Miłka Stępień
Image Credit: YouTube screengrab

We are experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change on a daily basis.  Even the latest pledges made by governments to mitigate climate change— which are yet to be implemented— are completely inadequate.

It’s clear that in the battle over how to combat climate change, world leaders have wasted 30 years. Our leaders lack the political will and have barely lifted a finger in response to the climate crisis.

While politicians talk the talk – citizens and especially young people have been walking the walk. As a result, the local and international grassroot movements working on this issue have never been stronger.

Today’s young people, the first generation to have lived their entire lives under the threat of catastrophic climate change, are now positioned as future leaders, forced to take urgent action on an issue as older generations have lacked the political will, organisation and authority to address.

It began with 15-year-old Swedish Greta Thunberg skipping class to sit outside government buildings in September, accusing her country of not following the Paris Climate Agreement. Greta’s lone protest last summer has morphed into a powerful global movement linked up with older groups such as Extinction Rebellion, 350.org and Greenpeace.

On 15th March, hundreds of thousands of children in more than 100 countries walked out of their classrooms for the biggest global climate strike. Poland was among those countries with young people on the streets amid growing anger at the failure of politicians to tackle the escalating ecological crisis. Polish students’ mobilization stands out as the country’s historical and contemporary lock-in to coal poses a huge risk to the this generation’s future.

Polish students’ mobilization matters also because the former coal-mining town of Katowice, Poland, was the scene for COP24 in December 2018. Ironically enough, the Polish Government hosted their third COP in eleven years in Katowice, the proud centre of the countries thriving coal industry, only fifty kilometres away from the twenty-two of Poland’s remaining twenty-three hard coal mines which are producing more hard coal than any other EU region.

Seden Anlar from the Big Green Politics Podcast was in Katowice for COP24 and talked to Miłka Stępień, the Secretary-general of Partia Zieloni – the Polish Green Party – about the ‘mythologising of coal’ and the politicisation of energy security, ecological activism in Poland, how to foster a ‘just transition’ to renewable energy and a green economy, and the prospects of the Polish Greens.

Seden: I’m sure you’re a bit tired like me, because we were both on the COP24 Climate Justice March yesterday. So I want to first get your opinion on that experience. What was your personal reason to be there, and how do you think it went?

Milka: My very personal reason is my daughter. I have a four year old daughter, and I’m worried about what her future will look like. And this is actually one of the main reasons why recently I’ve got so strongly involved in politics, and in Green politics. On a wider scale, we wanted the Green presence and our attendance there to be as high as possible, so we tried to get as many Greens from Poland, from Europe and globally to be there, and show how important this issue is for us – that it’s our priority at the moment. In terms of how it went, I think it went pretty well, from our perspective, the march itself was a happy event in some ways. It was a lot about trying to change things that are very difficult to change and I think a lot of the time, climate activists, green politicians are depressed about how slow things are going.

So sometimes we need that energy from marches like this, where a lot of people get together and are saying the same things, have the same message and you can feel the power of all those people coming together and fighting for something that’s really important to us. In terms of another aspect of how it went, I think one of the downsides was the amount of police there. And more specifically that a lot of people were stopped at the borders, but also coaches coming in from other places in Poland were stopped before getting into Katowice. The vehicles were searched, people’s documents were checked, so some of the people were actually late for the march. I heard some people didn’t make it at all. I think that’s one of the reasons there weren’t as many people as there could have been. Also at the end of the march we had negative moments where three people from the anti-capitalist bloc were taken in by the police, and we know they let out one of the guys yesterday, but I don’t know what happened with the other two.

It’s pretty popular in Poland to call ecologists ‘eco-terrorists’ and they try to give us a bad name. So maybe they were hoping we’d do something to get them all riled up and for something bad to happen, and that didn’t happen. I think the group was very positive, they showed a lot of solidarity, nobody wanted to go further after they’d taken out three members of the protest, so I think this is very telling about what kind of people were at the protest yesterday.

Seden: I guess it’s important to think about what we had expected from that march as well. One, yes, we were trying to tell the participants of that summit, we’re here, we see you, we’re watching you, we’re here to put pressure on you and the whole process. But what I found more interesting than that, was the people watching us. And for me if just some of them googled why we were there instead of just buying straight up the state propaganda, then I think that’s a win. What do you think?

