Sunday, December 2.
As the bus nears downtown Katowice, the site of the 24th annual UN Climate Conference, or COP24, two huge funnels loom into view: a coal mine. There are fourteen in Katowice, although only two remain active. The rest lie strewn across the city like dormant volcanoes. The UN insists that Katowice is in transition—“from black to green,” says a welcome video at the opening ceremony—and claims that 40 percent of the city’s surface area is devoted to green spaces. Judging by the looks on their faces as they ogle the coal mine, the delegates on this bus do not see it that way. When they disembark, one of them scrunches up his nose at the unmistakable smell—rich and smoky—that wafts from an alleyway. Many Katowicians still burn coal for heat.
The conference center, called Spodek, is a massive circular arena with one end tilted upwards, which makes it look like a crashed flying saucer. To accommodate the thirty thousand or so conference attendees, Katowice has attached a network of temporary hallways (all climate-controlled, though they often oscillate between way too hot and way too cold) and a boxy entrance hall to Spodek, with a security apparatus to rival an airport. In fact, the whole structure feels like an airport, with its endless walkways, screens that scroll through the conference events schedule like a list of departures, and at least ten “coffee points.” That or an IKEA superstore.
Looped videos in the entrance hall remind delegates of their tasks, the most important of which is the drafting of a “rule book” for the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. In that document, nearly every nation agreed that the world needed to keep the global temperature from rising 2 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels. To do this, they pledged to significantly reduce their national emissions by 2030. But they never agreed on how to measure those reductions, much less how to go about making them. Paris is also a nonbinding agreement, which means that signatory nations can ignore it without any direct consequences. This will remain true even after the rule book is ratified.
Which means that the rule book matters only if nations attempt to make good on their reduction pledges. So far, few have seemed interested in doing so. Global carbon emissions have risen since the Agreement was signed, with developed nations like Australia and the United States having been particularly brazen about flouting their commitments. (President Trump has of course withdrawn the U.S. from the agreement altogether, though this will not take effect until 2020.) China has ramped up its renewable energy, but it has also built thousands of new coal mines. Brazil’s new environment minister has declared climate change a Marxist plot.
At the same time, scientific reports about climate change have become so dire that even their urgent calls for action strike a note of stoic resignation. In October, the IPCC, a globally recognized body of experts on climate science, published a report detailing the difference between a temperature rise of 1.5 and 2 degrees Celcius. At 2 degrees, the report concluded, we face significantly higher risks of drought, floods, extreme heat, mass migration (in the hundreds of millions), and poverty. But if we want to limit warming to below 2 degrees, we would need to triple our commitments from the Paris agreement. If we want to aim for 1.5, we need to quintuple them. There are posters of the 1.5 Report’s cover page scattered all over Spodek, as though to remind delegates that even a perfectly-executed Paris Agreement—where all nations met their reductions pledges on time—would be nowhere close to enough.
That is the backdrop for this, the most important annual conference on the most important perennial threat to my generation. We are here to agree on how to measure the adherence to an agreement that has thus far been flouted and that would prove inadequate even if it were followed to the letter.
Monday, December 3.
At the opening ceremony, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announces, “Climate change is running faster than we are, and we must catch up sooner rather than later.” María Fernanda Espinosa, the president of the UN General Assembly, says, “We have walked a long way and have achieved a great deal.” Now, she says, we “stand at a crossroads.” Climate change is running; we were walking; we are now standing.
Marcin Krupa, mayor of Katowice, follows Guterres’s plea for action with a plea for inaction. Appealing to Poland’s need for energy independence, he maintains that “it is worthwhile talking about the use of coal in an environmentally friendly manner.” Eighty percent of Poland’s energy comes from coal.
Andres Duda, president of Poland, introduces a draft declaration for the conference titled “Silesian Declaration on Solidarity and Just Transition”—which, he says, recalls Poland’s Solidarity movement, a worker’s revolt against the communist regime in the 1980s, as a reminder that “Poland and Poles understand perfectly well what great change means.” This seemingly innocent appeal doubles as a warning to the negotiators: change too fast, and angry workers will strike—and even, perhaps, bring down the system.
In a joint press conference with Duda and Guterres after the opening ceremony, Duda, pressed by a journalist on whether Poland’s defense of the coal industry really amounts to “great change,” clarifies: Poland has enough coal reserves for over two hundred years. “It would be hard to expect us to give up on it totally.” Guterres rubs his eyes and massages his forehead.