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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.

At that same press conference, a reporter asks Guterres what lessons we should take from the “Gilets Jaunes” movement in France, the proximate cause of which was a fuel-tax increase. Guterres says that he is unfamiliar with the specifics of that situation, but that “as a general principle, I tend to be very supportive of the thesis of Habermas. One of his ideas is that the characteristics of modern democracy is the interflux of communication between the political and civil society. But as I said, that is a general principle.”

The press do not find Guterres’s thoughts on Habermas very compelling. Instead, they churn out stories on Arnold Schwarzenegger, who makes a brief afternoon appearance (and draws a huge crowd) to talk about how individual states are defying President Donald Trump’s climate policies. Schwarzenegger also talks about how he converted his four Hummers into low-emission vehicles and calls President Trump a “meshugganah,” which is Yiddish for “crazy person.” “I wish I could be the Terminator in real life and travel back in time to stop all fossil fuels from being discovered,” he says. Then he leaves.

When the press are not trailing Schwarzenegger—or Sir David Attenborough, the 92-year old British naturalist of “Planet Earth” fame, who drops in to deliver a two-minute speech as the delegate for the symbolic “people’s seat” and says that “the destruction of our civilization is on the horizon” (the British media, in particular, love this)—they fixate on the Katowice booth in the “Country Pavilion” room. Here, a mix of countries, regional groups (the Pacific islands, for example), and the host city set up stalls to advertise their efforts to fight climate change. It is a science fair on steroids. The U.K. has a prototype of an autonomous electric car with the Union Jack painted on it; Poland has a bunch of cheap-looking timber beams that are, I think, meant to symbolize a forest; India has holograms of buddhas. Korea, at one point, screens a film about a village that lives in harmony with black bears.

And Katowice? Katowice has coal. Three mounds of coal displayed from underneath a glass floor. Three more piles in grated metal cages by the wall. Between them, a well-lit collection of beauty products made from coal (coal earrings, coal cuff links, coal soap). The exhibition has no description, and so journalists and activists come to their own conclusions. “Poland literally filled an international climate change conference with coal,” reads one headline. “An insult to everyone who cares about the planet,” writes an attendee on Twitter.

Tuesday, December 4.

At a morning press conference, Guterres is pressed on Poland’s pro-coal statements. He waffles for a while but finally confirms that “there is a place for coal in the global economy. I mean, it will be less and less relevant in the years to come…” The key, he says, is that we trend toward a reduction in coal production. (The IPCC has declared that coal production would have to be nonexistent by 2050 if we wish to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. Myles Allen, an IPCC author, tells me before the conference that “unless you’ve got a plan to get to zero [carbon emissions], you don’t have a plan to stop global warming.”)

President Duda is not with Guterres at this morning’s press conference. Instead, he visits a coal mine in Brzeszcze. The New York Times reports that he tells the miners: “Please, don’t worry. As long as I am the president, I won’t allow anyone to murder the Polish mining.” (It is perhaps telling that Duda’s promise is the precise opposite of Hilary Clinton’s infamous statement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when she said she would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”)

Meanwhile, inside the Spodek, a society in miniature begins to form. There are three classes, each easily identifiable by their different colored badge they wear around their necks. In order of smallest to largest population:

Press (population: 1,541), which is itself a class divided between novices (present author included) and veterans. The novices walk briskly and purposefully to pavilions or side events picked au hazard off the conference schedule, nervously making eye contact with potential interview subjects. They stick to character portraits and mood stories (like this one). The veterans haunt the press conference room, waiting for quotes from the big guns: UN officials, IPCC scientists, EU representatives. Some of them undertake the painstaking task of interpreting the draft resolutions that are uploaded to the conference website in the evenings—a process that requires intimate knowledge of UN jargon and a penchant for counting brackets. (Brackets around a draft clause indicate incompleteness or uncertainty. Fewer brackets, more progress.) Despite being in the same arena, the novices and the veterans end up reporting on two completely different conferences.

Observers (pop: 7,331) also consist of two sub-classes: activists and, well, observers. Just as in the real world, activists are the disrupters in the Spodek.[1] Their job is to take advantage of the media presence to promote their cause, and, if they’re lucky, to nudge party delegates in their direction. The more straightforward observers, here representing universities or NGOs or science institutes, view the conference as a mostly academic affair, or a networking exercise.

And then there are the delegates (pop: 13,898): representatives of the nations here to negotiate. The number of delegates that each party brings varies drastically and bears no relation to country population or international power. (A sampling: Guinea tops the list with 406 delegates; India brings 35; North Korea, 3.) Large delegations send their members out to cover different aspects of the conference and then have them report back on the day’s events—a well-oiled surveillance system. The head delegates stay in the negotiation rooms, cordoned off from the rest of the Spodek society, which tries to influence their decisions but in the end can only wait and see.

