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In Poland’s coal heartland, miners defend their jobs but imagine a greener future

By staff - Climate Change News, December 5, 2017

Marek Wystyrk, 44, began mining at 18 and worked underground for nine years. He got a degree and worked his way up Kompania Węglowa, Poland’s largest coal mining company, to become a transport coordinator.

Coming from the Upper Silesian town of Rydułtowy, he believes Poland should keep exploiting its coal reserves, which could last for decades. Wystyrk has seen the deprivation left by mines closing nearby.

At the same time, he is preparing his three children for life after coal. “I asked my son to study environmental protection,” says Wystyrk about the eldest, who is at a vocational school. “But I don’t know what will come out of that, because he loves theatre. My own father told me not to become a miner, but I did it anyway.”

Wystyrk’s ambivalence is common in Upper Silesia, Poland’s hard coal heartland. The people are proud of their industrial heritage but increasingly aware of its polluting legacy; torn between defending the jobs they know and creating a greener future.

It is a tension that will come under the spotlight in December 2018, when regional centre Katowice hosts the annual UN climate change summit.

The Polish government has committed to keeping the coal industry alive.

“The Polish mining and power industry have good prospects,’ said prime minister Beata Szydło – herself the daughter of a Silesian miner – in August at a mining event in Katowice. “We want to build the Polish power industry and economy based on a safe energy mix where hard coal and lignite will have a prominent place.”

Her Law and Justice Party (PiS) positions itself as a champion of the country’s coal miners, which numbered nearly 100,000 in 2015, according to industry group Euracoal. The domestically produced fuel is seen as key to Poland’s energy security.

But state support comes at a cost: financial, environmental and political.

Polish hard coal is expensive. It costs $76 a tonne to dig out, according to the World Bank, compared to an international price of around $50. Mining companies are making unsustainable losses.

Last year, in a reform meant to alleviate the debt accrued, PiS transferred Kompania Węglowa’s 11 mines in Upper Silesia to a newly created company, Polska Grupa Górnicza (PGG), and had state utilities cover some of the financial losses. The least profitable mines were transferred to a restructuring company, with a view to closure.

A toxic smog settles on the region every winter. While locals tend to blame traffic, much of the air pollution comes from burning low-quality coal in household stoves for heating. Coal power stations add to the problem, causing 5,800 premature deaths a year across Poland, according to research by ClientEarth.

And coal burning drives climate change. That may seem an abstract problem to Poles, but it is a major source of tension with Brussels. Warsaw frequently lobbies for carve-outs from EU climate policy to benefit its coal industry – and other member states push back.

Back in Upper Silesia, miners watching the government’s restructuring plan are hoping for the best but waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“We were told we will keep our jobs even if some mines close, but we are anyway worried that we could be fired in the future,” says Eugeniusz Gruchel, head of the ZZG trade union at Chwałowice mine.

“People keep saying that miners make good money, but the reality is different: young miners coming to work here leave after one or two paychecks because they can make more elsewhere or abroad,” Gruchel adds. “We should keep the young here, to work for us and for Poland.”

Trump’s war on science

By Cliff Connor - Socialist Alternative, November 27, 2017

— Cliff Conner is currently writing a book entitled “The Tragedy of American Science.”

How loathsome is the Trump administration? Let me count the ways. On second thought, let me not—it would take too long. But one important threat it poses to the United States and the world is to the integrity of American science. Earlier this year, on Earth Day, April 22, hundreds of thousands of people responded to that danger by participating in the March for Science in Washington, D.C., and 600 other cities and towns across the country. How has American science fared since then?

Many right-wing politicians and public intellectuals are torn between repugnance for Donald Trump’s truculent ignorance and exuberance at the prospect that he can help them accomplish their goal of “dismantling the administrative state.” Trump’s first year in office helped advance their strategy of destroying public faith in “big government” by discrediting it. Not only are the Trump administration’s various agencies and cabinet offices laughably incompetent and ethically compromised; the office of the presidency itself has forfeited all claim to the respect of intelligent citizens.

The offensive against “big government” is driven by billionaire donors who finance right-wing think tanks, political campaigns, and media outlets. Their single-minded goal is to reduce their taxes and roll back governmental regulation of their businesses, especially with regard to environmental and public health protection. Their crusade against federal regulatory powers entails going to battle against empirical reality, rationality, knowledge, and expertise—in short, they have declared war against science.

The deregulation of corporate activities that have compromised the credibility of American science did not begin with Trump. Nor was it exclusively a Republican political project; the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations all likewise furthered the deregulation agenda.

