Coal-fired power station, Bogatynia, Poland.
KATOWICE, SILESIA. Polish humour, yes? To stage a critical conference on Climate Change in the heart of Poland’s coalfields just has to be a joke. Right?
Wrong. Not when the Polish Government is seriously advancing the idea of a “just transition” from coal. Just transition? That’s code for: “Nothing will be done which threatens the job security of the thousands of Polish miners who constitute the electoral heart of the ruling Law & Justice Party.” No one in Polish politics has forgotten that it was the shipyard workers and the coal miners who gave the anti-communist Solidarity movement its economic and political heft back in the early 1980s. If the Commies could crack these guys, what chance do the Greenies have?
The bad news isn’t confined to the coalfields of Eastern Europe. In France an embattled Emanuel Macron has been forced to back away from his Climate Change-inspired fuel price hikes.
With the furious “Yellow Vests” threatening to launch another nationwide assault on the institutions and symbols of French state authority; and with his Police chiefs warning him that their men, close to exhaustion, may not be equal to the task of preserving law and order; what choice did the French President have? It was either concede the Yellow Vests’ key demand, or, bring in the armed forces to quell their nationwide insurrection against oppressive taxes and “Parisian arrogance”. But, setting the French army against the French people has only ever ended in tyranny, revolution, or both.
This is the world we live in now. A world where the desperate pleading of Sir David Attenborough and the UN Secretary General fails. Their words falling not so much on deaf ears as ears filled with the subtle whispers of fossil fuel lobbyists or the angry protests of workers and consumers. Vice-President Richard Cheney knew exactly what he was talking about when he warned the American political class that: “The American way of life is not negotiable.” Nope, and not the French or Polish ways of life, either.
It really is the perfect political storm. At precisely the time when trust and confidence in the world’s decision-makers is most needed, it is plummeting. Those whom Sir David enjoined, on behalf the world’s peoples, to “lead” the planet to safety simply cannot count on more than a tiny fraction of the global population accepting the massive and radical changes such leadership would require.
Perhaps, if people could be persuaded that the costs of transitioning away from our fossil fuel-based civilisation would be equally shared, then there might be some hope. But who believes that is even remotely likely? Who can see the “loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires” (thank you Paul Simon) who rule this world voluntarily relinquishing their wealth and privilege? Who would put their faith in the political classes who service those millionaires and billionaires ever deciding to treat Climate Change as the moral equivalent of war?
The disconnect between the rulers and the ruled is just too profound. In the current political environment it is much more likely that any Climate Change measures inflicting genuine hardship on the mass of the population would be met not with stoical acceptance but, as we have seen in France, with rage and denial. One has only to listen to the bitterness and contempt in the voices of the Polish miners interviewed by the press corps at Katowice. Rather than accept that the coal they dig out of the ground is warming the planet catastrophically, they preferred to pour scorn upon the scientists’ and economists’ warnings. “Who knows more about coal,” they scoffed, “them or us?”
And that marvel of the last quarter-century – the Internet – rather than acting as the perfect instrument for informing the whole world about the dangers that lie ahead has, instead, facilitated the world’s division into a multitude of mutually hostile cultural and political enclaves. There are as many truths today as there are audiences. People are willing to believe only what they have already been convinced of. Like addresses like exclusively – and everyone else can go to hell.
New Zealanders are no different in this respect from the rest of humanity. We should be thankful that the price of oil has fallen precipitately over the past few weeks because, had it not, rising petrol prices combined with increased fuel taxes would almost certainly have sparked a full-scale truckers’ revolt. Considerably less than one hundred large trucks, strategically stalled, could reduce Auckland to angry chaos in less than half-an-hour.
Now imagine those truckers joining forces with thousands of angry farmers protesting against the imposition of Climate Change-driven reforms on the agricultural sector. The French are not the only people who know how to cause trouble!
Sir David Attenborough has spent his entire adult life bringing the wonders of the natural world to appreciative global audiences. Few people on Earth have a more profound understanding of the immense damage being inflicted on the planet’s fragile biosphere by our fossil-fuel based civilisation. One can only imagine his distress at the near certainty of so much wonder and beauty being driven to extinction by anthropogenic global warming.
In the dark watches of the night, I wonder, does even as big-hearted a man as Sir David Attenborough not comfort himself with the thought that the authors of this global tragedy will, in the not too distant future, and along with all other living things, be forced to pay the price. The people of the world may not be interested in responding to Climate Change, but Climate Change is, most certainly, responding to them.