COP24 in coal country: why Poland is Europe’s climate denial capital

A state of climate denial. Grzegorz Michalowski/EPA

COP24 in coal country: why Poland is Europe’s climate denial capital

European polling on climate change denial puts Poland towards the top – or bottom, depending on which way you view it – of the leader board. Though the UN’s COP24 climate conference is currently being hosted in its southern city of Katowice, Poland itself has displayed little concern over global warming. Indeed, the EU’s largest coal producer often opposes any attempt to get it to cut its carbon emissions. What’s driving such potent scepticism?

With minimal media coverage of climate change, climate impacts, or policy, Poland is an outlier in Europe. This is particularly surprising because EU climate policy, and the possibility of a stiff carbon tax in future, has significant long-term implications for the country’s economy.

The issue partly dates back to the collapse of communism in Poland that began in 1989. The resulting industrial decline and overhaul of outdated and highly polluting sectors caused a rapid decrease in CO₂ emissions.

All this meant that when Poland joined the EU and signed up to the Kyoto Protocol it could easily meet its generous emissions targets as they were set relative to 1988, when its polluting industries were still in full swing. However, new EU climate and energy legislation will soon kick in and comparing Polish emissions with a more recent year will make things harder.

A climate of denial

In our academic research, we have looked at why there is so little coverage of climate issues in the Polish media.

In part, it’s a reflection of the prominence of climate deniers, both politicians and scientists, in the media. Many politicians in Poland have publicly announced scepticism, not only about climate policy but also about the scientific findings on climate change.

An unbalanced media is responsible for much of the climate scepticism in Poland. Shutterstock

It is also relatively easy for incompetent people to gain a sizeable platform. We found that, typically, denialist scientists featured in the Polish media are not climatologists, but rather medical scientists, geologists, economists, or engineers from the energy or mining sectors.

There is also no publicly-owned media in Poland, except for public television and radio, which has been politicised by the coal-friendly ruling party. Commercial media competes for a small audience, and as a result is much more likely to touch on controversial points of view than to try to analyse them.

There has also been little media coverage in Poland of the UN’s IPCC reports on the scientific consensus about climate change, and a complete absence of politicians promptly reacting to the reports. This lack of coverage can be partly explained by the relative scarcity of IPCC authors from Poland. But journalists and editors are unlikely to choose a topic that they know is of little interest to their audiences and it appears that many Poles believe the cure – climate change mitigation – could be worse for Poland than the disease.

A powerful coal lobby

Much of this can be traced back to the influence of the coal lobby, which has been powerful ever since communist times when exports were a vital source of convertible (foreign) currency. 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.

This is why most Polish politicians will nominally support taking action on climate change, regardless of political orientation – but only as long as it does not mean moving away from coal. They frequently speak of the importance of coal to the economy and energy security, yet they conveniently ignore or downplay the coal-climate link. There is a strong “inconvenient truth” at work as burning coal is, globally, responsible for much of the ongoing climate change.

Even past increases in the price of domestic coal have not helped renewable energies, but rather resulted in Poland importing cheaper coal from abroad while propping up its own industry.

Poland’s energy supply is largely dominated by coal. Shutterstock

Too great a cost?

Most Poles recognise the benefits of being in the EU and understand that Poland must play by the rules. Yet many other voices are demanding renegotiation of an EU climate and energy package that they say is harmful to their nation. Indeed, many perceived this an externally-driven policy problem, imposed from abroad. They expect more effective action from non-EU countries which emit most of the world’s carbon dioxide.

Like other EU members, Poland would eventually like to decarbonise its energy sector. However, concerns remain over the abrupt introduction of a high carbon tax and the threat of “carbon leakage” where coal production and jobs shift eastwards from Poland to countries that are not obliged to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

For now, a switch from cheap coal to a more costly low-emission economy is politically unpalatable. Popular opinion and a wide range of politicians simply do not support the vision of leaving coal underground and paying more for energy. The country is still poorer than those in Western Europe, and the fear of energy price hikes is overwhelming. Don’t expect Poland or its media to embrace climate action any time soon.