There are few clearer examples of the confusion in contemporary Czech public life than the debate over the climate crisis. The Czech economy is one of the most carbon-intensive in the European Union, and the country’s per-capita emissions are far worse than the European – let alone global – average. But the Czech debate on climate change reflects neither the urgency of the issue nor the country’s special responsibility as one of the world’s leading polluters.

Czech government policy has a long history of neglecting environmental priorities. This can be illustrated by many examples, but among the most telling are the low level of construction of new renewable energy sources and the lack of commitment to carbon neutrality by a certain date. Generally speaking, Czech climate policy only moves forward under pressure from the European Union: if the European institutions did not promote climate policy, it is highly likely that there would be no such policy in the Czech Republic.

This was not always the case. The catastrophic state of the environment was one of the main reasons for the delegitimisation of the communist regime before its fall in November 1989. In fact, green groups and their demands were an integral part of the movements that brought down communist regimes throughout the Soviet bloc. The Czech Republic was no exception.

After the Velvet Revolution, many environmentalists became members of governments, and their achievements, such as reducing air pollution by setting limits on coal mining and better protecting nature, are among the undoubted successes of the post-1989 changes. The Czechoslovak revolution of 1989 was not only “velvet” but also green.

However, with a few exceptions, Czech society’s interest in the environment gradually waned under the new democratic conditions. And today, Czech society shows a deep ignorance of the current climate crisis. What are the reasons for this decline?

There is no easy answer to this question. However, we can identify some key themes in the Czech debate on the climate crisis.

Focus on productivism

There is a strong tradition in Czech political debate of emphasising the country’s productive capacity. Many politicians promote large infrastructure projects such as motorways, nuclear power plants, mines or car factories. This is a long tradition dating back to the period immediately following the Industrial Revolution, when the Austrian Empire decided to concentrate much of its heavy industry in its Czech “periphery”.

Focusing on heavy industry was also a top priority of the pre-1989 communist regime. Czechoslovakia was sometimes called the “forge of socialism”; many types of predominantly heavy industries produced a wide range of strategic and consumer goods for the whole of the former Soviet bloc.

Leaders of the communist regime had a great passion for long lists of statistics about the number of cars and refrigerators produced, raw materials extracted, flats built, even tonnes of steel and cement. This did not end with the fall of the Communist Party.

The neoliberal turn of the 1990s – not the original ambition of the 1989 revolutions – promised to lead the country out of socialist ‘backwardness’ and catch up with Western economies. Almost three decades after this ambition was proclaimed, it is fair to describe it as a spectacular fiasco.

By most purely economic indicators, the Czech economy is nowhere near the performance of Western economies. The gap is most pronounced in areas where efficiency matters. Moreover, the income gap between the Czech Republic and most Western European countries is still about the same as it was thirty years ago.

This does not prevent virtually every prime minister from repeatedly promising to “catch up with the West”. The current one, Petr Fiala of the conservative ODS party, is no exception.

His vision, recently presented at a conference of the country’s most powerful companies, is to invest heavily in infrastructure, such as building hundreds of kilometres of new motorways or new nuclear reactors at the Dukovany power station. At the same time, he wants to cut public spending.

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Large green projects such as wind farms or support for community energy systems are also part of the prime minister’s vision for the future, but only to achieve a more “modern” and productive economy. The Czech Republic should be “a country where it pays to live, to invest, but also to travel for holidays or to study,” Fiala told the conference. It sounds nice, but it is a fallacy.

Indeed, the country is experiencing a steady brain drain, with many of its most talented young people choosing to live in more privileged parts of Europe. And the policy of austerity, which has undermined budgets for education, health, culture and other areas essential to a good quality of life, can only exacerbate this trend.

Not to mention the fact that the authoritarian and far-right opposition is reaping the rewards of the government’s short-sighted austerity policies. The most likely scenario now is that the country will follow the path of Slovakia and Hungary after the elections in two years’ time.

Let technocrats – and oligarchs – solve the climate crisis

The priority given to productivism has the effect of minimising political debate on key issues. Politicians do not need to offer policy visions, only the best way to increase economic output. In other words, the best politician is an expert, someone with a technocratic background who ‘knows how things work’.

Technocracy has long been influential in the Czech Republic, and ‘experts’ have traditionally been seen as the people to turn to for salvation. This tendency is perhaps stronger in Czech political culture than elsewhere; the Czechs are sometimes described as a “nation of engineers”.

The best example of this phenomenon is the completely irrational relationship of the Czech political establishment to nuclear power. This has deep roots in the communist era, when the idea of building one nuclear power plant per five-year plan was born. The communist party planners wanted to build one in each major region of Czechoslovakia – ten in all. And most of them had already chosen their sites.

Fortunately, only two were completed, and the other two, one in Slovakia and one in southern Bohemia, were under construction at the time of the Velvet Revolution, in 1989. Both were completed – with massive delays and cost overruns – after some bitter battles and huge protests from civil society.

