Alex Krawiec, the RSA's Connector in Poland reflects on the significance of COP24 being held in her country and warns that, although it seems easier to, we're failing ourselves if we continue to avoid planning for the long term. Instead, we must take immediate action.
Every year, the United Nations holds a conference within the framework of the UN Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This year, the conference (COP24) was held in Poland, quite ironically in the industrial town of Katowice - well known for its coal mines. "Poland is today the largest coal producer in the EU, and around 60% of the country’s overall energy comes from coal. No wonder sentiment towards fossil fuel remains strong", explained Polish climatologists prof. Zbigniew Kundzewicz, participant of COP 24, and James Painter, Research Associate at the Reuters Institute, University of Oxford, in their joint article for theConversation. This figure is significant, as Poland is a country of 38 million, with an area close to that of Germany.
The Upper Silesia Basin has long been famous for its quarries, producing not only coal, but also copper and other minerals. Since the 18th century, the mines provided jobs for thousands of workers, and regional culture was built around them. Miners’ festivals and uniforms are famous around the country, and Silesians are known for their cultivation of local traditions. The peak of coal production came in the 70s, with the mines being associated with well paid jobs and the potential for higher living standards for the working class. Since then, the world has changed, and new technologies enable us to resort to other sources of energy than fossil fuel, and so at the beginning of the 21st century some of the unprofitable Polish mines were closed. However, despite the technological progress and better access to science and education, the myth about the Polish mines as centers of community and job providers re-emerged under current governmental leadership. In recent years, lobbying for the preservation of the mines has increased, despite the fact that the maintenance of these massive companies may exceed the actual economic gains.
The polarisation within societies that we have been observing in the last few years has not only been reflected in politics and economics but has also divided the scientific community in matters such as mandatory vaccination or climate change - something, that seemed unimaginable not so long ago. The future consequences of conflicting opinions on such important matters as climate change can be costly. If the proponents of global warming are right, we are consistently destroying our ecosystem. Even if the climate-change deniers were right, it could still be wise to apply Pascal's Wager rule, and to live our lives in environmentally-friendly ways, promoting sustainable and renewable sources of energy. What could be a more worthy of investment than the quality of air, or the quality and availability of water and food - resources crucial to our physical, mental and economic well being?
We can argue that in the era of technological globalisation, local problems of geographically distant countries affect us all. However, none are more impactful than human-related environmental damage. If left unsolved, problems related to air and water pollution, temperature rise, endangerment of species, or an excessive production of plastic, will only escalate. Our inclination towards pecuniary-gains oriented, irrational management of natural resources, may in the longer run trigger a domino effect of irreversible, catastrophic consequence.
When I interviewed one of the keynote speakers at COP24, Sir David Attenborough, about a decade ago, critical as he had been of human-related damage to the environment, he seemed noticeably less pessimistic about our prospects. During the COP24 speech, Attenborough expressed some widely quoted cautions, which indeed should not be taken lightly. He warned that, “if we don't take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon". In other words - not much to look forward to, unless we take immediate action.
Prior to his presence in Katowice, Sir David launched a UN initiative called “The People's Seat” - a highly promising project which allows the general public to take part in summits such as COP24, and to counteract the voices of some of the world leaders ignoring the signs of climate change and jeopardizing treaties such as the Paris Agreement.
Today, unlike during the first Industrial Revolution, we do have more resources than coal and oil that we can rely on as fuel. We have more choice, and with it, we can sustain our economic standards while protecting the natural environment. However, the COP24 in Poland has proven that as a species we are failing ourselves. Our long term planning seems limited, cooperation skills - poor, and working together still seems somewhat less attractive than destructive competition. Yet, in that vortex of chaos, those like Steven Pinker claim that the world is getting better. In some way it surely is, but with an exception regarding environmental issues.
Our attachment to the past and to tradition, while often valuable, can lead us to fail to make the best possible use of knowledge and technologies available to us in the present. We disregard the warnings of experts in favour of maintaining the status quo. The continued use of coal as a primary energy source is a clear example of this - the Polish public’s attachment to mining, like that of many others, is short sighted and will doubtless prove detrimental to our wellbeing and that of our environment. If there is anything to take away from COP24, it is the cautionary voice of academics and conservationists like Sir David Attenborough warning us against ourselves and prompting us to urgently take the right course of action.
In March and April 2019, the RSA's global team will be visiting Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur on the hunt for social innovations and exploring potential for an action-oriented Fellows network.