People vs. Polluters at the UN Climate Talks

A campaigner’s dispatch from Poland

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I just returned from Katowice, Poland, the coal-dependent country’s flagship mining city and site of the 24th United Nations climate change talks.

The conference came at a critical juncture, two months after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report on the need to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. The report amounts to a blaring alarm from scientists that we need a rapid and just transition off fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy within the next 12 years to maintain life as we know it.

But the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait united to throw a fit over proposals to formally “welcome” that crucial report. And as Brazil’s president-elect Jair Bolsonaro threatens to follow the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, the country’s negotiators forced a delay on efforts to resolve disputes over market mechanisms to regulate carbon emissions.

I’ve been organizing with grassroots movements for climate justice at the past five UN climate summits, and this one looked awfully familiar.

As journalist Kate Aronoff points out, U.S. negotiators have been working to moderate outcomes at the UN climate talks since well before the Obama administration. Rich polluting countries have so far largely succeeded in shirking climate finance obligations to developing countries.

Overall, country emissions-reduction commitments are no closer to meeting the 1.5°C target than they were before the summit. On the contrary, they’re projected to lead the world to upwards of 3°C by 2100.

That’s because there is a huge problem with the UN climate talks that sinks its progress.

The UN climate talks, intended to be a democratic forum for all the nations of the world to solve the greatest problem the world has ever faced, have become a virtual playground for fossil fuel corporations. Big polluting companies have served as key sponsors for recent climate summits, buying them access to plaster their logos and polish a “green” image throughout the talks.

An oil company executive even openly boasted of having been a key influence in defining the Paris Agreement’s carbon trading provisions. It comes as less of a shock in this context that UN officials refused to authorize a reference to “fossil fuels” on a display screen inside the talks.

Beneath the veneer of diplomatic decorum, the choice facing negotiators and politicians worldwide is simple and stark: Which side are you on — people or polluters?

Throughout the summit, I organized with global climate justice leaders to push through to this core battle.

For the second year in a row, the Trump administration tried to hold a panel glorifying fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Hundreds of us laughed over their false solutions and took over the front of the room with a people’s panel of youth and environmental justice leaders calling for a just transition off fossil fuels. We left dirty energy-promoting panelists speaking to a near-empty room.

The European Union tried to highlight fracked gas as a legitimate climate solution. We filled the room to capacity before walking out.

The Center for Biological Diversity joined global allies in launching the People’s Demands for Climate Justice, setting the bar for real climate leadership (hint: it starts with keeping fossil fuels in the ground). We got hundreds of thousands of supporters before delivering our demands to the UN climate secretariat last week.

And on Friday, we put negotiators and world leaders on notice with a mass sit-in inside the summit.

We will win when we force decision-makers to see the climate crisis as it is: a handful of corporations profiteering off the rest of our lives, present and future.

We will win when we address climate change as a symptom of economic injustice and racial oppression.

In the U.S., rising Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives are under mounting pressure to do just that by championing a Green New Deal. A Green New Deal would deliver climate solutions through a just transition off fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. That would support affected workers and communities and send the bill to big polluters rather than the rest of us.

We will win when we lift the disproportionate burden of dirty energy extraction and climate change off indigenous communities, communities of color, working class people and countries in the Global South.

The UN climate talks provide an important international process to solve our planetary crisis. But it will always be up to us on the ground to hold decision-makers accountable to people, not polluters.

Center for Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. More info at

Ben Goloff

Written by

Climate campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. Organizing for a just transition off fossil fuels to 100% clean, renewable energy.

Center for Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. More info at