It should not be forgotten that many of the environmental rules and regulations Trump’s team has rescinded were only put in place by Obama in the closing days of his eight-year tenure as president. All they accomplished was to provide easy targets for Trump to knock over. The tawdry assemblage of antiscience policymakers appointed by Trump, however, amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of the whole process.

Workers’ rights are being abused as they rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Harvey

By Casey Quinlan - ThinkProgress, November 27, 2017

Day laborers, many of them undocumented, are reportedly being exploited as they rebuild after Hurricane Harvey, and their health and economic well-being are are stake.

According to a report from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and University of Illinois Chicago that surveyed 360 workers, 26 percent of workers have experienced wage theft in their post-Harvey work and 85 percent did not receive health and safety training. Sixty-one percent of workers did not have the necessary respiratory equipment to protect them from mold and chemicals, 40 percent did not have protective eyewear, and 87 percent were not informed about the risks of working in these unsafe buildings.

Workers have been exposed to mold and contamination on a regular basis, and regardless of whether workers are undocumented, they often aren’t aware of their legal protections, according to the report. To make matters worse, Texas is the only state that lets employers opt out of workers’ compensation for work injuries.

Advocates for different labor groups focusing on undocumented laborers have been speaking out on the issue of exploitation and visiting work sites to survey workers and pass out flyers with information on labor rights. There is tension between these advocates in Houston and Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) on how the federal funds for hurricane recovery should be distributed. According to the Guardian, worker groups would prefer the money be distributed through the office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D), since the mayor is seen as a progressive ally. They’re afraid that if the money is instead distributed through the general land office run by George P. Bush, as Abbott wants, immigrant and worker groups won’t receive the aid they need.

The Associated Press interviewed workers hired by individual homeowners, subcontractors working on residential and commercial buildings, and work crews from outside of Texas about the working conditions. Martin Mares, a native of Mexico who came to Houston in 1995, told the AP that the demand for labor attracted people who don’t usually do this kind of work and don’t know how to do it safely. He gave the example of a pregnant woman working without gloves in an apartment building that had flooded.

Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project wrote in the Guardian, “One woman contacted us when she and her crew, after spending more than 90 hours clearing out a Holiday Inn, were turned away without pay.”

Advocates for undocumented workers in Houston are also concerned about Senate Bill 4 (SB4), a Texas law that lets local law enforcement ask people they detain or arrest about their immigration status and hits local government officials with jail time and large financial penalties if they refuse to comply with federal detainer requests. The law is currently being held up in the courts, but that hasn’t completely erased fears among immigrant communities in Texas.

In addition to being exposed to mold and chemicals as well as experiencing wage theft, undocumented workers have already suffered from the devastation of the storm in unique ways due to poverty, lack of insurance, and their undocumented status. There are some 600,000 undocumented immigrants in Houston. After the hurricane, many undocumented people were afraid to use local shelters because of their immigration status or didn’t want to leave homes because they were concerned about protecting property. Although local and federal officials have tried to persuade undocumented people that they are not there to enforce immigration laws, undocumented people are still worried about the risk of seeking help...

Climate Summit’s Solution to Global Warming: More Talking

By Pete Dolack - CounterPunch, November 24, 2017

The world’s governments got together in Germany over the past two weeks to discuss global warming, and as a result, they, well, talked. And issued some nice press releases.

Discussing an existential threat to the environment, and all who are dependent on it, certainly is better than not discussing it. Agreeing to do something about it is also good, as is reiterating that something will be done.

None of the above, however, should be confused with implementing, and mandating, measures that would reverse global warming and begin to deal concretely with the wrenching changes necessary to avoid flooded cities, a climate going out of control, mass species die-offs and the other rather serious problems that have only begun to manifest themselves in an already warming world.

The 23rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP23, wrapped up on November 17 in Bonn. Fiji was actually the presiding country, but the conference was held in Bonn because Fiji was not seen as able to accommodate the 25,000 people expected to attend. The formal hosting by Fiji, as a small Pacific island country, was symbolic of a wish to highlight the problems of low-lying countries, but that this was merely symbolic was perhaps most fitting of all.

These conferences have been held yearly since the UNFCCC was adopted in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. Two years ago, at COP21 in Paris, the world’s governments negotiated the Paris Accord, committing to specific targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Although capping global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (as measured from the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution took off around the world) has been considered the outer limit of “safe” warming, a goal of halting global warming at 1.5 degrees was adopted at Paris. The catch here is that the goals adopted are far from the strength necessary to achieve the 2-degree goals, much less 1.5 degrees.

