Very few people in the Western world work directly with coal anymore, but fears engendered by the phase-out of this fossil fuel in favor of cleaner energy sources remain politically potent. That's especially apparent in eastern Germany, where, following US President Donald Trump's lead, far-right populists are seeking to harness anti-environmentalism and anxiety about the economic future in the country's poorest region.
That was the backdrop to a press conference in Berlin on Friday at which the leaders of the three eastern German coal mining states — Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg — demanded a whopping €60 billion ($69 billion) in federal aid to stop producing lignite. They said the economic interests of those facing unemployment should take precedence over environmental protection.
"We owe it to the people in our regions that the path is new jobs first, then the phaseout and then the discontinuation of existing production," said Saxony State Premier Michael Kretschmer of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU).
Although Germany has yet to set concrete dates for the phaseout of lignite coal mining, it has agreed in principle to discontinue it as part of its climate commitments. The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which disputes the phenomenon of global warming, wants to reverse that policy and keep Germany's relatively small mining industry in the western Ruhr Valley and the east of the country alive.
So can mainstream parties respond to this challenge? Will the promise of €60 billion in federal aid be enough to convince people to resist the lure of the populists?
Avoiding the 'insults' of the past
Only around 21,000 Germans — 11,000 in the East — are still employed mining lignite coal. But like coal mining in West Virginia in the US, the trade's long and culturally rich traditions carry significance beyond the sheer numbers. The AfD portrays the phaseout of lignite coal as an instance of politicians and elites making decisions against the wishes and to the detriment of ordinary Germans.
The challenge is not to be taken lightly. Both Kretschmer and Brandenburg State Premier Dietmar Woidke of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) are up for re-election in regional votes next year. Conservatives and the SPD have been bleeding support nationally for quite some time, while polls currently project the AfD to get almost a quarter of the vote in Saxony and nearly as much in Brandenburg.
The state premiers are clearly concerned that the coal phaseout will remind eastern Germans of economic disappointments in the wake of the country's reunification in 1990. East German industry was largely dismantled as noncompetitive and many people from the East felt ignored and overruled by capitalist know-it-alls from the West.
Woidke, for instance, said that he and his fellow state premiers were determined not to see their constituents get "fobbed off again" with empty promises or to "talk over their heads."
"We have to work to ensure that the people in our regions are respected," Woidke said. "When phrases like 'dirty lignite coal spitting out filth' are used, it's an insult to people in the entire region."
Using the AfD as a threat
To a remarkable degree, Kretschmer, Woidke and Saxony-Anhalt State Premier Reiner Haseloff (CDU) are positioning themselves as adversaries of the federal government at the same time as they are demanding a huge sum of money from it. The entirety of Germany should be called upon to pay for the lignite coal phaseout, not just the regions directly affected, they say, implying that the opposite was the case with German reunification .
"We are not going to impose such a transformation on our people again," Haseloff said. "Our climate goals have to be attained, but 82 million people (the population of all of Germany) have to chip in."
Jobs in the eastern German lignite coal industry are often poorly paid, usually less than €2000 a month, yet the country's state premiers are demanding the equivalent of millions of euros for each position. The not-so-implicit threat is that, should the federal government fail to pony up sufficient cash, the AfD would profit — and the political mainstream would come under further pressure.
Money doesn't equal jobs
Despite the huge sums they demanded, the state premiers were short on specific details about what the money would be spent on. Kretschmer talked about infrastructure such as rail lines, while Woidke stressed renewable energy sources and Haseloff mentioned research and development.
But they were forced to admit that even "immediate" federal help would not yield any tangible results before next September's state elections in Brandenburg and Saxony. And industry advocates are skeptical, saying money would not necessarily equal jobs in some of the areas in Germany struggling the most economically.
"Sixty billion euros sounds pretty enticing, but it doesn't get us any further in terms of [social] structures and industry," Wolfgang Rupieper of the coal-friendly Pro Lausitzer Braunkohle association told DW.
Rupieper acknowledged that "extremist parties" could benefit if people in the East felt unsure of the government's handling of the coal phaseout. Meanwhile environmental activists, led by the Green party, accuse the state premiers of hurting their constituents by dragging out Germany's inevitable discontinuation of coal mining.
"The heads of the regional governments may not care whether Germany rips up all its climate goals and violates international law," Green party climate spokesman Oliver Krischer told DW. "But as people with political responsibility they should have recognized by now that coal hinders future economic development. Anyone unable to see that must have very restricted horizons."
With support for the traditional political powers in Germany eroding in favor of smaller parties, the lignite coal phaseout is a political minefield — and one headache neither conservatives nor Social Democrats particularly need.