Forty years ago, Germans loved to make fun of eco-types who ate muesli, wore shapeless knitted sweaters and packed their groceries in jute bags. Back then, the German Green party was just getting started. Today, things are different: every supermarket has organic food, every fashion chain sells sustainable T-shirts in its stores, and the coronavirus crisis has accelerated the trend towards cycling to get around. The Green party itself has become a viable political force.
There’s only one problem: there’s still a gap between green ideas and how many Germans think. Realising this may help us to understand why the party hasn’t been able to fully capitalise on the climate crisis – made real to many Germans after this summer’s flooding – in the current elections.
For a long time, on the back of a slew of electoral gains and with Angela Merkel departing, it looked as if the Greens might take over the chancellorship for the first time. But now, with Germans going to the polls on 26 September, it’s the current finance minister and vice-chancellor, Olaf Scholz, of the centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD), who is seen as the likely winner. Until recently, the SPD was hardly worth talking about; its candidate was ridiculed as an emotionless machine, nicknamed “Scholzomat”. “You seem as happy as an English butler at tea time,” a TV presenter once said to him drily years ago.
Despite his current lead in the polls, Scholz is not invulnerable. He is fighting accusations of having been too close to the banks at the expense of taxpayers (he denies any personal wrongdoing). He was mayor of Hamburg in 2017 when riots hit the city as it hosted the G20 summit, undermining his claims of being a steadying presence. But right now, he’s struck a nerve.
Germans love boring, the New York Times has observed. It’s true: Angela Merkel is stepping down as chancellor after 16 years, which is excitement enough. Scholz is cleverly posing as a kind of Mr Merkel, promising continuity and stability. For a photoshoot for Suddeutsche Zeitung magazine, he imitated Merkel’s famous hand gesture, the “rhombus”, in one shot. His election slogan is a simple, comforting: “Scholz will sort it“.
The pandemic had already caused enough stress. And then came the events of 14 July: heavy thunderstorms drifted over Germany, bringing torrential downpours in the west. Houses, bridges and roads were washed away. Parts of the country resembled a war zone. More than 180 people died. Suddenly, Germany found itself in the middle of the climate crisis like never before: the idea that the country would be relatively insulated from its consequences was revealed to be an illusion.
It is the Green party that has been warning about the climate crisis and developing countermeasures for years. So one might think that the events would have been a boon for the Greens and their candidate, Annalena Baerbock – even if she had a wobbly start to the election campaign, with questions over undeclared income, an embellished CV and alleged plagiarised passages in her recent book (she has admitted making mistakes with the way she used references in her book). But this hasn’t been the case.
Amid the flooding, two questions were key: how did the candidates respond? And what did their response say about the way they might handle an emergency?
For some Germans, August 2002 comes to mind as a point of comparison. Then, the Elbe river flooded large parts of the east of the country against the backdrop of a federal election. Edmund Stoiber, the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor, was looking like the comfortable winner; he even treated himself to a holiday. The incumbent, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder from the SPD, was trailing in the polls, but as the floods hit he became the man of the hour, a crisis manager in rubber boots. He travelled to the disaster area, promising to help generously. By the time Stoiber broke off his vacation a few days later and appeared at one of the flooded areas, it was too late. Schroder went on to win.
Make no mistake – we’re seeing a version of that play out again now. The current CDU/CSU candidate, Armin Laschet, doesn’t fit the role of leader amid a crisis – coming across as clumsy, overwhelmed, unserious. During an address by the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to the victims in the flooded area, he was seen laughing in the background. As finance minister, however, Scholz promised, with authority, billions in aid to affected regions. He didn’t stumble. Baerbock travelled to the area but didn’t make a show of it – the party cautiously avoided drawing links between the floods and the climate crisis
In Germany, the Greens are often accused of wanting to “re-educate people”, banning cars, eating schnitzel, flying. This is an exaggeration, of course. They want fewer cars, less meat consumption, more rail services, and more liveable city centres. Laschet, now in a more pugnacious mode as he tries to turn around his poor poll numbers, declared during the recent TV leaders’ debate that he would not “bully” voters. He didn’t specify who he was talking about, but everyone could guess the inference.
Apart from the far-right AfD, no party in Germany disputes the reality of the climate crisis any more, especially since the federal constitutional court has issued an epoch-making ruling that the government’s climate protection measures were insufficient to protect future generations. In response, Germany has tightened its climate targets, but not even the Greens have proposed the measures needed to achieve them. The urgency of the climate emergency has fizzled out amid the competing priorities of an election campaign. Avoid big, scary policies, don’t bother anyone too much: this appears the most promising approach for all parties.
Of course, there are those who do want radical climate action – they’re just not on the ballot. A handful of young people have set up tents near the Reichstag and are on hunger strike, demanding action on the climate crisis. The Fridays for Future movement is taking to the streets.
But despite the summer’s floods, most Germans recognise the problem but don’t really want to be bothered by it. Frontrunner Scholz has promised a climate policy with a sense of proportion, and a “moderate path” for carbon pricing, for instance. Meanwhile, Germans still drive to the organic supermarket in their SUVs.
Hanna Gersmann is a German journalist who specialises in climate and environmental policy