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Environment Becomes a Political Football in Germany

With half of Germany submerged under water and elections looming, the environment has suddenly taken on a new urgency in the political campaign. Has the Green Party found a new weapon against the conservative opposition?


I'm here, don't worry - Bavarian Premier and chancellor hopeful Stoiber in the flooded city of Passau

The storms that have wreaked havoc in southern and eastern Germany this past week have presented an unintended political opportunity for Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s government coallition.

Lagging behind the Christian Democratic Union and Chrisitian Social Union in the polls before the Sept. 22 elections, Schröder’s social democratic and Green party coalition government has used the flooding to tout their environmental record and attack the Union’s lack of an environmental vision.

The Greens took special issue with chancellor candidate Edmund Stoiber’s failure to appoint a person responsible for environmental affairs in his much-publicised shadow cabinet.

"In the face of the ongoing natural catastrophe, candidate Stoiber should reflect on why nobody in his so-called competence team is responsible for the environment," Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told the Thüringer Allgemeine newspaper on Tuesday. "Precisely in Stoiber’s Bavaria, there was unchecked construction in the flooded areas."

Weak spot in the opposition's programme

The political pressure on Stoiber to think out a sound policy for the long-term consequences of climatic change is now growing.

On Tuesday several SPD and Green politicians as well as representatives from environmental organisations called up Stoiber to urge him to appoint an environmental expert in his cabinet.

A recent study by the German Environmental Ministry showing that just 25 percent of all German environmental activists are in favour of a CDU/CSU coalition, has put more heat on Stoiber to take action.

The environmental spokesperson of the Greens, Reinhard Loske accused Stoiber of "environmental ignorance". In a statement he said, "those such as the union who want to end the eco tax and reject the further expansion of renewable energies, are dealing in an utter irresponsible manner".

A solid government record, say advocates

The so-called “eco tax” is considered by advocates to be one of the great achievements of Schröder’s coalition government since it came to power in 1998. The tax, placed on everything from fuel to electricity, is meant to spur conservation by gradually increasing the cost of energy and raw materials, kick-start investment aimed at energy conservation and generate revenues to bring down labour costs.

The red-green coalition added another environmental victory to its balance when in June 2000 it got the nuclear industry to agree on the phasing out of nuclear power in Germany within the next 30 years.

The two proposals, celebrated by many in the international community, were viewed as a giant step towards achieving the German government’s objective of reducing CO2 emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2005.

Both proposals have come under heavy criticism by industry leaders and opposition parties. Business leaders felt the eco tax would scare away consumers fearing higher electricity bills and rising gasoline costs. Opposition parties have maintained that nuclear energy is the most inexpensive form of energy currently available.

Opposition still in favour of nuclear energy

Stoiber and the rest of the Union have stuck to that message. Even in the face of the present catastrophe, a government led by the Union parties will continue to rely on the entire spectrum of energy sources – even nuclear energy. A hike in the ecological tax is also out of the question, said party officials.

"Many people don’t like it when we say that we will use nuclear energy in the future. But if we do away with nuclear energy, climate protection will become endlessly expensive," Klaus Lippold, the party’s environmental expert and vice president of their parliamentary group, told the Neue Presse in Hanover. He said that the union will advocate "self-regulation on the part of the industry" to achieve climate protection goals.

Meanwhile, as floods wreak havoc and claim lives in large regions of southern and eastern Germany – particularly in Saxony, Saxony Anhalt and Bavaria – both Chancellor Schröder and his conservative challenger, Stoiber have rushed to the worst-affected cities of Dresden and Passau in Bavaria respectively.

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