After Paris: is there a chance for re-opening the Czech climate change debate?

In the Czech Republic, climate change does not exist. Or, so it might seem if one takes a look at core issues in the public debates over the last couple of years. While about half the country’s population does believe climate change is happening, other important parts of society do not think it is really an issue. So how did we get here and who has the ability to change the course?

Photo: CreativeCommons/Takver


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Czechs have some reasonable laws on environmental protection dating back to the early 90s, and sustainability might work well as a modus operandi at the local level, especially if coupled with handy EU subsidies. 1 Yet the question of climate change is rarely raised by the media, politicians or the general public, although some parts of the Czech Republic get hit with severe flooding every three to four years, 2 and the country endured extreme heat waves last summer. 3 In a recent survey, some 52% of respondents said they believe climate change is happening, but are not sure how to respond to it. And while some 19.8% indicated climate change will have a severe impact on the Czech Republic, 57% said they do not believe climate change will impact them personally. 4

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic currently ranks 29th out of more than 58 countries assessed in the Climate Change Performance Index –  a “moderate performance” 5 – and 27th out of 180 countries assessed in the Environmental Performance Index. 6 However when compared to its European counterparts, it is still performing rather poorly. Coal serves as a fuel for more than 60% of generated electricity, the country is the EU’s third worst emitter, with almost 11 tons of CO2 per capita discharged yearly, 7 and the energy efficiency of the Czech Republic’s industry is also ranked as the EU’s third worst, creating an average 0,4 kg CO2 per $1 GDP. 8 This is a rather startling development, if one takes a look some 25-years back.

From green dissent to institutionalization

Environmentalism was not really an interest of the pre-89 ruling socialist elite, who allowed for large parts of the then Czechoslovak environment to be significantly destroyed, if not completely devastated. In the 1970’s the degradation became so severe that the government could no longer ignore the matter, first because pollution was heavily impacting public health, 9 and also because the issue enabled the Czech and Slovak dissidents a  legitimate critique of the regime. In reaction to this, it was the regime who planted the first seeds of institutionalized environmental volunteering, planning this as they did everything else, and by 1974 the Brontosaurus Movement was set up, and in 1979 the Czech Union for Nature Conservation was established. While they might have had enabled the first network of like-minded environmentalists, they were miles from the environmental activism that was already flourishing in the West.

Things started to change following the 1989 Velvet Revolution, as important figures of green dissent came into power and began kicking-off the country’s necessary transformations. The change of spirit was also manifested in Václav Havel’s first speech as the country’s freely elected President. “We have polluted the soil, rivers and forests bequeathed to us by our ancestors,“ stated Havel, adding that the “previous regime […] reduced man to a force of production, and nature to a tool of production.” 10

Three names were and continue to be mentioned most when it comes to environmental protection: Bedřich Moldan, Ivan Dejmal, Josef Vavroušek. Moldan and Dejmal were the first Ministers of the Environment, Vavroušek was chairman of the Czechoslovak Federal Council for the Environment. They all pushed important institutional changes through the government. In 1992, the crucial Law on the Environment was passed, for the first time anchoring concepts such as sustainable development, and establishing the basic “Principles on Environmental Protection” in the Czechoslovak legislation. 11 Following Czechoslovakia’s dissolution in 1993, the new Preamble of the Constitution expressed Czechs’ desire to be “resolved to guard and develop together the natural and cultural, material and spiritual wealth handed down to (them).“ 12 Albeit with some delay, and far from being perfect the first State Environmental Policy was passed in 1995. 13

Wanted: environmental elites

Throughout the 90’s further regularization and institution-building followed, however, not all parts of society endorsed these changes. In 1991, Vavroušek pointed out that the environment was a marginal concern of the government and Czech society, as economy was simply more important. 14 But following decades of material insufficiency resulting from the (poorly) state-planned economy, a society hungry for seizing the free market’s opportunities for consumption could hardly be satisfied with references to post-materialist ideals and values.

This was certainly true for the country’s then Finance Minister, soon to be Prime Minister and later President, Václav Klaus. A conservative economist, overseeing   the country’s rapid transformation towards a free market economy, he called Vavroušek a “danger” to Czech politics.  15 Similarly, the socially democratic government of the late 90s and early 2000s, led by then PM and today’s President Miloš Zeman, also became infamous for giving the industrial lobby precedence over environmental considerations. 16 This often led to conflicts between the governments in power and Havel, who as President, was vocal on a range of environmental issues, strongly opposing further expansion of the Temelín Nuclear Power Plant or any attempts to continue the extensive coal mining in northern Bohemia. 17

