January 17, 2020

Climate Change and Migration – What Is Poland Afraid of?

Activists attend an environmental demonstration, part of the Global Climate Strike by "Fridays for Future" movement, calling for global strikes on Black Friday, a week ahead of the United Nations' COP25 Climate Change Summit, in Warsaw, Poland November 29, 2019. The banner reads "Stop talking, time to take actions".
Activists attend an environmental demonstration, part of the Global Climate Strike by "Fridays for Future" movement, calling for global strikes on Black Friday, a week ahead of the United Nations' COP25 Climate Change Summit, in Warsaw, Poland November 29, 2019. The banner reads "Stop talking, time to take actions".

As I used to live in Warsaw some years ago, I recall that some days were called “peak of pollution” and children were advised to stay indoors. The overall awareness over climate change and environmental problems was relatively low among people.

Now the European Union is taking important steps towards securing the „Green Deal“. Poland thus far is the only member state that has not agreed to the target of climate neutrality by 2050. Poland claims to have a unique situation, which needs to be approached with sensitivity. This opinion angered French President Emmanuel Macron, who was quoted as saying “if Poland does not confirm its participation, it will place itself outside European mechanisms, notably when it comes to financial solidarity”. The European Commission proposes to secure the transition by establishing the „Just Transition Fund“, with an estimated 100 billion euros often cited. The more concrete proposal on financing was announced on January 14, according to which Poland would receive the largest amount of funds among member states.

There is also speculation that European attitudes towards the evocation of Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union connected to the rule of law issues could be reviewed in order to achieve unity on the Green issue. The Polish position can also well be an attempt to stall until June, after which the elections for the President of Poland will have taken place.

Climate change is mentioned as a security issue in the White Book on National Security of the Republic of Poland of 2013, which was published before the populist PiS party came to power in 2015. The White Book stipulates that „challenges resulting from climate changes might result in disastrous consequences that we are not fully capable of specifying yet. They also have a growing influence on the security of states, including Poland.“ The necessity to treat climate change seriously is also acknowledged by the present conservative government, as the ministry of climate was created after the elections in autumn of 2019. The head of the ministry, Michał Kurtyka said: “We cannot avoid our responsibility when it comes to our planet.” The word “climate” was also considered the keyword of 2019 (alongside with “LGBTI”) during the vote for the “Word of the Year” by the Institute of Polish language of the University of Warsaw. Thus, one cannot say that climate change is not important to the Poles. At the same time, Poland is still largely dependent on coal, and Polish cities are suffering from pollution. When compared, social issues connected to the coal industry are of more of immediate concern to the current government than the longer term and more abstract situation of the planet. We can see that the dangerous climate situation is downplayed in the rhetoric of authorities. Absurd examples include statements from figures in the Catholic Church notably the Archbishop of Kraków, Marek Jędraszewski, who said that “ecologism is a very dangerous phenomenon”. In an interview with TV Republika, the archbishop also mentioned Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, and said that she “is becoming an oracle for all political and social forces” that are trying to “break with the entire Christian tradition”. Such statements run contrary to the opinion expressed by Pope Francis who treats the problem of climate change seriously. Thus, in a bizarre way, climate change itself is downplayed as a threat in Poland, while climate activism is seen as a threat to Polish identity.

At the same time, the migration issue has dominated the political discourse in Poland since the migration crisis began in 2015. Polish authorities refused to fulfil relocation quotas, and the plan collapsed, partly as a result of the strong opposition from Visegrad countries. The leader of the PiS party Jaroslaw Kaczynski has notoriously said that Muslims would bring parasites and diseases to citizens. Needless to say, migrants from Muslim countries are also often associated with terrorism in the eye of the public and the utterances of populist leaders. Unique to Poland are the great number of migrants from Belarus and Ukraine. It is estimated that about 200 thousand Ukrainians have a permanent residence permit in Poland. In addition, about 1.8 million Ukrainian workers held temporary work permits in 2018. While most Ukrainians in Poland are there for purely economic reasons, Polish authorities often consider part of the Ukrainian population in Poland as refugees from the ongoing war in east Ukraine. Overall, the anxiety about migration from outside Europe seems, at first sight, irrational, as there are virtually no Muslim migrants in Visegrad countries and therefore residents have no immediate experience of living next to them.

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes in their book “The Light that Failed” make a strong argument for the reason behind this anxiety. The authors claim that these fears are generated by the emigration of people from Eastern Europe, concurrent to an ageing population and low birth rates. Taken together, this can lead to rapid depopulation and the need for new workers to enter the labour force. This new migration would lead, according to conservative voices, to the replacement of traditional ethnicities by outsiders and a loss of identity. The populist governments thus project these fears on the mythical non-existent Muslim migrants, who would “take away jobs”. At the same time, the real migrants from the East of Europe are accepted quite well by the population.

The visions of threats by Eastern European populists and Western liberals are thus in direct contradiction as far as climate change and migration are concerned. At the same time, the two issues are interconnected. In the long-term, “climate refugees” could become a reality. For example, even now, the issue of water and land availability, in the Middle East and in South-East Asia could be a contributing to conflict and subsequent migration.

The ability of leadership to make long-term decisions that will influence future generations rather than the next election cycle has been often questioned. The Commission’s Green Deal could well be the long-awaited strategic breakthrough. Only time will tell if climate change issue is the new East-West divide in Europe.