Today, the same technocratic structures, the nuclear lobby and corporate interests that pushed through the projects in the 1990s and the first decade of the new century are promoting nuclear power on the pretext that it can be part of the solution to the climate crisis. Of course, intellectually this idea has been discredited many times and long ago, but there has never been any rationality in the quest to build more nuclear power plants.

But of course rational arguments are not the strongest point in the current Czech public debate, especially when it comes to discussing energy policy. The debate on this issue is heavily influenced by the media with direct links to fossil oligarchs, big business and their corporate structures.

The Czech oligarch Daniel Křetínský, who invests heavily in coal mines, coal and gas power plants and other fossil infrastructure, also owns media houses and newspapers. He is the second largest Czech publisher after another oligarch, former prime minister Andrej Babiš, who is in negotiations to sell his Mafra media house, probably to another Czech oligarchic group, but apparently wants to ensure that its editorial policy will continue to serve his interests before the deal is finalised.

Křetínský controls one of the largest Czech tabloids, Blesk, the influential weekly Reflex and several radio stations. In addition, one of the biggest liberal magazines, the weekly Respekt, and the daily Hospodářské Noviny, the biggest Czech business paper, are owned by former coal-mine owner Zdeněk Bakala.

These oligarchs have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo, which is based on large private energy producers, mostly nuclear and coal or fossil gas power plants run by Daniel Křetínský’s company EPH and oligarch Pavel Tykač’s company Sev.en or the state-owned company ČEZ. Opportunities for smaller businesses and new models of energy production based on sustainable resources and ownership distributed among diverse communities and cooperatives are far beyond the horizon of the Czech political debate on climate change.

Conservative and tactically over-cautious climate science

The third leitmotif of the Czech debate is the very specific role played by Czech climate experts. The people who are regularly given the floor as “experts” in the media are more obsessed with not being seen as “too radical” than they are with accurately presenting the frightening facts about the state of the climate.

They tend to be evasive, often downplaying the link between extreme weather events and climate disruption. Radim Tolasz, an expert of choice for much of the mainstream media, has a reputation for warning more often about “climate extremism” and “green radicals” than about the burning of fossil fuels.

Another regularly quoted voice is Radan Huth, head of the Climate Research Centre at the Czech Academy of Sciences. He is an active member of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), a right-wing, conservative governing party with a long tradition of climate denial.

However, Huth does not espouse “classic” climate denialism. He accepts the existence of man-made global warming, but repeatedly says that current climate policies cannot solve climate change and that the solution lies in scientific and technological progress and adaptation to extreme weather conditions.

Huth’s arguments in the Czech context, where fossil-fuel oligarchs control most of the media, basically support the status quo based on fossil-fuel consumption. In the Czech debate on the climate crisis, there are no scientists with an appropriate attitude to the issue, such as Johan Rockström or James Hansen, who call for radical cuts in emissions as soon as possible and warn against the fossil fuel industry.

A new green class is needed

What can the Czech debate on the climate crisis show in the wider European or global context? If we are to meet our climate commitments, the Czechs obviously need a vigorous and far-reaching economic transformation, as does the European Union.

But this can never happen without a critical mass of people who have a vested interest in the transformation. It is impossible to have a green transformation with a fossil oligarchy controlling most of the energy industry and media houses, and without clear climate science, which is exactly the situation in the Czech Republic.

It also shows how the multiple crises of social injustice, weakening democracy and ecological devastation are interlinked and cannot be resolved unless they are tackled simultaneously. The first necessary step is to remove fossil-fuel interests from all negotiations on energy transition and future energy policy. This is one of the areas where the European Union is failing miserably to protect the interests of its citizens.

Of course, there are better traditions in Czech political history. In recent years, the Czech climate movement has seen the emergence of new initiatives and organisations such as Re-set or Limity jsme. They promote cooperatives, sustainable energy systems owned by local communities or municipalities, and work tirelessly for the necessary transformation to a green, just and truly democratic society. They are a small but growing Czech part of the global movement that can avert the climate catastrophe we are heading for.

The fact that the way to a better future is to build a movement that resists the interests of fossil-fuel corporations and oligarchs could hardly be better studied in any other country. The Czech Republic is a laboratory in which we can test what future lies ahead. Will it be run by the exploitative oligarchs and corporations heading towards authoritarian rule and ultimately disaster, or will it turn towards green, social, participatory democracy?

It seems the time has come for another change of political and economic system on the scale of the revolutions of 1989. And the amusing thing is that it should happen with the same aspirations as we had then – a just, green and truly democratic society. We can certainly draw some hope from the fact that almost nobody saw the revolutions of 1989 coming just a few years before they happened.

This article is part of a series dedicated to climate discourse in the European media. This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of the European Parliament, and in collaboration with Voxeurop and the Green European Journal.