Havel also regularly supported emerging and rapidly expanding civil society movements and their actions, including acts of civil disobedience. These were now the key players in pushing for further environmental regulations in a bottom-up approach, often with the increased support of foreign donors. 18 Meanwhile, the opportunity to apply for foreign funding had a two-fold effect on Czech civil society movements. 19 While it undoubtedly led to their professionalization, it also made them more conformist, more short-term, project-oriented, and less radical. While even well-established NGOs such as the Czech branch of Greenpeace or Hnutí Duha – Friends of the Earth would both still find themselves on the Ministry of Interior’s list of “extremist organizations in 1995,” 20 in later years they devoted significantly more resources to advocacy and awareness-raising activities, instead of the principled critiques of the system and radical direct acts of civil disobedience. 21

Although the now buttoned-down green revolutionaries undoubtedly did a good job in terms of high-level lobbying and campaigning, one can suspect the conformism to have limited the whole movement’s ability to act as an agenda-setter and to positively shape the discourse as climate change was becoming an increasingly hot topic in early 2000. By then the media, attracted by the higher viewership numbers polarizing quests bring, were tempted to grant broadcasting space to radical climate sceptics, with Klaus leading the “battle for freedom.” Klaus, himself as President, also profited from the attention, dedicating a whole book, Blue, not Green Planet, to what he considered the fight against “green ideology.” 22 In it he compared environmental movements to communist rule, 23 and even Al-Qaeda.  24

Meanwhile, the moment of controversy should have been an opportunity for civil society to band together with academia in order to generate a trustworthy and credible opponent from within their circles who could seize the hour and gain public support for their cause. It did not happen. Analyses show while the topic ranked high in the public debate between 2000 and 2009, major dailies were providing less value-based, scientific content, instead focusing more on the topic’s “popularization,” often with references to catastrophic scenarios. 25 With the vocal environmental elite missing from the public discourse since the mid-90s and early 2000s, climate skeptics have increasingly taken over the public debate reigns, giving way to a new generation of climate skeptics who were also ready to take the EU and “Brussels’ dictate” to task.

More Europe, more money, … and more skepticism, too?

The Czech Republic’s EU-accession process, officially launched in 1996 could have further promoted a range of environmental law-making and institution-building processes, as it obliged the adherence to stricter standards on the one hand, but it also made important financial assistance available on the other.

Although significant sums of money were there, the Czech governments, one after another, were not capable of using it well. The attempts at regularization proved particularly troubling in three areas: subsidies for photovoltaics, trade in emission certificates, and subsidies for bio-fuels. While the primary incentive at regulating these areas was probably one genuinely environmental, increased lobbing efforts of certain groups or businesses were detrimental to the law-making processes as much as the governments’ lack of anticipation. Consequently, while bio-fuel subsidies lead to over-plantation of rape plant to the detriment of agricultural products, 26 trade in emissions certificate became particularly proved particularly profitable for certain businesses. 27 Later, words such as “solar mess,” 28 “solar tunnel,” 29 or sometimes even “green tunnel” 30 entered the Czech vocabulary, as a drop in the prices of solar panels was not answered with the necessary subsidies modification, making photovoltaics a booming business, while putting the public finances increasingly at strain. While average Czechs are rather unlikely to be able to describe in detail what each and every “mess” actually consisted of, the “mess” might also be one of the reasons why initially only insignificant difference between their and average European’s view on climate change have grown bigger over the years, discrediting environmental policies and putting a considerable obstacle to any attempts at further regularization. The government’s subsequent counteraction to the alleged frauds has then lead to severe limitations for a range of supports for renewables.

While average Czechs are rather unlikely to be able to describe in detail what each and every “mess” actually consisted of, these messes might also be a reason why the Czech and average European view on climate change has grown variant over the years, placing considerable obstacles on the path to further regularization. The government’s subsequent counteraction to “the messes” has also led to severe limitations for a range of support for renewables.

In this context, the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit could only confirm the skeptic’s assumption that climate change, even if it was in the end manmade, could not be solved by EU-regularization or in conferences. The economic and financial crisis of 2008/2009 then dealt the final blow; environmentalism, traditionally interpreted as an “obstacle to economic growth,” now appeared more redundant than ever before.

A way out?

The COP 21 Summit taking place in a major Western European capital certainly constituted a long-awaited opportunity for the environmentalists to re-open the debate. Nine months before the COP21 conference in Paris kicked-off, The Guardian launched a major series on what it called the “climate crisis,” stating that journalism had failed climate change. 31 The Czech media in unspoken unanimity, however, opted for quite the opposite. Doubts as to the manmade causes of climate change continued to be raised in the Czech public and privately-owned media during the summit. 32 Even skilled moderators on Czech TV or the increasingly popular privately-owned publicist stream “DVTV” could not completely escape the “is it really man-made?” trap preventing them from digging into the deeper subject matter of the conference. 33 However, environmentalists could be comforted by the fact that Czech TV was generous enough to grant the topic a whole six minutes on its 24 hour news channel, right after the deal was passed, which was only about four minutes less than it devoted to the previous and probably equally important issue – a new Tizian exhibition in Prague. 34