Before we explore that contradiction, let’s take a brief look at the self-congratulatory statements issued at the Bonn conference’s conclusion.

Will Houston’s Post-Harvey Recovery Exacerbate Inequities or Build a More Just City?

Robert Bullard interviewed by Amy Goodman - Democracy Now!, November 24, 2017

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We are just back from COP23, the U.N. climate summit in Bonn, Germany, where the Trump administration tried to derail the conference by pushing coal, nuclear and gas as solutions to climate change. Well, on this Democracy Now! special, we’re looking at the ways climate change is already affecting the United States.

We turn now to Houston, which was devastated by massive flooding from Hurricane Harvey. The storm shattered all past U.S. rainfall records, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes in the fourth-largest city in the United States. Some call it the “Petro Metro,” Houston, because it’s home to the country’s largest refining and petrochemical complex. The storm also caused massive environmental and public health impacts. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, more than a million pounds of air pollution have been released into the air as petrochemical plants were forced to shut down by the storm.

Well, over Labor Day weekend, just as the floodwaters were receding, Democracy Now! traveled to Houston, where we spoke with Professor Robert Bullard, among others. Dr. Bullard is a professor at Texas Southern University, a historically black college and university. He’s considered the father of environmental justice. We spoke with Professor Bullard at his home, which he had just returned to after evacuating. I began by asking him about his experiences of the flood.

Here's the Teacher-Friendly Antidote to Heartland Institute's Anti-Science School 'Propaganda'

By Ashley Braun - DeSmog Blog, November 26, 2017

On a Monday morning at the end of October, Rob Ross asked a group of earth scientists and educators a question: How many of them had received copies of the Heartland Institute book Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming?

You could feel an immediate sense of frustration in the air. Roughly half of them raised their hands. The Heartland Institute is a Chicago-based think tank that rejects the scientific consensus that humans are changing the climate and has received funding from the conservative billionaire Koch brothers and fossil fuel industry.

In March, it mailed, unsolicited, a 135-page book and accompanying DVD to tens of thousands of science teachers at public high schools across the U.S., with plans to keep that up until the report was in the hands of every last one.

While it received swift backlash — including from Democratic senators, Heartland’s most recent effort (though not its first) to spread climate science denial in public schools had a somewhat fortuitous timing. Ross and his colleagues at the Paleontological Research Institution were putting the finishing touches on their own book for science educators, The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change.

We “had it mostly done when we learned about the Heartland Institute's project to distribute misinformation” to teachers across the country, Ross told DeSmog. He recalls finding out about Heartland’s teacher mailing either through Facebook or the news. It caused an immediate stir among the community of earth science educators.

At first, we were, of course, incredibly alarmed but our second thought was, ‘Well, OK, we have a product to counter it,’” said Ross, who was one of The Teacher-Friendly Guide’s editors.

This gave us a really strong motivation to get the book in the hands of as many teachers as possible across the country.”

Don Duggan-Haas, who also contributed to the guide, says their team felt compelled to respond more directly to Heartland’s misinformation but in a way that wouldn’t delay their own publishing date.

The Teacher-Friendly Guide already had 11 chapters covering everything from the evidence and causes of climate change to the obstacles in addressing and reasons for teaching it. Adding a final chapter, written by Alexandra Moore, in the form of frequently asked questions (FAQ) seemed like the best approach.

Scientists Issue Dire Warning on Climate Change & Key Researcher Urges “Changes in How We Live”

Kevin Anderson interviewed by Amy Goodman - Democracy Now!, November 15, 2017

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting live from the U.N. climate summit in Bonn, Germany. The International Energy Agency predicts U.S. oil production is expected to grow an unparalleled rate in the coming years, even as the majority of scientists worldwide are saying countries need to cut down on fossil fuel extraction, not accelerate it. Meanwhile, a group of 15,000 scientists have come together to issue a dire “second notice” to humanity, 25 years after a group of scientists issued the “first notice” warning the world about climate change.

This comes as a major new study says European governments have drastically underestimated the methane emissions from gas. The report finds European Union nations can burn gas and other fossil fuels at the current rate for only nine more years before these countries will have exhausted their share of the Earth’s remaining carbon budget necessary to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Well, we’re joined now by the co-author of that report, one of the world’s leading climate scientists. He traveled here from England by train, refuses to fly because of its massive carbon footprint. Kevin Anderson is deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester in Britain, co-author of the major new report entitled “Can the Climate Afford Europe’s Gas Addiction?”

