The Populist Pushback on Climate Change

Cover image by Natalie Wu

Written by Jan Gerber

On December 3, 2018, as the warmest year on record was coming to a close, the Polish President Andrzej Duda delivered his opening remarks at the COP24 Climate Conference in Katowice, Poland. With the double-edged motto of the conference, “Changing Together,” over his head, Mr. Duda made a case for Poland’s exemplary green economic transformation of the last quarter century––glossing over the last four years which have significantly rolled it back. In 2018, Poland’s Law & Justice (PiS) government mounted a populist challenge against international cooperation on climate change, joined by the Trump administration in United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the dissatisfied French people on the streets of Paris.


Poland, especially its southern industrial region of Silesia (with the capital of Katowice), has been known to the world as the “Coal Country” for decades as the primary producer and consumer of this precious resource in Europe. In the recent years, world coal production has gone down, and the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) emphasized in its October 2018 report that if by 2050 it does not reach 0, the chances of less than 1.5 degrees celsius global warming will. However, Mr. Duda proclaimed coal Poland’s “national strategic resource” during the conference and suggested that Poland should stick to king coal for the next 200 years––or as long as there is any of it left to mine.

In 2015, 80% of Poland’s electricity generation came from coal-fired plants and 50% of all all workers employed in the hard coal mining industry in the European Union were in Poland. Both percentages have been on the decline along with the profitability of the coal industry, but the damage to the people and the climate of Poland has already been done. WHO reports Poland has 33 of the 50 most polluted cities in the European Union. Impenetrable clouds of smog stretch over the city panoramas, villages, and the countryside alike and some 48,000 Poles are estimated to die annually from illnesses related to poor air quality. When Polish and foreign nonprofit environmental organizations raised the alarm, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in early 2018 that Poland infringed air quality laws between 2007 and 2015 by continuously exceeding pollution values. Despite, or perhaps because of this pushback, Mr. Duda doubled down on his December 3 speech the next day when he attended celebrations of the Polish National Miner’s day and promised never to allow “ Polish mining to be murdered.” With the consequences of burning coal so evident and dire, Mr Duda’s choice of words was ironic.

As Polish cities breathe some of the worst-quality air in Europe, the ruling populist party has taken a hatchet to the ancient woodlands of Poland instead of its coal mines. To wit, the government has been chipping away at the Bialowieza Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the last of the European bison still roam the primeval woodlands. Recently, the State Forests, the arm of the Polish Treasury tasked with managing state-owned forests, announced that it will push to log 171,000 meters cubed of the woodlands by the end of 2021. To conform to the UNESCO standards and the EU directives, the Polish government organization must create new designated areas for commercial exploitation, since it had already exceeded its 4-year logging limit in the Bialowieza Forest in 2017. Environmentalists such as Greenpeace Poland again raised the issue to the ECJ, which again ruled against the Polish government and ordered an immediate repeal of the new logging permits. The PiS party and its base, who tend to portray any EU intervention in Poland’s internal affairs as trampling on its sovereign will, may be the only beneficiaries from this standoff.

United States

On the other side of the pond, in this same spirit of defiance and distrust, the U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the history’s greatest carbon-emitting economy from the Paris agreement altogether. From insisting that climate change was a “hoax invented by the Chinese to attack U.S. manufacturing,” candidate Trump’s climate skepticism has translated into President Trump’s climate policy.

Based on the data available from 2018, Rhodium Group, an independent research institution, calculated last year the U.S. experienced its second biggest spike (3.4%) in CO2 emissions in two decades, coming mainly from carbon-heavy transportation sector and the rise in natural gas as replacement for coal in energy production. In the same year, President Trump took a hatchet to multiple Obama-era regulations, including the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) measure that targeted tailpipe CO2 emissions on federal highways and a 2012 rule that enforced fuel efficiency and clean technology standards for U.S. automakers. The staggering rise in emissions from transportation may not have been fully accidental.

