. When Duda opened the conference, he did so in a hall with ribbed, irregularly angled, anthracite-colored walls. The space was designed to recall a mineshaft.

For the 30,000 delegates, observers, activists, and reporters scurrying to and fro inside the Spodek, such fraught symbolism has proved impossible to ignore. (The press has already spent weeks reveling in the irony: “A Climate Summit in the Heart of Coal Country,” or some variation thereof, became the go-to pre-conference headline.) The president of COP24, Michal Kurtyka (who is also Poland’s state secretary of the ministry of energy), acknowledged the tension in his opening remarks: “I suppose that still many of you wonder,” he began, with a knowing smile, “Why this location?”

This is the question Poland wants everyone to ask. Why Katowice? The host nation’s own answer, which Duda, Kurtyka, and other Polish representatives have pressed on conference-goers at every opportunity, quite cleverly merges two conflicting narratives.

The first version casts Katowice as a symbol of the potential for change. “Let me tell you,” Kurtyka continued at the opening ceremony: Katowice “is a story of transition.” He offered a cursory sketch of Silesian history: a region made rich by its deposits of coal and salt, where the mining tradition is “rightly cherished.” But Katowice can change. “The region had to move on many times before,” Kurtyka said, and “it is moving on today.” Duda followed Kurtyka and drove home the symbolism of holding a climate conference atop an old coal mine. The mayor of Katowice, Marcin Krupa, rounded out the party line: “We have proven that we are a modern city,” he says. And then, deviating: “However, we do also respect tradition and cultural legacy.”

That is the second version of the Katowice story, which tempers and trumps the first: The city as a symbol for the limits of change. At a press conference following the opening ceremony, Duda brazenly emphasizes this point. Poland has used coal for 200 years, he explained. “It would be hard to expect us to give up on it totally.” And moments later: “It would be difficult to expect us to resign from coal as an energy resource.” This kind of frank and stubborn insistence on continuing to use coal is the threatening side of the “just transition” slogan: Don’t push us.

There is a good deal of doublespeak at work here—so much that it is sometimes difficult to tell which version of its own narrative Poland is pushing. In the “country pavilion” section, an Ikea-like room where many countries (the United States is conspicuously absent) have set up chic stalls with bright lights and sleek wood panels and glossy posters to sell you on their climate accomplishments, one finds a striking display. At the Katowice pavilion, piles of coal sit beneath three glass floor panels. Two grated towers holding more coal line the walls. Between them, a display case with coal trinkets: coal cufflinks, coal earrings, coal-infused soap (“Silesian soul in the lump of coal,” reads the soap packaging). Kamil, a young representative at the pavilion and a Katowice native, tells me that the exhibit is meant to show the city’s past, the tradition that it is leaving behind. But there is no indication of this beyond his word. Is coal the city’s past or its future? It appears that Poland wants to make its answer just ambiguous enough to avoid outright controversy. Other confusing symbols abound. A poster on a public bus reads: “Katowice is changing the climate!” Yes, but in which direction?

Paradoxical though this image of Katowice may be, it seems to be having the desired effect. Perhaps because Poland presides over COP24, and perhaps because it has taken such pains to emphasize the “just transition” platform, other notable attendees have begun to speak in Poland’s terms. On the second day of the conference saw not Duda or Kurtyka but Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the UN who has been racing from room to room telling delegates that “we are not on track” in our efforts to fight climate change, concede that “there is a place for coal in the global economy,” and that it is important to focus on the “workers who will be impacted” by climate policies.

The workers who will be impacted: This is perhaps the greatest specter that haunts COP24. Not the city or its lumps of coal, but the people who mine them—those angry, coal-smeared faces in the ominous “just transition” video playing on a loop in the Spodek welcome hall. When Kurtyka invokes a dual image of Katowice as a city willing to change but full of angry faces lurking underground, and when Duda cleverly invokes Solidarity to remind his audience that those same angry faces are prone to revolt, they are hinting at the wave of resurgent European populism—one that most delegates at COP are likely to recognize and to fear. The coal miner as reactionary traditionalist is at the heart of Poland’s “just transition” theme. Let us keep our coal, because if we change too fast, they will not let us change at all. The train will be derailed.

