With the COP24 starting next week, right-wing populists are seeking to reframe the discussion about climate change even in ultra-ecological Germany. Environmentalists face a dilemma — to rebut or ignore the deniers.
The environmental affairs spokesman for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), Karsten Hilse, is someone who rarely raises his voice or breaks into the sneers of party heads Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland — to say nothing of the climate-change-denier-in-chief, US President Donald Trump.
But Hilse's message is just as radical. The 53-year-old father of three says that the mainstream political parties and media have created nothing less than an irrational environmentalist religion, forcing ordinary people to do penance for imaginary sins in changing the planet's environment.
Hilse's goals are to have Germany leave the Paris Agreement, overturn the country's ambitious German Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) and, above all, to get people to stop asking what can be done about man-made climate change in favor of questioning whether it's a gigantic hoax put forth by politicians and journalists.
"Particularly on public television, not a day goes by on which people aren't told that they're responsible for the coming catastrophe and that for that reason they have to dutifully pay their EEG apportionment and other levies," Hilse told DW outside the Bundestag's main chamber.
The metaphor of climate change as a bastard religion places Hilse and his party in the role of the rational, atheist debunkers. But winning over others to this view involves challenging not just the politicians and media, but also the scientific establishment.
The logic of Copernicus
A two-minute cycle ride from the Reichstag, at the Greens' weekly press conference in party headquarters, co-chairwoman Annalena Baerbock is taking the government to task for failing to curb plastic waste, which not only threatens the planet's marine habitats but also increases consumption of petroleum.
For the 37-year-old mother of two, the AfD's skepticism toward man-made climate change is nothing less than a cynical attack on science itself.
"The AfD doesn't support freedom of research in our country," Baerbock told DW. "The party doesn't accept that in all areas of the environment, including the climate debate, we have scientific evidence accepted by all of the world scientists. Instead it tries to calls science into question."
Baerbock's assertion is an overstatement — although not by much. There are in fact scientists who reject the idea of man-made climate change, but they are few in number and rarely specialists in the subject. Documents such as the 2007 Oregon Petition, in which some scientists rejected the mainstream view, are of dubious provenance at best. The vast majority of experts support the idea that human beings should change their ways of life to minimize the potentially catastrophic risks of altering the environment as a common-sense policy.
Hilse counters that science is "not a democracy" in which the majority should rule.
"Just look at Copernicus, the first man to maintain that not the earth, but the sun is at the center of our solar system," Hilse says. "What percent of experts back then said: 'You're crazy?'"
The potential flaw in this analogy is, of course, that Copernicus turned out to be right because he was more scientific, i.e. a better expert, in his thinking than the detractors — and not because experts in general are to be mistrusted.
Useless agreements or useless altercations?
Ironically, there is one line of argument — or more accurately criticism — the far-right populists and the environmentalists share. Even as the AfD disputes the evidence for man-made climate change, they also argue that measures such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement are merely toothless declarations of principle that do nothing to combat any putative problem.
The fact that even Germany is set to miss its 2020 goals under the Paris Agreement highlights the weakness of what Hilse dismisses as "non-binding agreements." The conclusion the AfD draws from this is: Why bother? For the Greens, however, the point is to urge Germany's governing grand-coalition to prioritize ecology, rather than arguing with the far-right populists.
"The AfD just wants to wreck the entire political debate, which is why it's useless to constantly have altercations with them," says Baerbock. "Instead we need to keep driving on the government, which unfortunately at the moment isn't adhering to the Paris process."
Indeed, the AfD remains first and foremost an anti-immigration party, and it's tempting to conclude that the telegenic Hilse — a trained police officer and former male model once voted "Mr. Brandenburg" — is fighting something of a lone cause and may be safely ignored. But that would be short-sighted.
New political frontlines
Since the dramatic decline of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the AfD have been vying to establish themselves as Germany's second political force. In recent regional elections and national opinion polls, the environmentalists have moved past the far-right populists, and not surprisingly the AfD has markedly stepped up its direct attacks on the Greens. In the future, these two parties could represent the main poles on the left and right of Angela Merkel's weakening CDU/CSU in the middle.
Moreover, even if there's little chance of the AfD being able to change German policy at present, since all the other parties more or less agree that man-made climate change is a reality, simply forcing any sort of discussion essentially moves the goalposts.
Hilse claims that he just wants to have alternate views presented and "let people make up their own minds," while Baerbock identifies a much more sinister intent: trying to destroy the democratic foundations of modern-day ecology. But as much as she's like to drown the AfD in indifference, even she admits that the populists have succeeded in making something of an impression.
"Among the [center-right] Free Democrats and parts of the CDU/CSU, people are suddenly saying that, in deference to the AfD, we shouldn't spend so much time talking about climate policy," Baebock told DW. "That's utterly wrong. That's falling for the far-right populists' line."
Verity is hard to come by these days, but one truth upon which everyone would agree is that where climate policy is concerned no compromise is possible. The impasse between environmentalists and populists in Germany — a country known for both its consensus style of government and its ecological progressiveness — is just as stark, even if the country does not (yet) have a denier-in-chief.