Kevin Anderson, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, there’s so much to talk about. First, you took a train here, not a plane?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Yes. I always try and travel either by train or by ship, often by container ship. It’s not that I think the emissions necessarily from me or any other individual are, in themselves, really important. But I think it is really necessary, for those of us who judge that climate change is a huge and serious issue, that we demonstrate that in our own lives, and that we don’t just demonstrate it in what we do, but you try and push that agenda more widely, amongst our own colleagues, with our own universities, and then, of course, hopefully, eventually, that governments pick these things up and then scale up policies to drive this behavioral change at a national and then, hopefully, a global level.

AMY GOODMAN: You have coined the term “the climate glitterati.” What do you mean?

KEVIN ANDERSON: I think there have been—for many years, there have been people, you know, the great and the good, in the climate world. And they have certainly tried very hard to address the issue of climate change, though I think, with the latest data, we can see that emissions are going up, even this year, in 2017. So, fundamentally, they and the rest of us have actually failed in delivering what we expected to or what we hoped for.

But this particular group, I think, have done remarkably well out of the climate change world, if you like, out of all of these, the COPs or negotiations, the engagement with policymakers, the trips to Davos and so forth. And I think, in doing that, in being part of the status quo, they have actually misunderstood that a significant part of the problem when it comes to climate change is making changes in how we live our lives today, particularly those of us who are the very high emitters. About 50 percent of global emission has just come from about 10 percent of the global population. And the climate glitterati are quite clearly—and I include myself there—are in that particular group. And we have to demonstrate leadership in what we do. And I think if people are going to take our very careful analysis seriously, then we have to lend that analysis credibility by demonstrating that we are adjusting our own lives accordingly.

New Study Shows Urgently Needed 100% Renewable Transition More Feasible Than Ever

By Julia Conley - Common Dreams, November 9, 2017

A transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050—or even sooner—is not only possible, but would also cost less and create millions of new jobs, according to new research presented in Bonn, Germany on Thursday.

The German non-profit Energy Watch Group (EWG) teamed up with Finland's Lappeenranta University of Technology to present a study at the COP23 climate summit.

The results of the study, according to a forward written by EWG's president Hans-Josef Fell, show "that a 100% renewable electricity system is an effective and urgently needed climate protection measure. A global zero emission power system is feasible and more cost-effective than the existing system based on nuclear and fossil fuel energy."

To achieve the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting the warming of the earth to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the report argued that "we need a two-fold strategy: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions down to zero and to remove surplus carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A key aspect of this strategy should be a transition to an emission-free global economy, based on 100 percent renewable energy."

Moving to this system through the use of solar and wind power, combined with establishing energy storage systems, would bring the total cost of energy from more than 80 dollars to about 60 dollars per MWh.

Thirty-six million jobs would also be created by 2050 through the transition, compared with 19 million energy jobs in the current economy, according to the research.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle published Thursday, author and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben agreed with the study's assertion that a complete shift from fossil fuels is necessary to avoid even more dangerous effects of global warming than those the planet is already experiencing.

"If we have any hope of preventing absolute civilization challenge and catastrophe, then we need to be bringing down carbon emissions with incredible rapidity, far faster than it can happen just via normal economic transition," McKibben said.

While entirely possible from an economic standpoint as the new research shows, the political feasibility of the transition is another story. "That depends entirely on whether we can build movements large enough to break the power of the fossil fuel industry that holds us where we are," said McKibben. "To go further what we need are many people in the streets demanding action and pushing governments to move much, much faster than they're currently contemplating."

Disaster in Your Backyard

By Jodi Fleishman - 350.Org, October 31, 2017

Jodi Fleishman is a California Nurses Association Union member, and a nurse on the burn unit closest to the recent fires in Northern California. She shared some of her feelings around the intersection of her work and the fires.

It’s my day off, and I have just finished a yoga class and walked across the street to get a coffee. The barista is making small talk, but what he says next catches my attention, “Does it still smell like smoke outside? There’s a massive fire in Napa..” I get a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. I am a Burn ICU nurse and my immediate thought is–mass casualties. Hours later I will get a text from work asking for additional nurses to come in, “Several new burns from Napa fires, SITUATION CRITICAL!” There are only two burn centers in Northern California, we are already functioning at capacity, and I wonder how we will manage.

