As Polish Gov’t Promotes Coal, Advocate Warns Coal Hastens Climate Change, Devastates Human Health

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This year’s U.N. climate summit is in Katowice, Poland, and the Polish government is using the summit to promote coal, with several state-owned Polish coal companies sponsoring parts of the talks. Democracy Now! visited the Guido coal mine near Katowice, which has been turned into a mining museum, to speak with Polish environmental lawyer Bartosz Kwiatkowski. He is the director of the Frank Bold Foundation, which is involved in numerous lawsuits challenging the expansion of coal mining in Poland.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting from the U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Protests have just taken place here inside the U.N. climate talks over a presentation by the United States pushing for the expansion of coal power plants and other fossil fuels. Poland, which is hosting the climate talks, has also used the summit to promote coal. Several state-owned Polish coal companies have sponsored part of the talks.

Well, on Sunday, Democracy Now! visited the Guido coal mine near Katowice, which has been turned into a mining museum.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now!’s Mike Burke spoke with the Polish environmental lawyer Bartosz Kwiatkowski, director of the Frank Bold Foundation, which is involved in numerous lawsuits challenging the expansion of coal mining in Poland.

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: So, my name is Bartosz Kwiatkowski. I’m a lawyer. In the same time, I’m a director of Frank Bold Foundation. It’s a branch of an international NGO based here in Poland, in Krakow. And mainly we work in the area of environmental law. Right now, obviously, we work also with climate change as such. So, our cases in which we are helping other NGOs—we are making also our own activities, and we are helping grassroots and citizens—they are connected with open pit mines, with where lignite is extracted. They are connected with coal mines, and also they’re connected with power plants, using coal and lignite to produce electricity. And mainly, as I said, we use an environmental approach to fight against those installations, but also we are thinking about social problems connected with operation of this whole entities and how it impacts life of citizens.

MIKE BURKE: And can you give an overview of the significance of coal in this region?

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: Oh, you know, it’s a very hard question, because it used to be the most important thing in Upper Silesia, but it has changed a lot. Right now, in the place where we are, more than 2.2 million of people live. At the same time, only 80,000 of them are miners. It used to be more than 300,000. So the situation completely has changed. And people right now, many people here in Upper Silesia, are against coal as such, because coal is—using coal and extracting of coal is connected with many problems we have.

I would say that we can look at coal from three perspectives. Problems connected with coal, we can look at them from three perspectives. The first one is connected obviously with climate changes here, so it’s connected with operation of our power plants and the emissions of greenhouse gases. And I would say it’s the least recognized problem by Polish citizens. They don’t feel it right now. So, it started this year, the big discussions around that, because of the conference in Katowice which is taking place, because of the IPCC report. So, it started to be a topic in media and also for regular citizens.

The other perspective will be national, so using coal, lignite and regular coal, hard coal, as a fuel to heat your houses. It’s a very, very big problem in Poland. Many people still use this fuel as a main fuel to heat houses. And because of that, we have huge problems with air quality.

And the third thing will be local, so connected with places where the coal mines or open lignite—open-pit mines extracting lignite are located. And it’s connected with environmental damages. It’s also connected with collapsing buildings and cracks in buildings, here and in Silesia with some shakes of buildings, which happens from time to time. It’s connected with lack of water, especially in the areas of open-pit mines, where farmers have not enough water to use in their fields, and so on and so on.

So, there’s these three perspectives, and I think that most of people right now in Poland see this, the coal and lignite, from this perspective. As I recall, 72 percent of Polish people right now think that we should resign from coal as a main source of power.

See, the problem with health and impact of smoke and air pollution on health is that we cannot really find a direct link between the air pollution and diseases or deaths. The World Health Organization is saying that every year in Poland around 45,000 of people are dying because of air pollution. But, of course, it doesn’t work like this, that we are going outside our house and just falling down and dying, coughing. It’s rather the process. And, of course, it’s a big problem for pregnant women, for elderly people, a problem for people who have some heart diseases, lung diseases and asthma problems and so on. And so we can see there’s some regularity right now, that every year during winter more such people are dying in hospitals.

MIKE BURKE: Can you talk about where we are right now?

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: So, we are in the Guido coal mine in Zabrze, in Upper Silesia. And it’s a former coal mine. It’s not operating anymore. We are in the museum. And I think that’s the best future for coal mines here in this region, to be the museum to show how it looked like many years ago. The coal mine was here established in the 19th century by the Donnersmarck family, one of the noble Silesian families. And it ended its operations, I think, in—20 or 25 years ago. And right now you can visit and see how the coal mine operated in the 19th century on the first level, but you also can go deeper, to 355 meters, and see how the miners worked down there 25 years ago.

MIKE BURKE: All right. Well, let’s go in.

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: OK, let’s go.

MIKE BURKE: All right. I guess we have to take the lift now.

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: We are going underground. We are in the lift, which miners used to use when going every day down to dig coal. And the lift is going quite fast. I don’t remember. It’s six meters per second, if I remember well. And you can feel it right now. So, yeah, it’s dark, cold. We can feel the pressure in our ears, because of the atmosphere pressure is changing. And we are going a few hundred meters beneath the ground level.

MIKE BURKE: All right, here we are.

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: Yeah, thank you. So we are 320 meters underground. So, it’s around the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower is as high the level we are right now.

MIKE BURKE: Underground.

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: Yeah.

MIKE BURKE: And now, there are train tracks down here.

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: Yeah, the train with coal used to travel here, so the coal was transported to the shaft with carriages you can see here. The same shaft was used for transporting coal and transporting miners, miners underground. We are walking through the quite narrow and not very high tunnel underground. We can see the train which was used for transporting coal on our right. And we’re also walking on tracks on which these carriages were riding. Oh, that’s interesting, because here you can see the signature of one of the most famous Polish composers, Krzysztof Penderecki. So, yeah, he was here 15—no, five years ago, 22nd of October, 2013, yeah. So, he signed on coal.

