Kamila Kadzidlowska: “Mother love drives our work in Poland — and it’s making a difference”

Kamila is a documentary filmmaker and a key organizer in Poland’s dynamic group Rodzice dla Klimatu (Parents for Climate). She developed a short film called In the Fumes of the Black Gold that features people deeply affected by coal and the climate crisis, including former miners, youth, and families living in the shadow of the Bełchatów coal plant. As a 2022-2023 Parent Climate Fellow, Kamila helped launch several projects including ongoing parent work calling for a Fossil-Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. She has leveraged her COP26 and COP27 participation into several high-level campaigns that are helping to energize Poland’s growing parent-climate movement.

In my country of Poland – or “Coal-land”, as it’s also known internationally – the words “family, children, life, and sovereignty” are on the lips of every politician. But when you become a parent here, you learn how much these words truly mean to those making decisions about our children’s health and futures.

All three of my sons were born strong and healthy in Warsaw but quickly developed recurring respiratory infections. I can’t count the number of trips to hospitals or the drugs my boys have taken or calculate the huge toll their illnesses have taken on us all.

Watching our sons suffer, we felt like inadequate parents. Doctors suggested we were dressing them poorly or had mold in our apartment. Neurologists even misdiagnosed our middle child with a fatal congenital illness. Because I was also sick, one doctor discreetly suggested I stop breastfeeding, believing my respiratory infection was causing my infant’s sickness.

Our son improved, and I can’t describe our happiness that he wasn’t terminally ill. But we were also angry that doctors never considered the monstrous smog season into which he was born. During our first trip outside of Poland in 2017, our sons all recovered quickly, then became ill immediately on our return. That’s when I finally understood.

“Don’t you see a correlation between their infections and Poland’s poor air quality?” I asked our pediatrician.

She said, “Of course. But Poland is based on coal, and doctors cannot criticize its toxicity. The Ministry of Health overlooks pollution because speaking out would challenge Poland’s energy sector and the pharmacy industry that profits from illness.”

I learned that 87 percent of European coal — the dirtiest energy on earth — is burned to heat homes in Poland.  That’s why we’re the carcinogenic center of Europe. Polish parents must either expose our kids to poisonous air during “smog season” from September to April or imprison them indoors. The list of diseases we’re exposed to is endless, yet most parents are unaware that the illnesses their children suffer from are caused by preventable pollution. 

In January 2017, a month of extreme air pollution, 12,000 more people than usual died, and some doctors started speaking up about the health impacts of burning coal. In 2018, though, during COP24 hosted in Poland, our president proclaimed that we’d never give up coal, our “treasure”, our guarantee of national sovereignty. 

As long as policymakers who profit from burning fossil fuels remain in power, Poland is not safe for my children and their generation. That’s why every year, all year ‘round, I fight to end the pollution harming children and killing the climate. I receive calls from parents who hear my story of realizing that polluted air is causing my children’s sickness and policymakers aren’t protecting kids and are even deliberately sustaining a toxic industry. These parents are moved and ask, “What can we do?”

In 2019, we founded Rodzice dla Klimatu (Parents for Climate) to support the youth climate strikes and promote intergenerational activism for climate justice. We also work with doctors to offer public education that connects Poland’s dependence on coal with disease, biodiversity loss, and the climate crisis.

As a Parent Climate Fellow, I organized the 2022 Family Bicycle Ride, a multi-city tour through coal country. We ended in Bełchatów, where a lignite coal-fired plant is the largest climate polluter in all of Europe and countless residents suffer from asthma or cancer.

The aim was for us to understand each other. In Bełchatów, residents were suspicious of us at first, saying we were just rich parents from Warsaw coming to their villages demanding, “Shut down your coal-fired plants!” They pay huge utility bills and endure toxic air but didn’t connect the dots because those who profit from coal drive a public narrative claiming that “Climate change doesn’t exist! They’re trying to kill our industry!” or “No one will tell us what to burn!”

We explained to the parents, “We’re not rich. We’re just parents on our bicycles from different parts of Poland. We’re not against Bełchatów.  We are pushing for changes in the cities too, for less polluting cars and more sustainable transport. This is for all of us, for all of our kids. ”  It was as if a huge wall crashed down.  We were really well-received after that.

Last fall we launched our Children’s Health Above All campaign, cross-promoting parents’ voices in Poland with the Kids First campaign at COP27. Our motto is “Prevention is better than cure” and we help parents understand how pollution harms even unborn children’s brains, livers, hearts, and development. We recorded a parody of a commercial for children’s cough medicine – the cure is to stop the pollution making kids sick – and a poster featuring a letter from kids outlining the explicit steps parents can take to protect their children from toxic air. Three thousand have been distributed in pediatric clinics, kindergartens, and nurseries.

Through webinars, podcasts, articles, and public meetings with healthcare professionals, we’re also urging doctors to inform parents about pollution’s impacts on child health and pushing policymakers to put kids’ health first. 

This Kids First approach works well within Poland’s context. It’s unifying, which builds trust and connection. Our group was even invited to meet with Poland’s Parliament last November. Then, in January 2023 Warsaw endorsed the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty that calls for an end to the fossil fuel age. It’s a powerful action from the capital city in “Coal-land”. This victory was thanks to the hard work of youth and parent groups working side-by-side to demand climate action from decision makers.

It’s an important time for our movement in Poland because we’re growing the political power of parents.  In the media and everywhere, we keep conveying a simple message: Our kids are paying with their health for the stupidity and greed of politicians.  When I see my children suffering and imagine how other children are suffering, I cannot, as a mother, not act. Parenthood pushes me to work for systemic changes. A lot of new parents also feel they must act, and they keep joining us.