Postcard from #COP24: Tensions at play at the global climate talks

Friday 07 December 2018

Associate Professor Linda Selvey, President and Chair, Australian Faculty of Public Health Medicine, is in Katowice, Poland for the UNFCCC global climate talks. Here she shares some insights on the tensions at play at the global climate talks in Poland.


In the book I’m reading: ‘Dinner with the dissidents’ (by John Tesarsch), the main character is a writer in Moscow in 1970 who is faced with the dilemma of betraying Solzhenitsyn in return for publishing his book and salvaging his name. He wakes up in a cold sweat after a dream in which he’s in a sinking boat and was told by his Kremlin ‘boss’ that if he tossed Solzhenitsyn out of the boat he would be saved.

The COP24 is being hosted by Poland, a country that is heavily reliant on coal for electricity and the meeting is being held in the coal mining area of the country.

Yesterday Poland hosted a session about a ‘just transition’, in which representatives from a Polish union and the electricity industry spoke of the need to continue reliance on coal for at least 30 years in order to preserve the livelihoods (but not necessarily the lives) of the coal miners. Polish coal mines are underground, and men come to the surface with faces covered in coal dust. I therefore asked the question as to whether or not the health of the coal miners was taken into consideration when making decisions about when to phase out coal. Neither the union nor the electricity industry representative seemed to think that the health of the coal miners was an issue. The issue was having a livelihood. While the link between employment and health is well understood, should it be the case that the health of individual workers and of people all over the world be sacrificed for the sake of employment?

In Australia, we are facing the same dichotomy. In the case of the proposed Adani Carmichael coal mine it is again the question of whether to protect our climate, our waterways, our health and the land belonging to the Wangan Jagilingou people - or provide jobs.

Now, while the majority of Australians think this is a false dichotomy, those who live in Townsville beg to differ. As with Poland, and indeed in most middle and high income countries, these dichotomies are not set up by the people who want to work, but are set up by our current economic system and a complete failure of that system and our governments to put people and our planet first. As with the character in the book, the dilemma faced by the people of Townsville and of Poland was not of their making, it was set up by the people who govern.

Here at the COP24 this is all laid bare. Non-government organisations, scientists and representatives from low- and middle-income countries speak with the same voice.

The urgency of taking meaningful action is clear, as is the need to provide funds to those countries who are facing enormous loss and damage from climate change to assist them to relocate people where necessary. On the other side, government elected representatives and officials from the rest of the world are putting enormous energy into negotiating a deal that will work for their countries’ economic and political interests. For example, Australia and the USA are blocking an attempt by countries experiencing extraordinary loss and damage to negotiate funding to assist them with coping with their losses.

Thus, there is an apparent dilemma at play here in Katowice. Do we protect what we believe to be in our own best interests, or do we commit to doing whatever it takes to limit global warming to 1.5C?

If we look at this question rationally, the answer is clear. This can’t be a true dilemma, there is only one reasonable answer. Yet, our economic and political systems force us into this dilemma, where we face the question of whether or not to throw Solzhenitsyn out of the boat, when in reality if we do so, we will all, most definitely, sink!


Author: Associate Professor Linda Selvey, President and Chair, Australian Faculty of Public Health Medicine

Text originally published to Facebook, used with permission from the author.