In the upcoming days, when I go into work I am surprised to learn that we have only a few new critical burns on the unit. As the death toll reported in the news continues to climb, it seems as though most people either got out or didn’t make it, while hundreds remain missing. Those in between are my patients, and their fight for survival, and rebuilding their lives has just begun.

My heart breaks, as I know what is in store for these people. The healing process for burn patients is long and grueling. They often endure months in the ICU—they will be on ventilators, go through multiple surgeries for grafting, twice a day dressing changes, chronic pain, and battling infections. And even after they make it through they physical trauma, they will still have to face the emotional trauma. My job is to help people get through the most vulnerable time in their lives, both physically and emotionally. But the loss, and the grief, and the pain is so layered upon layered, it is almost unfathomable. My patients have lost their homes. Some of them have lost family members, friends, and neighbors. Some have lost their mobility. Some may lose their lives. They have lost life as they know it, and will be forever changed. Their medical team will fight to get them through the infections, and the surgeries and eventually through their rehabilitation. Throughout the months we will listen to your family’s stories, we will share in your grief, we will shed tears, we will carry you with us, and we will go home and hug our own families and count our blessings.

As nurses, we are used to tragedy, we deal with it everyday, but this disaster hit home in a different way. We all know someone who has friends/family who has had to evacuate. Although I live roughly 50 miles from the fires, there has been a Red Alert for the hazardous air quality. It smells like a campfire when I walk outside my front door, and although I am a young healthy woman, I could still feel the tightness in my chest from the smoke in the air. I watch my neighbors walking around with N95 masks on. I think about the vulnerable population—the elderly, the young, those with asthma, and those with chronic heart and lung disease and the risks for them are serious. There are those who will never fully recover from the devastation of these fires. Communities will have to rebuild but will always have scars. My patients will have to rebuild their lives. Rehabilitate their bodies. Adapt to a new body image and new physical limitations. They will have to grieve. They will have to work through their PTSD.

It has been a strange year, one natural disaster after another. But when it happens in your own back yard, and you are one of the responders, you cannot help but feel the fragility of the world around you.

100% renewables: ‘wishful thinking’ or an imperative goal?

By David Schwartzman - Insurge Intelligence, October 24, 2017

In this essay, I was provoked to respond to Stan Cox’s widely-shared article “100 Percent Wishful Thinking: The Green-Energy Cornucopia”, in which he argues that a transition to 100% renewable energy is neither technically feasible, nor desirable.

It is my contention, in contrast, that a 100 percent global renewable energy transition is, indeed, technically possible in a short time frame (20 to 30 years) with a capacity to supply the same level or even more energy to civilization, than the present infrastructure dominated by fossil fuels.

However, this outcome is unlikely in our present economic context:

Insight 1: This renewable energy transition is not likely to bear fruition within the constraints of market capitalism as we know it. Further, a process forward for global demilitarization is a necessary condition to prevent climate catastrophe with its requirement of near future decarbonization of energy supplies.

Axiom 1: Not only is the Pentagon is the world’s single, biggest insitutional consumer of fossil fuels, but global military expenditures now approach $2 trillion per year.

Cox denies the feasibility of a 100% renewable energy transition, basing his views on very problematic critiques focusing largely on the technical aspects of the Jacobson group studies. Those studies led by Mark Jacobson of Stanford University recently provoked controversy when their work received peer-reviewed criticisms from a scientific paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — the same esteemed forum which published Jacobson’s original work.

I agree with Cox in his skepticism with regard to the achievability of a robust global 100% renewable transition unfolding in the next few decades — but only if fossil capital and its military protectors continue to have a powerful role in determining climate and energy policy especially in the U.S.

The Military Industrial (Fossil Fuel Nuclear State Terror and Surveillance) Complex (“MIC” for short) is the main obstacle to making this rapid shift to 100% renewable energy possible. As I have long argued in my papers, and most recently in Schwartzman (2016), the MIC’s perpetual wars driven by a neo-imperial agenda, fuelling the vicious cycle of conflict between state terror and its non-state terrorist antagonists, is perhaps the most fundamental obstacle to constructive action on climate change.

Hence, a path towards the dissolution of the MIC is essential for the world to have any remaining chance to keep warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal by 2100, coupled with bringing down the atmospheric carbon dioxide level below 350 ppm.

A Global Green New Deal is such a path (Schwartzman, 2011), as argued by Felix FitzRoy in his outstanding contribution to this symposium “How the renewable energy transition could usher in an economic revolution”.

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