Here in Poland, “Going Green” Means Burning Even More Coal

Here in Poland, “Going Green” Means Burning Even More Coal

Here in Poland, “Going Green” Means Burning Even More Coal

With parents and children struggling to breathe, climate activism is a matter of life and death.

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Warsaw, Poland—A few weeks ago, I watched in amazement as my country’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, announced that Poland was implementing Europe’s “most radical plan” to “move away from Russian hydrocarbons.” He said that while other European countries had seen Russia “as a business partner,” Poland had long understood that Russia was using gas “as an instrument of blackmail.” In response to its invasion of Ukraine, Poland would no longer import any Russian fossil fuels: We would find our energy sources elsewhere.

As a parent, I am deeply concerned about the way my children’s health, security, and future is already affected by climate change, air pollution, biodiversity loss—and now the war on our border. And as I have come to understand that all these threats arise from our systemic addiction to fossil fuels, I’ve been watching our government carefully. It wasn’t hard to see that it is doing everything in its power to prevent us from making a transition away from burning coal, oil, and gas.

Poland is the only European Union member that has actually ignored the EU’s climate neutrality goal, often denying the existence of the climate crisis, and increasing its investment in coal and gas. When the right-wing coalition government came into power in 2015, one of its very first decisions was to block wind power. A few months ago, it passed a law to discourage switching to solar power. Insofar as there is a Polish plan for energy transition, it is to wait about two decades for nuclear power plants to be built, somehow, and to rely in the interim on gas. This is a brilliant strategy for the drug dealer. For the addict, not so much.

So let’s look at the dealers. Since the 1990s, Vladimir Putin has been the Pablo Escobar of fossil fuel, controlling its supply and price; we Europeans are so preoccupied with everyday consumption that we have become dependent on his wares. And even though we Poles are alive to Russia’s “blackmail,” the truth is that we have been among Putin’s biggest customers. At the end of 2021 Poland was buying 55 percent of our gas from Russia, along with 66 percent of our oil and 75 percent of our coal.

No wonder, then, that when Russia raised gas and coal prices to an extortionate level at the beginning of last winter—perhaps to finance the upcoming war—we faced a crisis. Our government’s response? A million-dollar campaign, waged together with the coal and gas industry, blaming a tax leveled by the EU’s climate policy for the price hike. The solution? PolExit!

Then Putin attacked Ukraine, and Poland’s anti-climate and anti-EU narrative quieted down. Still, in Morawiecki’s comments about Poland being wise to Russia’s blackmail, he was still trying to score points against the EU. The hypocrisy is astonishing, given that Poland has actually helped Putin build his power base through fossil fuel exports. Even now, in the first two months of the war, €750 million worth of Russian fuel has passed through Gdansk, making the Polish port the world’s fifth-largest handler of that commodity.

There is a similar hypocrisy about refugees. It is, to be sure, remarkable that Ukrainian refugees in Poland are not going hungry, and that they have been permitted to stay in peoples’ homes rather than refugee centers. But this is not thanks to our authorities. It has been the work, rather, of ordinary people—very often human rights, gender, LGBT and environmental activists—who have taken the initiative, forcing the government’s migration policy by their spontaneous actions.

I know something about this. Like so many ordinary Poles, I went to the train station when the war started, to help traumatized new arrivals. A week later, I received a call from someone in the informal help network telling me about a young woman with a baby from Kharkhiv. She was in total panic, and did not know anyone in Poland. My family agreed immediately to take them, and my youngest son, Jeremi, moved out of his room. We were in touch for the traumatic four days of her journey, and when she finally arrived we just fell into each other’s arms. Her baby, Sashka, was serene and smiling; I fell in love immediately. But it has been a nightmare trying to get any of the promised assistance from the state for them.

It was a cold, late winter when they arrived; our skies were dark and stinking with coal smoke. Both mother and baby immediately came down with respiratory infections. Daryna told me that there was much less pollution in Kharkhiv: “I’ve escaped war and I feel so relieved,” she said to me. “But now I cannot sleep knowing that pollution here is another potential killer for my son, and that you all have to live with this all the time. It shouldn’t be acceptable.”

Daryna is right. Eighty-seven percent of all coal burnt in European Union households is burned in Poland. Most homes are still heated with coal, and because there is a romantic nationalist notion about coal as Poland’s “black gold,” there has been no serious attempt, until now, to move away from it. This remained true even as our own mines became unviable and we came to depend increasingly on Russia.

