King's Evangelical Divinity School

9 November 2009

Juxtaposing the Berlin Wall and Climate Change

It’s twenty years today since the fall of the Berlin Wall. For those of us who lived during the Cold War who could have imagined we would one day sit at home, glued to our televisions, watching the fall of Communism? First, Polish reforms, then, like a row of falling dominos, Hungary, the Berlin Wall, Czechoslovakia, the Romanian revolution and summary execution of the Ceausescus, and so on. For a teenager of the Cold War years who listened surreptitiously at night in rapt fascination and trepidation to the Communist empire’s propaganda as churned out by Radio Moscow, the events of late 1989 were heady stuff.

The Soviet leader at the time was Mikhail Gorbachev, regarded by many as the architect who brought about the conditions necessary for the fall of Communism. This is simplistic. Arguably Communism’s collapse was inevitable, and it simply occurred during Gorbachev’s watch, aided by his policies of glasnost and perestroika which were, after all, intended to save the system, but which, in reality, were its deathblows. Undoubtedly he speeded up the process, but having worked in Eastern Europe during the Winter of 1989-1990 and for the next six years, it was very clear to me that, despite propaganda to the contrary, this evil state system which had destroyed economies and man’s spirit could not have survived indefinitely.

To commemorate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall Gorbachev has today written a piece in The Times, seeking to capture something of the overwhelming sense of history we all felt in 1989 and push for a new Berlin Wall moment: a dismantling of the primary obstacles for dealing with climate change. Thus, in his essay the former Soviet statesman, who seeks to juxtapose the fall of the Berlin Wall with the current climate change debate, describes the Berlin Wall as a “stark, concrete symbol of a world divided into hostile camps”. He observes:

Today another planetary threat has emerged. The climate crisis is the new wall that divides us from our future, and today’s leaders are vastly underestimating the urgency, and potentially catastrophic scale, of the emergency.

Thus, Gorbachev compares the East German popular uprising with today’s “world citizens” who demand “that action is taken to tackle climate change and redress the deep injustices that surround it.” Meanwhile, just as East Germany’s totalitarian leaders refused to bow to the will of the people, so today’s world leaders, Gorbachev insists, are failing to bow to the will of the masses and implement change to ward off the climate change crisis.

Actually, I quite like Gorbachev’s analogy, but not for the reasons he cites. I see a quite different set of parallels between the Berlin Wall and the current climate change debate. In both cases a wall was built to defend aggressively a particular ideology (both, incidentally, on the political left). Moreover, much like the totalitarian East German state, the climate change ideologues will tolerate no rivals, no challenge to their doctrine, not even willing to debate the issue. Meanwhile, the wall, now as then, is aimed at those who question the prevailing ideology, and just as those who sought to escape East Germany were maltreated, imprisoned and labeled enemies of the state, so today those questioning the climate change agenda are derided, mocked, even persecuted (just ask those scientists who have questioned the prevailing wisdom) and pejoratively labeled “climate change deniers”.

Note, too, the privileged status of the ideology’s elite compared with the masses. While the Berlin Wall enforced an ideological system which forbade its poorly-dressed citizens from watching Western television, forced them to queue for hours for even the most basic of goods, and the best it could manage was an eight year waiting list for the plastic, two-cylinder Trabant car (a kind of bath on wheels that made even the Russian Lada look like a Rolls Royce), the Communist elite enjoyed imported West German electrical goods, rode around in handmade limousines, dressed in Saville Row suits and purchased the finest Western goods at hard currency shops. I am reminded of those climate change zealots who tell us we must stop eating meat, have fewer children, and holiday at home, all in the name of reducing our carbon footprint, while they jet about to this or that climate change conference (often at exotic locations), or worse, fly to their Italian villas with their chums and tut-tut about climate change.

Please understand that it is the climate change zealots and lobby I have issues with here, not everyday folk who express views or ask questions concerning the issue, or indeed scientists who, on the basis of science alone maintain climate change is real. It is just that I am deeply sceptical about an elite which takes an ever more militant tone whereby even to question the phenomenon (hasn’t the earth’s climate always been changing?) or to suggest it might not be man-made after all, courts utter derision and unpleasantness in some quarters. The moral tones displayed by such people echo those of the hysterical witch-finder trials in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the medieval heresy hunting before that. It also ignores how scientists who agree that climate change is occurring disagree sharply on the rate at which it is happening, with estimates for global warming in the twenty-first century ranging from 1 to 7 degrees Celsius. Note also how the issue has become either a tax gathering measure, or else an ideological stick used to hit one’s political rival over the head with, rather than a strictly scientific debate. Just do some research to see how funding for global warming research seems to be commensurate with reaching the “right” conclusions.

But especially important for me, as a Christian, is how parts of the Church have allowed the world to dictate our environmental agenda, so that all we seem to do is echo the climate change lobby mantra of global warming at the expense of our own, proactively-established biblical theology of the environment and stewardship. There are various environmental issues to discuss and work towards as Christians, but we rarely hear of these because such voices are drowned out by this single issue.

Why do I question manmade climate change? Actually, it finds its origins roundabout when Gorbachev came to power in the USSR. In the early and mid 1980s I recall, as a teenager, a series of news articles discussing how melting ice caps would have a huge impact on cities built at sea level such London, with claims that much of the capital would be under water by the end of the century, or very early in the new millennium. Of course this hasn’t happened. Yet the claims continue unabated, the only difference being that the fulfillment of these prophecies have been pushed into the far future. (If I were to be unkind I might suggest this was to ensure the prophets of doom are long dead if somehow their proclamations prove incorrect.). Which brings me to another parallel between what the Berlin Wall defended and the climate change lobby: creating a sense of fear and dread for those who do not toe the party line. Unfortunately, it now seems this strategy has had the opposite effect, with alarmism merely helping to fuel climate change scepticism. And there, I think, is the final parallel between both walls. One day (and if the growing number of “climate change deniers” is anything to go by it might not be that far away), just as the Berlin Wall fell eventually, so, I think, will this one, allowing people to engage in an environmental debate shaped more by science than ideology and politics.



Just a few days after posting this The Times published details of a public opinion poll and ran a major front page story concerning the public's scepticism over global warming in the run up to the Copenhagen summit on the issue. It seems these climate change deniers are more numerous than many people thought.

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