Vaclav Havel and a climate of 'freedom'

Vaclav Klaus, and portrait of Vaclav Havel Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Two presidents, two views: Vaclav Klaus signs a condolence book for Vaclav Havel

They shared a first name, a leadership post and an upbringing forged in Communist fires.

But on many aspects of life, including climate change, the newly deceased ex-Czech President Vaclav Havel and his successor Vaclav Klaus take very different tacks.

For both, freedom has been a concern often touted as the foundation underpinning their politics.

Interesting, then, that the concept has led to such radically different conclusions.

Vaclav Havel, who died at the weekend, was the first leader of the post-Soviet Czech Republic, having overseen the split that also created Slovakia.

Colleagues elsewhere have written about his plays and his overall political life.

I've been reading an article he penned back in 2007, translated into English and published in the New York Times.

Wielding words in ways that only a true writer could, his is a fluent manifesto for the risk-oriented approach to man-made climate change.

Humanity is clearly having big impacts on the world, he says. We can't know exactly how big; and if we wait to measure the extent down to the last tweak, we'll never deal with it.

"Nature is issuing warnings that we must not only stop the debt from growing but start to pay it back," he writes.

"There is little point in asking whether we have borrowed too much or what would happen if we postponed the repayments. Anyone with a mortgage or a bank loan can easily imagine the answer."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Havel worried that "business as usual" would compromise future generations' prospects

There is no stable climate, he continues. But whereas humanity can adapt to small changes, major ones might have "unforseeable effects" across the planet.

"Because so much uncertainty still reigns, a great deal of humility and circumspection is called for."

Havel doesn't see moves to curb climate change as infringing on freedom. But he does see a potential infringment if the issue is not tackled.

"Were the forecasts of certain climatologists to come true, our freedoms would be tantamount to those of someone hanging from a 20th-story parapet."

Mr Havel's successor as Czech President, Vaclac Klaus, could not have emerged from his formative fires with a perspective any more diametrically opposed.

For him, attempts to curb greenhouse gas emissions are tantamount to an attack on freedom.

"The current debate", he said during a lecture inaugurating the Global Warming Policy Foundation, is not scientific at its core; rather, it is about politicians and lobbyists trying to win more power.

"It seems to me that the widespread acceptance of the global warming dogma has become one of the main, most costly and most undemocratic public policy mistakes in generations.

"The previous one was communism."

The two men's different meanings of "freedom" have shown themselves in another political arena: gay rights.

In 2006, the Czech parliament passed legislation recognising same-sex marriage and giving same-sex partners the right, for example, to inherit property.

The bill passed by a majority just big enough to overcome the veto Mr Klaus, as president, had imposed.

He had argued that the bill amounted to excessive regulation.

Mr Klaus has also been a leading European voice against the European Union, advocating instead a grouping based on trade alone.

Mr Havel, on the other hand, set the Czech Republic on the road to EU membership during his time in office, and was lauded as "a great European" on his death by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In later life, he joined the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation, a movement aiming to spread tolerance (and by extension, freedom) across the continent.

The two men's paths under communism differed greatly.

While Mr Havel was writing anti-communist plays, forming the dissident Charter 77 group and spending frequent spells in prison for his trouble, Mr Klaus was studying and working, at home and abroad, as an economist, entering politics only during the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Is this what led to their very different interpretations of "freedom" as it applies to tolerance for gay rights, the EU and climate change?

It is a rich vein for discussion - with some irony.

While Mr Klaus has been dubbed "the Czech Margaret Thatcher" because of his euro-scepticism, it is Mr Havel whose political work against communism won plaudits from the former British prime minister... and it is his views on climate change that mirrored her own.