Polish Climate Movement Stages First Mass Civil Disobedience Against Coal

Thirty-five climate defenders peacefully stormed the Kopalnia Tomisławice open-pit coal mine earlier this month in Poland. It was the first mass climate direct action in the country against a lignite coal mine, the dirtiest form of coal, and it elicited a strong response from police, who used tear gas and beat activists with batons. One eco-defender had her collar bone broken.

The direct action was launched from Obóz dla Klimatu, or Climate Camp, the latest in a broadening network of climate actions happening across Europe. At the week-long camp, Polish climate activism could be seen translating into pan-European direct action tactics. Poland has a narrow civil disobedience tradition — particularly due to the decades-long Soviet occupation.

But direct action is now building, as the budding climate movement simultaneously challenges the Polish government’s position of climate denial and its increasing prejudice and repression of activists.

Obóz dla Klimatu 2019

“Nothing like this has ever happened in Poland,” Ola Polerowicz explained from the recent camp, located in a series fields in central Poland. The camp hosted workshops on everything from the Rojava democratic movement in Syria to direct action trainings, and from plans to build a pan-European intersectional movement for climate and social justice to local farmers sharing their experiences of climate change.

This is Poland’s second camp. Last year’s focused on getting as many people together as possible to build a broad movement. The process repeated, but the main focus now is building mass civil disobedience — and skilling up people for further actions.

The forest defenders movement is one milestone of Poland’s climate movement journey. In 2006, a small network of protest camps arose, enabling activists to disrupt the road building efforts planned through Rospuda National Park, which straddles the Polish-Belarus border. The road was eventually scrapped due to the targeted direct actions. The next big forest defense was Bialowieza Forest in 2017, where the country’s far-right government aimed to lift logging limits. Unlike the former struggle, that fight was reported nationally and gained wide attention.

Polerowicz explained, “We realized there that collectively we could live alternatively. This climate camp is a condensed version of those permanent camps. Many people here have never done something like this. After I left Bialowieza Forest I developed a totally different mindset. So this week provides so much opportunity for skill shares and self-organizing the movement. “

The climate movement draws other movements into its orbit. There are many people whose previous activism ranged from squatting buildings to anti-hunting, from the women’s and LGBT struggles to radical municipalism. Another climate camp attendee, Piotr, said: “When Law and Justice (Poland’s far-right governing party) came to power in 2015, it sparked a lot of mobilizations on the values front, from online petitions to demonstrations and reaching into civil disobedience.”

In this context, civil disobedience efforts escalated, for example, in the form of blocking far-right rallies. “They threaten democracy, freedom and life,” added Piotr. “So our tactics escalated to tackle this threat and many people came to the streets for democracy and against fascism.”

Polerowicz, who has also been involved in feminist activism challenging the reactionary policies of Law and Justice, told me how the escalating climate crisis is pushing people toward greater forms of civil disobedience.

“We had mass demonstrations in 2017–18 as the government tried to change the abortion law. There were masses out on the street, and we also had big protests against the attacks on the judiciary,” as well as the swelling popularity of LGBT Equality parades, she said. Now, with the climate camp, many of those common struggles have found a single home.

Rising heat

Traveling to the camp itself, it wasn’t hard to recognize the climate driven drought that Poland is experiencing. The crops were short for mid-summer, and bleached dry.

“Drought is a total disaster for farmers,” explained Karolina Woźniak, who grew up locally and now works toward creating citizens’ assemblies on climate change. “This year the farmers are appealing to the government to do something. but they do nothing. People feel isolated. We are here with locals, listening and on their side. Water is our common cause in Poland: Whether you are a farmer or a city-dweller, we must fight together.”

As the climate crisis becomes more obvious in Poland, attention to the issue is growing. Last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which told the world it had 12 years to change course on fossil fuels, and Poland’s hosting of the 2018 UN climate talks drove the issue into wider public consciousness. Now, it’s not only a topic dominated by NGOs, but by grassroots climate activists who have taken initiative to lead a burgeoning movement.

“Before it was an insider’s movement. Every event would have the same faces. That’s compared to now [at the climate camp], where there are people from many places and walks of life,” said Jan Chudzyński, a participant who worked for climate NGOs in the past. He said NGOs didn’t draw mass attention before the new surge in climate activism, but at least they built some awareness.

“It was a great idea with lots of dedicated people,” he said, reflecting back on his experiences with the Youth Climate Network five year ago. “But the soil was not fertile enough.” Now, apparently, it is.

Rising up

Poland’s political ecosystem is, in fact, increasingly coalescing around climate change and the need to take urgent action. School climate strikes have taken off here, with students by the thousands descending to Poland’s streets. Extinction Rebellion has also been organizing people across Poland’s cities. Both of these groups were among the network co-organising and attending the climate camp.

Another important people-powered force pushing climate action in Polish cities is municipalism. As Occupy.com reported, Poland is leading the world in Citizens’ Assemblies, a political tool giving citizens the power to make well-informed and lasting decisions. Now, Warsaw will hold citizens’ assemblies to make decisions about how to tackle climate change.

After spending a week at the camp, it became clear to me that Poland’s climate movement opposes not just the energy policies, but everything about the country’s far-right government. For one thing, the camp was women-led and LGBT-friendly.

Ola Polerowicz told me this type of intersectionalism is vital to build a strong, lasting movement. “There are many links between the different movements. For instance, between feminism and climate. From one we know women already do lots of invisible unpaid labour, like caring, and a climate disaster will only increase this burden. Or say if you think about those from the animal liberation movement or veganism, animals need climate protection and on the other hand protecting the animals protects the climate. The climate is related to everything, so it must be intersectional.”

However, discussing the camp in relation to mainstream Polish society, Polerowicz admitted, “I think we are in a bubble here.” But after spending a week here — seeing the growing energy and movement building, the skill shares and enthusiasm — perhaps the most powerful thing is how fast that bubble is growing.

Originally published at https://www.occupy.com on July 25, 2019.

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Freelance journalist focused on political alternatives, universal rights and ecological survival

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Steve Rushton

Steve Rushton

Freelance journalist focused on political alternatives, universal rights and ecological survival

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