When I was in my twenties, and living in a one-room log cabin in Cape Breton with my parents and brother, we heated with an old stove, called a “Warm Morning.” It burned coal. Cape Breton was then a coal mining area and we lived not far from the mine in Inverness. We got fuel for the year by driving to the mine and buying a ton of coal. If memory serves, it cost $20. I had not thought of it for years.
I write from Katowice, Poland. My sensory memories from those winters 40 years ago came flooding back. The whole place smells of burning coal.
It is the worst of places for a climate meeting, the heart of Poland’s historic coal mining and coal burning region. That is no accident. The Government of Poland likes to host climate negotiations, and it does not want real climate action. It wants coal.
I first came to Poland in 2008 for COP14 in Posnan. It was depressing. Then we were in Warsaw in 2013 for COP20. It was really depressing. The low-point was when the Prime Minister at the time fired the conference chair, his environment minister, for being too reluctant to push fracking. And here we are again. The explanation is the United Nations system for rotating conference locations. Every fifth year is Eastern Europe and only Poland offers.
The critical agenda for this COP is on two tracks – to confirm and approve the 500-page document called the “Paris Rule Book” setting out the shared approach to calculating and reporting on the myriad of specific items required under Paris, and to respond to the IPCC report on the imperative to hold the global average temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees C.
The focus of Canada’s government is on the first and not the second. It will be a challenge to do either.
Catherine McKenna has already announced that, despite the clear and urgent warnings of science that we must collectively and as a family of nations significantly increase our domestic efforts, Canada will not improve our target until 2020.
As I write this at the mid-point of the conference, Sunday December 9, yesterday’s meeting ended late at night in a failure to come to consensus on one word: Does this COP “note” or “welcome” the report of the IPCC that global average temperatures must be held to no more than 1.5 degrees C?
On this issue, Canada was on the right side. We should “welcome” a report that tells us there is still time to secure a livable planet for humanity and the other millions of species with whom we share this precious orb. The nations pushing against the IPCC report were predictable – the USA, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Let’s personalize this triumvirate of fossil fuel fans – Trump, Putin and Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
What else do they have in common? Well, at least Trump and Putin have shown a mad preference for each other. All three are hostile to a free media. It is clear that Russian journalists take their life in their hands to speak truth to power. Take note of the bravery of Canada’s Minister for Global Affairs who, as a correspondent living in Moscow, used to write critically of Putin. That is why Chrystia Freeland wears the badge of honour of being banned by Moscow.
The brutal and horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate establishes both the criminal and murderous nature of the Crown Prince and the venality of Trump, who refuses to condemn the murder. In fact, Trump has opened up a threat to US journalists by repeatedly calling them “the enemy of the people.” This approach is now gaining favour with Canadian Conservatives, Premier Doug Ford and federal leader Andrew Scheer – who also decry climate action.
Trump’s preference for dictators has been a subject of some alarm – as it should for any leader in a democracy. But how does this strange alliance impact climate action?
It will require far more effective multilateral work than the world has ever seen. We must re-inject sanctions into the range of options available to enforce global action. We can no longer count on “legally binding treaties” without enforcement mechanisms. And we have to hope against hope that the Peoples Republic of China, another totalitarian state, remains a strong climate leader, as it has been since Copenhagen.
In multilateral terms, this is a tall order. It is time to look to the World Trade Organization – also disliked by Trump – as a place for further moves to preserve a livable world. As the current managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, said when speaking in the Saudi capital Riyadh in 2017, “we will be moving to a dark future” if we fail to act decisively on climate. “We will be toasted, roasted and grilled.”
To confront such threats, we need to face facts – but not with resignation. We need to face facts and take up our tools for survival: solar panels on every roof; electric vehicles made in Canada; tree planting and stream restoration; and gardens in every backyard. Big and small actions moving together to a healthy, positive future.
By the way, the coal mines of Inverness have been closed a while. The open pits have been converted to an award-winning high-end golf course, The Cabot Links. More people are employed there now than when we bought coal from them. No risk of black lung and the tips are better.