Report from United Nations Climate Conference: Heckling the Hecklers


Katowice, Poland—“Le temps est mauvais,” an African delegate told a colleague as they wrapped themselves up against the early evening chill. The weather wasn’t as leaden and directionless as inside the twenty-fourth Conference of the Parties (COP-24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The industrial (now post-industrial) city of Katowice is in the middle of Poland’s coal country, and the host nation was doing little to hide the fact. Neither was the United States, at a side event extolling the benefits of fracking and energy innovation—the reasons why America is achieving far and away the largest cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.

The American pro-energy side event set off a tedious, pre-arranged demonstration which had all the hallmarks of a Tom Steyer stunt. A similar protest was staged a year ago at COP-23 in Bonn, but the organizers had learned some lessons since then. While last year’s participants had been overwhelmingly white, like a frat boy outing, the speakers were more carefully chosen this time around– a Najavo here, a person of color there, a Mexican-American reading his spontaneous screed off his cellphone. “I’m pissed,” a young protester insisted. He didn’t sound like it.

They don’t like nuclear, and they don’t really mind carbon dioxide emissions. If they did, they would be protesting at Germany’s rising emissions as they close down their nukes. “Nuclear energy is genocide,” one of them preposterously shouted. And they took great exception when I said “rubbish.”

“He’s not one of our group,” one of the organizers told a UN security guard. “Get him out of here.” It tells you everything you need to know about their utter artificiality. “Let him speak,” insisted another organizer. The one thing you can’t do at UN climate conference is heckle the hecklers. Instead, people are forced to listen to their childish ranting and be prevented from hearing what serious people on the platform have to say.

In addition to Wells Griffith, an energy adviser to the president, this year’s panel included a representative from another government, the Australian environment negotiator, Patrick Suckling. “Actions speak louder than words,” Suckling remarked, observing energy innovation enabled the U.S. to grow its economy and substantially cut emissions. Japan, he said, had indicated it wanted to use its G-20 presidency next year to talk up the development of hydrogen technology, while Australia was spending A$600 million to find way of improving the viability of carbon capture and use.

Phony demonstrations have been part and parcel of the UN climate gig for years. At the Paris conference in 2015, the U.S. negotiator Todd Stern led a line wending its way around the exhibitors’ area demanding the 1.5 degree Centigrade limit be adopted in the Paris treaty. It duly went in, even though everyone who’d given a moment’s thought knew that they were setting themselves up for a massive emissions target miss.

The UN’s harnessing of NGO activism as a stick to beat governments was the brainchild of Maurice Strong, and dates all the way back to 1972 and the first UN conference on the environment in Stockholm. NGOs thus have had conferred the wholly spurious role as representatives of “civil society,” as distinct from governments which, in democracies, draw their legitimacy from the ballot box.

The symbiotic relationship between the UN climate convention secretariat and NGOs and their fake demonstrations contrasts with the real ones of the gilets jaunes in Paris and across France that have humiliated President Macron and his “making the planet great again” hubris. Perhaps the happenings in Paris account for the sense of conference’s irrelevance as delegates and observers tramp through the endless halls of the conference venue. The world is heading in a different direction. For those who really believe in the threat of man-made climate change, it’s innovation or bust—in other words, the genius of capitalism.