Even though the coal industry has shrunk by 50% since 2008 and coal consumption is projected to decline in 2019 to a 40-year low, the Trump administration, like the Polish populist government, embraced the polluting resource. On December 6, as COP24 entered into the third day of talks, Mr. Trump announced he would do away with a law requiring all new coal-fired power plants to have carbon-capturing technology––a last-ditch attempt to make new production cheaper and to make good on campaign promises to miners of West Virginia and Wyoming. By thus leaning against the rising cost of production and pushing exports to developing countries such as India, the President has managed to stop the bleeding of the dying U.S. coal industry, if only for a moment, but at a mounting social cost for years to come.


In South America, the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil––a fellow populist with strong ties to Steve Bannon––proved another complicating factor for the climate conferees in Poland. A month after Mr. Bolsonaro’s victory at the polls, Brazil’s delegation at COP24 was responsible for the deadlock in the effort to write guidelines for Article 6 of the Paris Agreement on international cooperation between different countries’ carbon trading markets. The issue was thus put off to the next UN climate conference in 2019 in Chile––a summit that was supposed to be held in Rio de Janeiro but which President Bolsonaro decided his government would no longer host.


Echoing European fears over logging of the primeval Bialowieza Forests environmentalists have swarmed to Brazil to protect the Amazon from “opening up” for development of infrastructure and energy projects. Mr. Bolsonaro’s campaign trail promises to Brazil’s agribusiness interest, if realized, would mean mass clear-cutting of the Amazon for agricultural use, mainly for the lucrative soybean and beef farming. The president has appointed––on the prompting of the agribusiness lobby–– a new minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles, who has suspended all government cooperation with Brazil’s NGOs for the preliminary period of three months, effectively ceding all control of licensing of the new projects in the rainforest to the ministries under his control. As the Amazon remains the world’s largest carbon sink, its continued or increased deforestation will not only mean a blow to the absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere but will also release gigantic stocks of carbon in the rainforests biomass, bringing the US ever so close to the brink of irreversible climate catastrophe.

The Human Factor

The least expected blow to Paris Accords in 2018 came from Paris itself and from the hand of the agreement’s greatest sponsor, French President Emmanuel Macron. The rising star of the ossified French politics, Mr. Macron promised to unite liberal Europe against all nationalists, populists, and climate change deniers– making himself as many enemies with his rhetoric. In one speech under the ill-chosen Arc de Triomphe, he railed against nationalism, which he even went so far as to equate with with treason. But if the patronizing rhetoric provided oxygen for the dissatisfaction with the liberal government, the tax hikes on fuel announced in November stoked the fire of public anger which erupted in mass protests and violence that 17 weeks later still rock the country. There may be a lesson here for all ambitious officials who wish to take a multi-trillion dollar economy off fossil fuels overnight by fiat.


Given to inexpedient taxation and such Macronesque moralizing, liberals have undermined their own cause by placing the main brunt of the fight against climate change on on the shoulders of the average people. There is a better way. The whole global populist pushback in 2018, culminating with Poland’s ambiguous appearance at COP24 and the fires in Paris, points to a missing element in the international case against climate change––an emphasis on what President Duda called the “human factor.” Accounting for that factor would mean striking a balance between climate change on the one hand and social change on the other. It would mean rejecting both the populist instinct to resuscitate an unprofitable and polluting industry with taxpayer money and a top-down, lump-sum tax on transportation. Taking nationalist populism at its best, with a tendency to private market solutions and solidarity with the dislocated workers of dying industries, policy makers ought to champion more targeted tools like carbon pricing and an income-neutral carbon tax that allows for rebates for negative emissions for firms and households.

Aside from innumerable health benefits (which also pay in the long term) and stimulating private sector innovation to reduce emissions, carbon rebates would benefit lower income households the most, who ought to remain the primary concern of all future policies. Today, liberals and nationalist populists are locked in two sisyphic struggles––the first waging war on the people, the second on the climate––and everybody’s losing.

Jan Gerber is a sophomore at The King’s College in New York City, majoring in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PP&E). He is the founder and the president of the John Quincy Adams Society Chapter at King’s. Originally from Poland, he moved to the U.S. for higher education and the experience of living abroad. He is also a languages enthusiast and an American history wonk.






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