Milka: I think so too. In Poland, awareness of climate change is quite low. We’ve had many years of propaganda, of denialist propaganda here. So even when I talk to people here who are not so strongly involved in the Green movement, they repeat a lot of the denialist arguments. I think one of the biggest things we have to work on in the next couple of years is making people realise that that is propaganda, and that we really do have a lot of work to do right now.

One of the noticeable things was that a lot of the people from Katowice did not participate in the march but they were looking on and what they saw was a group of peaceful protesters with a lot of women, children, people who were smiling, singing, talking about important things, and I think this kind of message will show them that we’re here to do something together. That’s an important message and I think some of the people who were expecting the eco-terrorists they had heard about were surprised, and they will Google it and they will read a little bit about it. So I’m hoping there will be a movement towards it, and I am seeing more interest in the Greens in recent months and I think there is something changing.

Seden: Enough about the march and let’s go into darker stuff and policy. At the UN Summit, the participants were greeted with a shrine of actual coal. Not only that but also different products made from coal. Coal made into soap, coal made into earrings, coal made into other jewellery, coal under glass, coal in cages, just lots and lots of coal while the polish coal miners’ band dressed in smart black uniforms wearing traditional miners’ caps, played for the delegates arriving at the convention centre, and when you look at the sponsors of the event, you see coal companies. Considering all of these factors, can we and should we expect real results and actions coming from the Summit, or is it all just symbolic?

Milka: I think if you had this thing, but it was approached differently, as a part of Silesian history – because Silesia, where the Summit was in the town of Katowice, is a hard coal mining region and it’s been so for many years, so you have a huge coal history there. But over the past 30 years, a lot of the coal mines have been closed down and what has been created around this is post-industrial museums, a post-industrial and post-mining memorial in a way. At the same time you still have working coal mines. So if the point of these expositions was to show ‘okay we’re moving away from coal but we want to thank our predecessors for what they did for the region.’ that would be fine, because you have coal mining museums in the region and that’s exactly what they do. Unfortunately this symbolism was not only about that. It was pretty much emphasising what the polish government was saying publicly. You had the Prime Minister of Poland talking about the continuation of coal. You had the Polish President, Andrzej Duda, talking about how we have enough coal for another 200 years of exploitation, and so on. So unfortunately this exhibition of coal was to show that we are sticking to coal according to current Polish government.

So this is where the issue is and this is where you have the strong feeling of dissonance between what the COP summit should be and what it has actually turned out to be. And I think this unfortunately will show that this COP summit will probably not achieve any results, and the most depressing thing was that there were at least some minor hopes that the Polish government would be forced to have more ecologically minded message and actually tackle climate issues, whilst they’ve chosen to skirt around them and to stick to the idea that we are maintaining as our main source of energy. And that was very depressing for many people who were at the summit, who heard these things, and who saw let’s say this fetishising of coal which was very obvious during the COP summit.

Seden: I guess what we were expecting to see or hoping to see was a statement or a reaction that would imply that yes coal is part of our history but it’s not going to be part of our future. But then on the contrary we heard statements saying 200 years more, and just a few days before the summit, the Ministry of Energy of Poland published its draft energy policy until 2040 and the draft policy stated that the Ministry of Energy plans to invest in new coal capacity next year. But it’s not even only coal is it? The same document stated that Poland’s first nuclear power station will be launched in 2033 and five more will follow. So why is a state dependent on coal, striving to become dependent on the atom, or nuclear?

Milka: That’s a very complex question with a very complex answer. The PEP – the Polish Energy Policy 2040 is a very strange document. It’s a draft document and a lot of groups will be sending in their comments. Though generally, the Polish Greens think it should be completely rewritten because it’s very bad. In terms of coal, generally the whole issue with the Polish approach, and this isn’t a new thing – it’s been going on for the past 20-30 years – the whole issue with coal is that it’s mythologised or considered to be the basis of our energy security. And this is primarily because until very recently this was the only form of energy we had on our own, that we did not have to take from another country. And this is why the Polish energy sector is so strongly dependent on coal.

What should be emphasised is that the PEP is not actually based on facts. Because if you look into the specifics of the Poland’s energy sector, we are importing large amounts of coal from Russia at the moment because the remainder of our hard coal is very low quality and it is extracted at a very large depth – at the moment the deepest mines are at 1300 metre so they’re over a kilometre deep. And these are agglomerations, so you have people living above ground, right above these coal mines. So these are huge issues. It’s extremely expensive to extract this coal, and in fact if you look at it from the perspective of the economy, there’s no possibility that we will have enough coal for 200 years of extraction and exploitation – we probably have enough for another 30 years.