The point is this: the world inside Spodek is nearly as fractured and hierarchical as the world outside it. Here too one finds beggars—NGOs who wander around looking for press to write about them; press who wander around looking for delegates to give them the time of day. One finds radicals (activists), moderates (academic researchers), and fringe elements (a man in a Santa suit named “Sustainaclaus” who takes pictures with bewildered attendees).

But most of all one finds that the same frustration often voiced outside of international conferences—that the world leaders huddle in dark rooms and make deals on our behalf but not in our interest and not with our input—is alive and well inside the conferences, too. Even two days in, the frustration among some observers and press (the novices) is evident. We are through security and into the inner circle. But there is yet another circle, tighter still, in those closed rooms to which we have no access and in which we have no voice. To channel Hamilton: there are a lot of Aaron Burrs in the Spodek. On the outside of the inside, still searching for the room where it happens.

Wednesday, December 5.

At the “Climate Action Hub,” a temporary amphitheater set up in the Spodek welcome hall, fifteen-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg draws a full house. Every Friday since June, Thunberg, taking her inspiration from the Parkland student protests over gun control in the United States, has sat outside the Swedish parliament to protest their inaction on climate change. On Tuesday, she sat next to Guterres and told negotiators that they were “acting like children.” She says she is frustrated that there are still politicians and journalists who do not understand climate change. “They don’t know what the Keeling curve is, they don’t know what the albedo effect is. They don’t have a clue.”

Asked today how the conference has been thus far, Thunberg says that she “expected it to be more action and less talking, but it’s mostly small talk.” Then she adds: “Nothing is changing, and we probably won’t achieve anything [at this conference]. This is an amazing opportunity, we could really achieve something here, but if it just continues the way it is now, we are never going to achieve anything.” She receives a standing ovation.

Later, there is an open meeting between “partners and non-partners,” which is to say between those who sit at the negotiating tables and those who do not. The room is in one of the temporary structures attached to Spodek, and it is stultifying hot. Michal Kurtyka, the president of COP24, gives a short speech about the importance of honest communication among all conference participants, whatever their badge. Everyone is on a laptop or a phone, or both, and it is hard to tell who is listening.

Then, commotion in the front; a woman has fainted. Staff run to open the door to try to cool down the room. “Just stay calm,” says a security officer. “She’ll be alright. I think someone called someone.”

The fainting seems somehow to reinforce the pointlessness of the meeting. A non-party member asks the chair (a member of the COP presidency) whether the event is even being recorded. “Is someone taking notes on this?” The subtext is clear: does this meeting matter? Are you listening to us? No one offers a clear answer. The chair asks for more comments from non-state actors, but no one raises a hand; what’s the point? Thirty seconds of silence. “Dialogue is like dancing,” says the chair. “It requires at least two!” More silence, though perhaps now because people are tweeting about the silence.

That evening, the Global Carbon Project reports that CO2 emissions rose 2.7 percent in 2018—the largest increase in the past seven years. The report concludes that further growth in 2019 “appear[s] likely.”

Thursday, December 6.

Youth day at the conference, which means some events about “the youth” and an awards ceremony for youth activism. Martin Frick, a UNFCC official with a slight German accent and a kind smile, addresses an audience of young activists. Since we are in Poland, Frick says, we should remember Solidarity, the Polish workers’ union that rebelled against the communist regime in the early 1980s and that Duda invoked three days prior. You young activists, says Frick, should take after Solidarity. “Change comes very, very slowly, unbearably slowly, and there is a moment when you are desperate because change seems never to happen. But it’s exactly at this moment” that change occurs, he says. “My own Germany was reunified because of the bravery of the people in Poland.”[2]

Frick’s historical analogy is moving, but it leaves some in the audience confused. Solidarity was a fight against a totalitarian regime. Who is that regime now? One answer, bubbling up from yesterday’s frustration at inaction and from the general sense of complacency that pervades the makeshift hallways and from Poland’s attempt (quite successful up to now) to make this a conference about limiting change rather than increasing it, is that the inadequate and defunct regime is here, inside the Spodek. One activist in the audience, a teenager, turns to her neighbor: “So, he wants us to revolt?”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. And they are normally disrupters outside the conference center, too, but that is not the case in Katowice. Before the conference, the Polish government passed legislation sanctioning heavy surveillance of COP24 attendees and forbidding almost all protests and demonstrations outside the conference center. The police presence in Katowice, one observer tells me, feels greater than it did at the Paris conference in 2015, which took place immediately after a bout of terrorist attacks in France.
  2. Just hours after Frick invokes 1980s Solidarity as a model for activism, the current Solidarity—whose union headquarters are just blocks from the conference center—releases a joint press release with the Heartland Institute, an American think tank dedicated to climate denialism. The release calls climate science an “international dogma of the United Nations” and affirms Solidarity’s commitment to protecting its workers and the coal they mine.
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