Rebekah Hill: They paved paradise and put up a [Polish mine]

Alright, the title was a bit of a stretch. But I think Joni Mitchell would agree, hosting the UNFCCC climate talks in the coal heartland of the EU is a situation you can really only make fun of. The words of Fijian Prime Minister and COP23 President Frank Bainimarama encapsulated this ridiculousness during the opening ceremony, when he said he felt as though the Polish hosts had “kept out the cold with the warmth of their welcome”.

I wondered whether anyone else’s eyebrows raised in the plenary overflow room. Was he referring to the global warming potential of the constant fossil fuel power stations we drove past every day en route to the talks? Or perhaps the swollen police presence, random checks and atmosphere of tension and urgency? Or maybe he was referring to the protest ban and terrorist alert enacted in honour of the seminal climate talks? Take your pick.

Not to say safety measures are unwelcoming - of course this is paramount – I just wouldn’t say the context of the talks encourages a sense of warmth by any stretch of the imagination.

To elaborate on arguably the most cordial welcome measure, the Polish government passed a law that banned all spontaneous protests in Katowice during the talks. However, protests organised within the conference centre are all good (hence, the photo below is not evidence of me doing anything illegal @mum). The law also allows police to use personal data about COP24 participants without their knowledge or consent. Put simply: days before people from all around the world came to Poland to talk about the future of the planet in an already problematic and unrepresentative space, the Polish Government announced: “you all face prison if you protest spontaneously AND your personal data can be used by the police without your consent.” Seems fair.

A few AYLI delegates participate in an action protesting the rate of negotiations

A few AYLI delegates participate in an action protesting the rate of negotiations

Not surprisingly, this law has unleashed a heap of criticism. UN institutions and civil society have tried to discuss this with the Polish government who wouldn’t budge, even though it’s a breach of fundamental freedoms and human rights. It’s also been agreed to set a dangerous precedent for the reach of parliamentary sovereignty. Parliamentary sovereignty basically refers to the fact that parliament has the legal authority to create any law at all and no one can legally stop them. To reference an overused public law example, theoretically it would allow a law directing the killing of all blue-eyed babies. The fact that this doesn’t happen is a bit more complicated, but basically an arbitrary abuse of power like this undermines democracy and fundamental freedoms and somebody needs to tweet Dean Knight.

Delightedly, this cheerful welcome has persisted throughout the week. Yesterday Polish authorities denied entry at the border to 12 members of civil society groups who were due to attend the talks, because they organised a peaceful march of 65,000 people in Brussels last week. The Polish coal industry must be breathing a sigh of relief. If people can’t exercise their right to participate in peaceful or meaningful civil society protests, luckily decision makers won’t be held accountable!

Enthusiastic AYLI delegate Felix tries his best to speak truth to power ~upside down~

Enthusiastic AYLI delegate Felix tries his best to speak truth to power ~upside down~

But seriously, it’s frustrating to watch. The Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) put it well when they said:

“By closing spaces for voices of the people to come into global platforms like the COP, the profit-making exploitative industries and the states continue business as usual at the cost of the planet.”

Big emitters need challenging through civil noise as well as political pressure from negotiators, a fundamental pillar of democracy at the annual global platform that is created during COPs. If civil society aren’t allowed to react to decisions that unfold during the pivotal implementation of the Paris Agreement and further shoved from the UNFCCC process, how are we expected to have faith in our democratic systems?  

I also wanted to include another instance of exclusion (although slightly off the theme of protests) just to paint a picture of how tense things are. Evidently, a COP24 participant was told she couldn’t bring her 13-month old baby into the venue without a badge. So, she had to breastfeed in a corner by the entrance.

Being intensely confronted with a political climate like this does make you appreciate the relative chill-ness of the New Zealand government, where babies can be fed in the comfort of their mothers’ arms in the House of Representatives. Babies seem to be coming up a bit here. Perhaps the Polish government just hate babies?

Regardless, I am excited to participate in the main COP24 March for Climate in a few hours. Although it was organised within the conference and is therefore legal, we’ve been told to take a t-shirt and water bottle to put on our faces in case of tear gas. Maybe Polish police officers will be just as friendly as their government? Let’s hope not.

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.