In fact, it was the chronic illnesses of my own sons that brought me into the climate movement in the first place: fighting for a transition away from fossil fuels has become a matter of life and death for our family. When my second son, Julian, was born in 2011, he was healthy, but almost immediately he became very ill. He was misdiagnosed with a neurological viral infection that we were told would leave him permanently disabled. We were sent home with the message that there was nothing we could do.

We refused to give up, and eventually found ourselves with a doctor who asked me, “Are you ever healthy?” I asked why she wanted to know. “Because every time you come in here, you are coughing and sneezing.”

“That’s life,” I said. “Everyone is like this in winter.” That’s the truth in Poland. My grandmother, who never smoked a day in her life, suffered terribly and died from respiratory infections. I never questioned it. But now the doctor asked me to stop breastfeeding, and she put us on medication for allergies. The result was miraculous. My own illness—a reaction to the pollution, I learned—was denying Julian the nutrition he needed; he grew healthy again.

Julian; my firstborn, Leon; and I would still get sick like clockwork every October, when the stink began again. Then I gave birth to Jeremi; although he was not as ill as Julian had been, he too joined us, coughing and wheezing through every winter. One year, we took a backpacking trip to Thailand; I had never seen my children so healthy, breathing so freely. But within four days of our return, all three boys were in the pediatric clinic, gasping for breath again. I had a conversation with the doctor taking care of them: “Don’t you think their illness is related to the stinky air?” I asked.

She replied calmly: “I think you are right, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The scale of the problem is so big in Poland, because we all heat our houses with coal. You’d need a revolution to change things.”

For years I had been wrestling with the guilt that our children’s illnesses were somehow our fault, because of our genes or our care. But in fact it was a result of government policy, which could be rectified. If there was going to be a revolution to change things, I decided, I would become part of it. People needed to know, and then to act. In the beginning, it was for the health of my family. But the more I learned, the more I realized that it was for the health of our country and our planet, too. This is how I joined the climate movement.

Given that my new knowledge was a consequence of concern for my children, it made sense that I would embark on activism as a parent. I found Rodzice dla Klimatu, associated with the international grassroots Parents For Future and Our Kids’ Climate movements. These had been set up by parents in response to children, like Greta Thunberg, challenging us with the question, “What are you doing to secure our futures?”

I have used my skills as a filmmaker to play my part. After the government blamed the EU for the energy price hike in February, I coordinated the making of a video to counter this campaign’s fake news with the facts. It was because of our own government’s policy of blocking all access to renewables, and not because of EU policy, that we were paying so much for our energy.

If the Polish government were truly interested in a “radical plan,” it would join the global movement to get this planet off all fossil fuels—not just Russian hydrocarbons. Meanwhile, I do what I can, as a parent and as an activist. Next month, I will attend the UN Stockholm+50 conference on the human environment, along with other members of the global Parents for Future movement. We hope to escalate global political support for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, the civil society initiative that builds on the Paris Agreement to call, specifically, for a phase-out of the use of all fossil fuels.

I will go straight to Stockholm from a four-day “Cycling for the Climate” bike ride that ends in Warsaw on Sunday. The ride begins in Belchatow, 200 kilometers away, at the site of an open-pit coal mine so big it can be seen from space. Belchatow is also the home of Europe’s largest coal-fired power station and biggest polluter. The city’s air is so toxic that nearly every child has asthma; in almost every second house, someone struggles with cancer.

We will set out on Poland’s Mother’s Day, May 26. This seems just right in the way it relates a mother’s love for her children’s future and well-being to the love we all need to nurture for Mother Earth. As I write these words in chilly early May, the air is still somewhat stinky with coal smoke. I find myself balancing my climate activism with some routine Polish parenting: finding a clinic that will see Julian and Sashka. They are both sick again.

This is the second of a two-part series of dispatches from the East European front lines. Yesterday, leading Ukranian climate activist Svitlana Romanko wrote about her journey, from the beginning of the war to this weekend’s Stockholm+50 conference, and why she chose to defend her country by fighting for environmental justice.

Dispatches from the Frontlines are stories directly from the leaders fighting—and winning—the battle for a fossil-free future. They are published by Equation Campaign in collaboration with The Nation. Equation Campaign is a 10-year initiative funding movements on the ground to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Read more dispatches here.

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