(In a case of extremely fortunate timing for Poland, the French “yellow vest” movement, born in response to President Macron’s increase of a fuel tax, grew violent the day before the conference, rioting and torching cars in Paris. On day two, Macron, facing the prospect of further protests, rescinded the tax increase.)

Not that Poland has won everyone over. Much of the response at the conference from those who are less constrained by diplomacy has been one of indignation and disbelief. “I thought we were past this!” a SustainUS activist groaned as she surveyed the Katowice pavilion’s coal shrine. Greenpeace representatives, dismayed at the symbolism of holding a climate conference atop an old coal mine in a coal city, have tested multiple analogies. On Sunday, one tells a press conference that holding COP24 in Katowice is like holding a health conference in Winston Salem (with Philip Morris sponsoring). On Monday, another tells Bloomberg that it is “like hosting a culinary conference at a venue that serves frozen pizza.”

Walking around Katowice—something that the cordoned-off conference, with its interminable events and a network of endless hallways, food courts, and “coffee points” to rival an airport terminal, does not exactly encourage—it is hard not to feel that an opportunity has been missed. Because the history of the city’s coal industry is not about tradition and stagnancy. It is about radical change and resistance.

Every day on the way to Spodek, my bus goes past Kolpania Wujek, one of the few Katowice mines still in operation. On December 16, 1981, three days after Jaruzelski’s government imposed martial law to crack down on Solidarity, police forces clashed with peacefully striking workers in front of the mine. The police opened fire and killed nine miners. Today, a tall silver cross memorializes the massacre, twinned with the red-and-white mine chimney. You can see it from the highway, looming over a mass of squat apartment blocks.

The Wujek miners were far from alone. In the days after the imposition of martial law—the anniversary of which falls on the final day of COP24—some 25 mines in the Katowice region went on strike. At the Piast coal mine in Bierun, 15 miles south, over a thousand workers remained underground for two weeks. When the strike broke a few days after Christmas, they emerged singing the national anthem.

The Solidarity movement did not win material changes in 1981. But it won something perhaps more lasting and profound. With the strikes came a realization, a shift among Polish workers: The lies and the violence of the state were laid bare, unmasked, and exposed. “Beyond the single, monumental organizational fact of Solidarity’s existence, the most fundamental changes were all in the realm of consciousness rather than being,” wrote Timothy Garton Ash. Those changes in consciousness marked the beginning of the end for the Polish People’s Republic. Solidarity was a “revolution of the soul.”

Watching thousands of delegates preach “just transitions” for mythic angry coal miners while they inch toward a rule book for an agreement that will fall far short of the action we need to prevent devastating climate change, it is hard not to wonder whether what we need now is a revolution of the soul. The truth is that Poland—and the United States, and China, and a good many others—has no intention of moving away from coal. Polish emissions from CO2 have risen steadily since 2015; new coal plants are currently being built; Duda’s Law and Justice party, which has frequently subsidized failing coal mines, has insisted that coal will still provide over 30 percent of Poland’s energy in 2040. On the second day of the conference, Duda left Katowice to visit a coal mine, where he assured workers, “Please, don’t worry. As long as I am the president, I won’t allow anyone to murder Polish mining.” No amount of nonbinding international negotiations will alter this truth—at least not fast enough.

Although he did not mean it this way, Duda was right to refer to Solidarity in his opening address. Poles do understand perfectly well what great social change means—and how it happens. If Katowice symbolizes anything, it’s that radical change of the sort we need today occurs when workers and citizens caught up in an oppressive but increasingly defunct regime decide that they have had enough.

Such a message will never have much sway at this (or any) COP, where change is meant to come from above. Despite all the debate about its location, the conference sits a world apart from the workers and coal mines it warily discusses, and the two are unlikely to meet. Perhaps the closest they get is in the Nikiszowiec neighborhood, where one of Katowice’s hippest restaurants stands adjacent to a working coal mine and the red-brick housing blocks once reserved for miners and their families. On the first night of the conference, groups of attendees pull up to the restaurant in Ubers and taxis, many with their lanyards still dangling from their necks. As they walk up to the restaurant, four miners just off their shift walk by in the other direction. Their faces, illuminated for a moment by their headlamps, are grim and smeared with coal. They pass by; the attendees head to dinner. Neither group notices the other.