MIKE BURKE: Now, we come from the United States, and President Trump campaigned on a platform of bringing coal back to the U.S. and opening new coal plants. And I’m wondering, if you had a chance to give President Trump a tour of, say, this coal mine, what would your message to him be?

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: Yeah, first message will be, look what’s happening around the world, because we cannot see it here in Poland, for example, yet, but you can see it in the U.S. already. I mean, some storms, some tornadoes and so on, it’s all connected with climate change. And the main reason why the climate is changing, why the temperature is rising, is using coal, is using petrol, gas and so on. So we have to stop to do this.

Many people who came here to Katowice and are talking about that all every day, that they are losing their land, they’re losing their houses, they’re losing their lives, because of the climate change. So, we can switch to something different. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have—I don’t know—labor, because we can work in renewables, for example, and also many people will be employed there. Talking from a Polish perspective, right now the energy from the universe is cheaper than the energy from power plants using coal. So, that’s the direction we should go.

MIKE BURKE: I also have a question about the protests. We arrived in Poland on Saturday and went straight to the street, the climate protest that marched out to the entrance of the COP conference. And we were shocked by the number of police. You had both riot police and what looked like undercover police patrolling the street for a somewhat small protest. What was your reaction to what happened yesterday?

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: Yeah, the protest, if I heard correctly, the number of protesters was 4,000 people. And the number of police officers around was more than one-and-a-half thousand. So, it’s a little bit crazy, to be honest. And that’s the first time I see such a situation that’s so, let’s say, small a march, at the same so peaceful march, because people marching there were really peacefully orientated, gather so many police officers.

And that fits in the whole policy that the government is doing around COP. They are saying that there is a high terrorist risk right now in Poland. They introduced a special law which is banning the spontaneous gathering in—gatherings in Katowice. There are regulations which allow police and other services, such authorities, to make some surveillance over the citizens and the COP attendees.

And I don’t see that there are real threats here. And, for me, that’s not proportional at all. And that’s breaching our human rights to protest, to say what we think about the climate change, what we say, what we think about our government or other governments’ polices.

MIKE BURKE: And what message do you think this sends, you know, to climate activists, that they’re being treated almost like enemies of the state?

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: You know, that’s the problem that many of eco-activists are sure that their phones, for example, are eavesdropped. Many activists were arrested in the past for their actions. In Bialowieza Forest, for example, people were—when they were fighting against a cutting down the oldest forest in Europe, the force was used against them. They were hit, and afterwards they were convicted, that they were accused of committing crimes. So that’s the message we get every day, really, here in Poland, and not only in Poland, so it’s nothing new for us. But when IPCC is saying that we’ve got only 12 years to act, I think it’s time to get to the table to talk and not to fight with each other. We should be partners, not enemies.

MIKE BURKE: Now, as a lawyer, can you talk about some of the legal struggles that are going on in this country right now around coal projects and around other projects connected to climate change?

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: Oh, we’ve got a lot of legal actions taken by not only civic society as such, but also some investors of power plants who think that some investments are against their interest, also taken by ordinary people who live near the coal mine or power plant. And those actions are connected with stopping construction of new open-pit mines, with expanding of old ones, with expanding of—stopping expansion of coal mines. Here in Silesia, for example, would connect with a huge risk to environment, also huge risk for the comfort and security of people living next to the coal mine. We also monitor the emissions which are made by power plants. Very often, unfortunately, those power plants try to hide how much emissions of greenhouse gases or mercury they do.

So we are using almost every possible legal tool to stop the harm this whole sector is doing to the environment and also to the citizens, because functioning of coal mines, and especially open-pit mines, is connected with lack of water. Lack of water means the discomfort in your everyday life, but also farmers, for example, cannot operate at all without water. So that’s a big problem for people, as well.

MIKE BURKE: It’s interesting that they turned this coal mine into a museum. And I’m wondering, you know, how much discussion is going on in Poland about moving away from coal as an energy source and moving towards renewables?

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: Yes, as I mentioned before, the surveys are showing that 72 percent of people right now is supporting the idea of leaving coal. And this discussion started. Unfortunately, the government, and not only the current government, in fact, all our governments after 1989, support coal and support coal miners because of political reasons. Yeah, but, for sure, as I said, the coal is ending. So, even if we don’t want to make a transition, we have to. And the faster we start to discuss it, the faster we start to make decisions, the better for us and the better for climate and environment, of course.

MIKE BURKE: Now, what about wind power?

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: That’s a big problem right now, because our government, or, rather, the Parliament, last year introduced a special regulation which in fact banned the construction of new wind power.

MIKE BURKE: Right now you’re—they’re trying to expand coal mining, but at the same time they’re banning wind power?

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: Wind farms, yeah. Unfortunately, that’s true.

MIKE BURKE: All right. Well, I guess the lift is here to go back up. You know, one final question I have for you before we go is: What is your message for delegates inside the U.N. Climate Change Conference this week, which is taking place in your homeland?

BARTOSZ KWIATKOWSKI: Yeah, I think that everybody here has the same message—I mean, the representatives of the third sector, of NGOs—that politicians talk, and leaders act. And I think that that’s the main message: You have to start acting, not only talking about it. And you have to agree with experts. You are not experts in climate issues, and you have to trust scientists who are really experts in the area. When they are talking that that’s the last right for us, that we’ve got two minutes before midnight until we are going to die in some time, we have to act today, yeah? That’s important for us, for our kids, for the future of the planet.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Polish environmental lawyer Bartosz Kwiatkowski.

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