"This is irresponsible and absurd."
All progress made during the first week of climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland was overshadowed by the deportation of at least 12 civil society representatives and the no-holds-barred promotion of the coal industry at the official conference venue. This seems not only ironic and distasteful but a violation of the principles of climate justice, human rights and transparency for a conference supposedly bringing the world together to further climate action.
Hours before the climate march, a peaceful non-violent action organized by civil society representatives, organizations like 350.org received disturbing messages from colleagues informing them of being held by authorities at the airport. “People are detained for long periods in ill-fitted rooms, searched and interrogated. Then they are deported,” says Svitlana Romanko, regional coordinator of 350 in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia.
The representatives, deemed as “threats to national security,” are now safe and demanding accountability from both Polish leaders, as host of the COP, and world leaders, as they supposedly also represent interests of non-party stakeholders, such as observer organizations.
Nugzar Kokhreidze, whose passport was taken away at passport control upon his arrival at the Katowice International Airport last week, says that one of the key values of the UN democratic process is participation. “Climate change is a challenge for all. That’s why participation of all sectors into the negotiation process is important and must be provided by the UN and the country where the conferences happen.” As of this writing, Kokhreidze is still at the Katowice airport, demanding an explanation from the Polish government on why he is deemed a threat to safety.
Maria Kolesnikova, on the other hand, was stopped at Warsaw International Airport and told the official reason for this was also public safety. She was pressured to sign a document in Polish and threatened that refusing would mean a permanent mark in her visa history. “If the world stays silent and doesn’t condemn Polish authorities, it can definitely embolden future host countries to do the same with activists,” she said.
Meanwhile, aside from being allowed to bankroll the negotiations through corporate sponsorships, the coal industry was allowed to figure prominently in the conference exhibit areas. The official booth of the city of Katowice displayed coal behind glass panes as well as other materials made from coal, such as earrings and soap bars.
Representatives of United States President Donald Trump himself also made a presentation about the benefits of coal, natural gas and nuclear power. As icing on the cake, it was also extremely disappointing to hear how the US, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia, furthered their anti-science agenda by blocking nearly 200 nations in “welcoming” the IPCC 1.5 report—which highlights the urgency of the climate crisis by concluding we have more or less 12 years to keep warming at 1.5—by suggesting the conference merely take “note” of its conclusions.
How all this wasn’t termed a threat to national security, considering the wealth of scientific literature confirming the fossil fuel industry’s contributions not just to climate change but to the decline of health in surrounding communities, remains a question.
As the greatest challenge of our generation, it will take bold ideas and bottom-up organizing amplified by political will to shape the future in the era of climate change. The solutions involve everyone and not just those with resources to spring for side events or conference exhibits. Indeed, there is no one way to go about solving this crisis—but it is clear what we must not do. Intimidating and silencing activists and rubbing elbows with the industry responsible for the loss of lives and livelihoods of thousands every year is the height of regression, and we simply must do better.
Hijacking the negotiations to put one industry or one country’s interests before the world’s is irresponsible and absurd considering climate change is a global problem that requires a global approach. The full participation of civil society as observers who keep our leaders in check in these multilateral processes is as much of a non-negotiable as shunning those who put power and profit before a just, sustainable world.
Beatrice Tulagan is the founder of media non-profit Climate Stories. She is also the East Asia Regional Field Organizer of 350.org.