And this is something that polish geologists talk about extensively. If you talk with various people who know about our coal deposits they will tell you that we’ll be backing out of coal anyway. So why are they continuously talking about coal? For one thing, and this was also noticeable in who was sponsoring COP24. You have coal companies, energy companies – and these companies are state owned. The government is very much afraid of losing control over the energy sector, so this is why they are afraid of diversification, and energy that would be in the hands of the citizens for some reasons. It’s very strange but this is one of the issues that appears.

They are also afraid of moving away from coal because then they will become dependent on gas. They’re not very trusting of Europe – and I think especially of Germany. But I think this is also unfortunately a result of a very bad decision made by Germany to introduce the Nord Stream which bypassed Poland. So for this reason this sort of agreement between Germany and Russia which bypassed Poland was aggravated for some of the trust issues that Poland has in terms of energy.

And why do they want the atom? Because they want centralised power sources. So this is why they want to exchange centralised energy sector based on coal by another centralised energy sector based on the atom. This is what they know. You can also see this in the example of wind power. In the PEP 2040, they’re talking about building offshore wind power. And this is of course quite expensive in terms of initial investments so would be probably done by state owned energy companies, whilst at the same time the PEP2040 talks about getting rid of onshore wind turbines, and they’ve recent years against our onshore wind turbines. It’s increasingly difficult to build new wind turbines, and they haven’t been very helpful in supporting people who want to invest in wind turbines so over the last couple of years, we’ve actually had a fall in the amount of wind turbines introduced in Poland, and this is because of legislation that was introduced in 2016 by the current government.

Seden: When we try to address Poland’s unique history with mining, ‘just transition’, often comes up because it is a community with long mining history and they’re voicing their concerns over the use of renewable energy sources but I guess at this point the issue of just transition is also used as a tool to slow down the whole process of transitioning into a green economy. I don’t know if you would agree, but I was wondering how can Greens frame their position in a way that will allow them not only to offer substantial solutions and policy proposals for a just transition but also to keep the process going, no matter what, at the same time.

Milka: I’m actually working on that in my region, an eastern greater region in Poland, it’s a lignite mining region. Since 1990, it’s lost about 70% of its jobs in the mining sector and the coal fired energy sector and I mean basically my region has one of the highest unemployment rates, the highest migration rates. It’s very typical for a coal mining and energy plant region. But at the same time for the last 30 years it’s pretty much been left to itself, there’s been no plan in place about what to do. And the issues are becoming increasingly difficult because you have rising prices of coal emissions, CO2 emissions, this influences how the local energy plants work because of coal lignite emits more, so it’s harder hit by such issues. From my perspective working here, one of the things I try to do is to make sure that all of the people that should be involved in the process are involved. And this is what i’m working on right now, because a lot of the time, the authorities tend to skip people that they don’t think are very important in terms of elective voices. So you don’t really have for example the farmers from the region invited, who have been really hit by open-top mines.

So in terms of green policy, I think it’s pushing for just transition that makes sure that everyone is taken into account, that is involved in the process, knows what’s going on, and that includes miners, because one of the things I’ve heard from local miners is ‘okay, look we understand that we’re going to be moving away from coal’ because I think actually the politicians understand less than people who are here on ground. They know about what’s going on because it influences them directly. What they want to know is specifics – when are we closing down the mine, when are we closing down the energy plant, what should we do next? And this is something that I’ve been trying to push forward in my region.

A lot of them are more knowledgeable than the politicians I’ve met. They know about climate change, they know about emissions, they know about the issues with coal and coal prices at the moment, and they need a timeline, a timeframe. They need to know what will happen to their jobs, to their families to the region.

So I think from our perspective what we need to push is for a ‘just fund’. I know the European Greens are working on a ‘just transition fund’ that would help regions like mine, which would very specifically go towards very specific goals, so it wouldn’t be spent on green-washing for example, because you get a lot of green-washing attempts in Poland, but it would be spent on the needs of these people who are in the region and who want to know what their step will be, and what their future will look like. Because if you go in and you just say ‘okay we’ll just build lots of solar panels here’ and you go over to a miner, he’ll say ‘I’ve worked in the mines for 30 years, I don’t know anything about renewable energy sources, I need you to help me’.