They could be equally comforted by the fact that the country’s high-ranking government officials, including the country’s Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, greeted the Paris Agreement as “groundbreaking,” 35 and the rather environmental unfriendly President Zeman agreed to sign it once it had been ratified by Czech Parliament. 36 But, if taking climate change action is only left to the government, then the citizens are likely to become accomplices in what some have called the Paris “fraud.” 37

At present, the Czech Republic is bound to reduce its CO2 emissions by 40% by 2030. 38 With regard to the levels of pollution in the 90’s, taking it as the reference year makes achieving the reduction target fairly easy for the Czech government; already in 2013 the CO2 emissions had been reduced by 34% as compared to 1990. 39 This is however, not a huge reason to celebrate as the 2030 40% reduction goal is insufficient if the world is to keep rising temperatures below the 1.5 or even 2°C Paris target. Meanwhile, indices that the government will not opt for bolder policy are numerous.

Last autumn, the government, supported by the President, voted in favor of breaking the ecological limits on coal mining in northern Bohemia. These limits were established in 90’s to protect village inhabitants from being forcibly removed or their health being seriously impacted by the extensive coal extraction taking place in the region. Over the years, these limits proved beneficial to the villages, as their guaranteed existence and stability attracted people to stay or even move there, and so local infrastructures developed and small businesses emerged. While the government did not opt for the most far-reaching option involving the complete destruction of the villages concerned, it decided last October to prolong one mine’s initial extraction period until 2038, expanding it outward to only a few hundred meters from the villager’s houses. Even the Minister for the Environment, Richard Brabec, voted in favor the limit’s abolition, as he considered it would have been “cowardice” to vote against the proposal. 40

Likewise, while the government is set to discuss the new Climate Protection Policy in 2016, the development of concrete actions plans are only slated for localized adaptations to climate change, but not the mitigation of its causes. The government’s adoption of the anti-fossil fuel law, officially called the Law on Reducing Dependency on Fossil Fuels, which the government anchored thanks to a long-term lobbing effort of a coalition of NGOs 41 as one of its goals in its Policy Statement in early 2014, 42 could prove effective in the continuous decarbonization of Czech industry. As the proposal suggests, through a step by step reduction in the country’s use of oil, coal and gas the country’s dependency on fossil fuel should be reduced from today’s 70% to 56% by 2040, which is also the goal of the State Energy Policy from 2014. 43 While the social democrats (ČSSD-party) officially endorsed the law in 2013, 44 they proved unable to push for its swift adoption. 45

And on several occasions their PM, Sobotka, has declared his willingness to work on it, although always with a “as long as it’s not detrimental to industry’s competitiveness” 46 rejoinder.  47 During the Paris summit, while the Czech Minister of the Environmentwas pronouncing his support for the Czech economy’s transformation into a completely fossil-free one by 2050, the law was still “under scrutiny.” 48 With regard to current government’s shortening time-schedule, the law is likely to remain in the pipeline until after the next elections in 2017.  49

Thus, can Paris be a turning point in the Czech debate on climate change? Sadly, the Minister of the Environment might be terribly right when he says that any obligations arising from the Paris Agreement will not have any direct impact on the people in the Czech Republic. 50 In past decades, the media, ruling elite and businesses have not acted as highly progressive agenda-setters for the new era and they are unlikely to start doing so only because of a new agreement. 51

Nevertheless, Paris could create positive changes, if environmental movements can capitalize on the momentum, and use it wisely. First and foremost, the Paris Agreement gives NGOs a concrete tool to use when negotiating with governments. It also brings environmental issues relevance back, which can encourage political agenda setting. Secondly, the role of NGOs will be crucial once the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions declared prior to the Summit are to be revised and updated within the next few years. This will be an opportunity to push for more ambitious national targets. And finally, as last year’s protests against breaking the coal mining limits showed, civil society’s mobilizing potential is (still) there. Related issue campaigns, like “We Are the Limits,” might thus pave the way forward in terms of re-connecting local environmental and human-centered struggles with bigger global ones, and then re-approaching the general public., If these efforts fail and the spirit of the Paris Summit dissipates, we can only hope for bold actions as the diggers begin moving towards the next village.

Notes:

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  49. Supra note 44.
  50. Václav Ferebauer, “Klimatická dohoda z Paříže nebude mít na Čechy přímý vliv, řekl Brabec,” iDnes.cz, December 9, 2015, accessed January 26, 2016, http://zpravy.idnes.cz/richard-brabec-o-klimaticke-konferenci-v-parizi-fr2-/domaci.aspx?c=A151209_120123_domaci_fer.
  51. Supra note 24. See also Barbora Šlapáková, Proměny mediální reprezentace ekologické agendy v českém tisku, Master’s Thesis, Faculty of Social Sciences, Masaryk University Brno, 2012.
Zuzana Pavelková

Zuzana Pavelková

is an activist and founder of the initiative "Česko vítá uprchlíky" (Czech Republic welcomes refugees). She worked with different civil society organizations and initiatives advocating for refugee and migrant rights in Germany,​ ​France​ and Czech Republic.