NEW YORK -- After two days of toiling through an ocean of charts, graphs and complicated mathematical equations, attendees of the Heartland Institute's 2008 International Conference on Climate Change in Manhattan were provided a starker, significantly less esoteric warning from the president of the Czech Republic over breakfast Tuesday morning.
"It is not about climatology," the recently re-elected, Mises and Hayek-quoting Vaclav Klaus intoned darkly. "It is about freedom."
As the sole head of state willing to stand before the self-congratulatory United Nations Climate Change Conference last September and loudly register his dissent from the international groupthink on anthropogenic (i.e. manmade) global warming, Klaus was already a highly-regarded hero in these skeptic quarters. His speech this week, however, went far beyond his UN confrontation in terms of both its relentless defiance -- try to imagine a more scathing indictment of messianic environmentalists than Klaus's description of them as "imprisoned in the Malthusian tenets and in their own megalomaniac ambitions" -- and the Czech president's willingness to draw explicit comparisons between modern environmentalism and communism:
If I am not wrong I am the only speaker from a former communist country and I have to use this as a comparative -- paradoxically -- advantage. Each one of us has his or her experiences, prejudices and preferences. The ones that I have are, quite inevitably, connected with the fact that I have spent most of my life under the communist regime. A week ago I gave a speech at an official gathering at the Prague Castle commemorating the 60th anniversary of the 1948 communist putsch in the former Czechoslovakia. One of the arguments of my speech there...went as follows: "Future dangers will not come from the same source. The ideology will be different. Its essence will, nevertheless, be identical. The attractive, pathetic, at first noble idea that transcends the individual in the name of the common good, and the enormous self-confidence on the side of its proponents about their right to sacrifice man and his freedom in order to make this idea a reality." What I had in mind was, of course, environmentalism and its current strongest version, climate alarmism.
These are, as they say, fighting words.
AFTER I'D RUN A GAUNTLET of polite-yet-stoic Secret Service agents and persevered through a scheduling snafu or four, Vaclav Klaus kindly granted TAS a short interview (in English!) in a suite at the Times Square Marriott. At turns animated and sternly reserved, Klaus carries himself with remarkable poise and exudes a passion for principled policy that is impressive when one considers he's been fighting political battles since 1989. It does not take long to get the impression this is a man who does not suffer fools gladly.
"I was in Iceland a year or two ago and I enjoyed very much the words of the Prime Minister who said, 'Vaclav Klaus is very often politically incorrect, but he's usually correct politically,'" Klaus chuckled. "I like this playing with words, which is for me motivation to continue."
What's more, contrary to the blustery outrage in the international press over his crashing of the United Nations apocalypse party, the president's views may not be quite so far out as his colleagues would have their constituencies believe. Shades of Obama's NAFTA kerfuffle, Klaus insisted he was far from shunned during the three days of General Assembly receptions, meals, and cocktail parties following his speech.
"The funny [part of the] story is that many of them told me, 'Thank you very much for what you were saying. My views are similar,'" Klaus recalled. "So I say, 'Then why don't you say the same?'" The president pushed his voice up a couple registers before mimicking their response: "'Oh, it is impossible and it needs courage.' And so on."
Klaus shook his head, as if he were a competitive captain of a football team spoiling for a fight on game day, only to be hindered by the bunch of scared-of-their-own-shadow wimps the coach has inexplicably recruited. I asked Klaus if it was frustrating for him, as a trained economist -- he's held academic posts at the Forecasting Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Prague School of Economics -- to operate in a political world populated with those who so frequently behave as if they are allergic to facts and basic statistics?
"It's not frustrating if you believe it is your task toâ€¦fight all forms of irrationalities and to fight the political correctness approach which is killing any serious discussion," Klaus shot back, not without some heat. Far from being a detriment to political careers, this former Minister of Finance said he believed the social and economic sciences had more to offer realist politics than many currently concede and frets global warming skeptics may be focusing too much on science alone.
"Regulation, centralization versus decentralization -- that for me is something that is not just about freedom in a political sense, but another layer, another dimension of the discussion," Klaus explained. This is a matter of philosophical consistency for Klaus, who has expressed serious misgivings about centralized power of the European Union as well.
"When I [talk about] the standard social science and the standard economic approach, it's not just saying you must be a libertarian to stress and promote freedom," he continued. "The standard social science and economic approach will tell you something about the irrationalities of centralization, the irrationalities of over-regulation, the irrationality of the bureaucratization of our lives. This is something I don't hear quite often enough."
Is it any wonder the Competitive Enterprise Institute is honoring Klaus at its upcoming annual dinner? Our time was almost up, but in light of our discussion of the "irrationalities of centralization," I couldn't help but ask the president for his thoughts on the recent election in Russia -- a country he has maintained friendly ties with.
"I must say the Russian elections are not the same elections as in the United States of America or in the Czech Republic," Klaus answered with slow and deliberate care. "So in this respect we both wouldn't be happy to have such elections. But on the other hand, when I look at it in a historical perspective and compare it with the past in Russia, when I compare it with much of Asia, in this respect, these elections were relatively okay. I would not have a highbrow negativistic approach which is quite popular in some circles."
Before I could follow up I noticed Klaus's ceaselessly amiable scheduler leaning into my line of vision across the room. When he was certain I saw him he shot me a half plaintive, half apologetic look. Time to wrap it up. Klaus gave a little single nod of the head, a one-pump handshake, thanked me for the interview and then was on to another. Queries about missile defense, Putin's successor and the U.S. presidential election would have to wait. It was a shame, really: I've met state legislators less candid than this head of state. This isn't the kind of thing the EU exports, is it?
American Spectator Contributing Editor Shawn Macomber is writing a book on the Global Class War.