Seden: And this sounds like an issue that obviously greens are taking on and working on but it also sounds like it’s a core issue of civil society, it’s grass roots, so what kind of actions are they taking, the civil society organisations? And are you, Polish Greens, cooperating with them?

Milka: Yes, very strongly. Most of the Polish Greens are rooted somehow in civil society. I’m involved in two local organisations, one of them is a feminist organization and the other one is participatory democracy. A lot of the background of most of the greens in Poland is like that. A lot of us are linked to the smog alerts, which are groups that fight smog in Poland, with ecological organisations, and we cooperate strongly with them. There’s been – and I think this is always an issue – there’s a bit of distrust between orgs and those of us who decide to go into politics because they’re afraid of mixing these two issues.

On the other hand, at a certain point when you’re doing mostly activism and you’re working within NGOs, at a certain point you reach a glass ceiling where you can’t go any further because no one is listening to you on the other side. The politicians are not listening to you. That’s why a lot of the people who start out in these organisations, go into green politics, because they want somebody on the other side who will listen to them and who will connect. I think this is true of Poland, I personally work with a lot of orgs who deal with the energy transition and climate issues. And we’ve developed a lot of trust between each other, we do a lot of work together, and I think the main thing is to be very upfront about how we can connect these different things. Being very direct about who you are, why you’re in politics, and about why you need to find common ground and work together because we do have the same aims.

Seden: Speaking of politics and the Polish Greens would it be right if we said the Green Wave is now taking place in Poland, or will be soon, and if so, what are the Polish Greens doing to build a structure upon this wave so that it won’t fade away?

Milka: So we’ve been working on a plan for the past two years, we worked on the plan to work on these last local elections and we’re very proud of ourselves because it was a lot of hard work. So we’re happy that we managed to make a bit of a splash. It’s definitely not a huge success, but from our perspective, it was a movement forward, and over the last couple of months we’ve seen a huge increase in memberships coming in. So the Green movement in Poland is growing, I think there are probably about twice as many members as we had even a year ago.

Generally this year has seen an increase in green membership so I think it’s not only connected to the election but also to green issues being more important. Like I said we’ve had a lot of very bad ecological decisions in Poland over the past couple of years, so this has also made people notice how important these issues are also from the political perspective. Right now there are a lot of trees being cut in Poland, in towns, in villages, in the countryside but also in national parks. This has made people more aware, and more willing to get involved so I would say, yes there are more people ready to take on politics as a way of achieving results and changes in the ecological sphere. And the next year we have the European parliamentary elections and we have our Polish parliamentary election in the same year.

So it’s going to be very intense. We are preparing, we hope that this will another step forward, and we hope that next year we will be able to say that we have our first Polish Parliamentarians, and hopefully we’ll also be able to join the European Greens in the European Parliament. But at the moment it’s very hard to say exactly whether we will be running independently as our own election group or whether we will have to go into some sort of coalition because the political scene in Poland at the moment is quite complicated and changing very rapidly over the course of even two or three weeks. So we’ll be able to tell you more about that soon – probably by March there will be more coherence about what’s going on.

And the structures – that’s important. As we’re having an increase in the number of people joining us, a lot of the work we’re doing at the moment and this is what our co-chairs are doing – Marek Kossakowski and Małgorzata Tracz – are travelling a lot around Poland and helping people to set up local structures. So over the course of the next two months as far as we’ve counted we’ll probably have another 15 new local groups. So this is showing how quickly we’re growing. I would say we’ve had a couple of hundred people join the party over the last six months or so. So it is huge, and also a lot of people are just interested in what we’re doing and trying to find out.

Last year we prepared a very broad programme – the Polish Greens programme – which is the basis for all our political movements over the last few months and the important things are that we focused on what we consider to the most important issues and what people to be the most important issues, which is smog, so we have a whole separate chapter on smog, we have the energy transition as a whole separate chapter, and we’re focusing very strongly on these ecological aspects, because in our opinion even if other political parties take up this topic, they don’t prioritise it, whilst we do. We always prioritise fighting against climate change and the energy transition, and fighting for an earth, an environment in which we can live and be healthy.

This article is a condensed, edited transcript of an interview conducted by Seden Anlar. For the full & audio version of this interview, check out the Big Green Politics Podcast. Available on all podcast platforms including Soundcloud, Itunes, Google Play, and Spotify. The Big Green Politics Podcast is a podcast about Green politics – news from around the world and interviews with key thinkers.