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Is this the climate election, or isn't it?

September 17, 2021

After a summer of floods, wildfires and extreme heat waves, many thought the German election would be dominated by talk of the climate crisis. Why, then, have the Greens not relied more heavily on this key voter issue?

Photos of Annalena Baerbock, Armin Laschet and Olaf Scholz hang on a washing line
Annalena Baerbock (left), Armin Laschet (center) and Olaf Scholz have been facing climate questions on the campaign trailImage: Leonie von Hammerstein/DW

For many Germans this past summer, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis. Deadly heat waves, wildfires burning out of control and, especially, the devastating mid-July floods in Belgium and Germany that left more the 200 dead pushed the issue of climate change to the top of voters' minds.

A September 10 poll commissioned by public broadcaster ZDF showed that climate change and the environment were the most pressing problems for 43% of respondents. Even the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was seen as less worrying, with 30% naming it as their primary concern. And a recent survey by German insurers R+V showed that some 61% of Germans were worried that climate change was having dramatic consequences for humanity.

And yet, in the weeks leading up to the federal election on September 26, climate change hasn't always been front and center on the campaign trail. The candidates are doing their best to stand out in the race to replace outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been a formidable presence in Germany and on the world stage for the better part of a generation. And they're also keenly aware of the host of other crucial concerns facing the country, among them the COVID recovery, the economy, digitalization, social justice and the future of the flagship car industry.

German climate activists on hunger strike

"All the parties have noticed that the climate issue is an important one, and they've noticed that during the campaign they're being asked how they plan to implement the [climate] goals that they've set," said Manfred Fischedick, the scientific managing director of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. "But in spite of all that, it's all still a bit on the surface."

Fischedick, who is also a lead author of the latest assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told DW that one reason for this relative lack of attention is that the huge challenge of climate change is now seen as established fact, not just a niche concern.

"We are now in a situation where, with the exception of one party — namely the [far-right] AfD — all the political parties have actually taken up the climate issue and are pursuing ambitious goals, so there aren't that many differences between the parties in terms of targets," he said. "The differences are in the question of how these goals are to be achieved — which measures will be used, which instruments. And this is a very technical question for an election campaign."

'A tremendous, huge task for the next government'

Johannes Orphal, of the Climate and Environment Center at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, said it doesn't help that policymakers and the public can easily be overwhelmed by the scale of what needs to be done to make the transition to a carbon-neutral economy by mid-century.

"It's a very complex task. Everybody has acknowledged that, and none of the parties has a perfect solution now. And even the verdict of our highest court earlier this year [Germany's Constitutional Court ruled in April that the government's existing climate protection plan was "insufficient" — Editor's note] again changed the conditions for what has to happen in the next years. It's a tremendous, huge task for the next government," he told DW.

People rest from cleaning up the debris of the flood disaster in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler
Reconstruction after the July floods is expected to cost billions of eurosImage: Bram Janssen/AP/picture alliance

It's not just the complexity of the climate challenge that has muted the debate, said Fischedick. For the first time in a German election campaign, the Green Party has had a serious shot at winning the top job with chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock — or at least of playing a significant part in the next coalition. As a result, he said, the Greens couldn't afford to only focus on one single issue, no matter how important it may be.

"In recent weeks, there was certainly an attempt by the Greens to give equal weight to a broad range of topics, and not just play the climate card," he said, highlighting their focus on pensions, security and various social issues. "That's also necessary if you want to get into the chancellor's office."

A strategic platform?

The Greens' attempt to think strategically may also be reflected in their election platform. The party's two main challengers, Merkel's conservative Union bloc of the Christian Democrats and Bavaria's Christian Social Union and the center-left Social Democrats (SDP), have pledged to make Germany carbon neutral by 2045; on the other extreme, the socialist Left Party has promised to reach that goal by 2035 — earlier even than the Greens. 

The Green Party, perhaps in an attempt to woo voters from both camps, has said it would immediately enact a climate program for all sectors and reach climate neutrality "in 20 years," if 100% renewable energy is achieved by 2035.

Despite the various vows, none of the major parties has been able to credibly explain how Germany will reach its 2030 emissions reduction target, according to a report released last week by the German Institute for Economic Research. It called on the parties to "deliver on the concrete steps needed for successful climate action."

Who will follow Angela Merkel?

"The Greens have been in power in some of the federal states in Germany now for years, and they know that such a transition is very complex. It's complex from the economic point of view, but also from the acceptance, the social point of view," said Orphal.

Discrimination, lack of respect

Finding that balance between climate action and social and economic acceptance isn't the only difficulty facing the party. "With the Greens, some people still think they are too young and that they are not well established," said Orphal, adding that Baerbock herself has also faced discrimination because she is a woman, and decades younger than her challengers. "When we look at the debates, I still feel that there is maybe a little bit of lack of respect because she's younger, she's a woman. You can see that."

Orphal said, however, that Baerbock hasn't let that stop her from getting the Greens' core climate message to voters. "If you look at [her] public appearances … she is not shy, and she makes it very clear that it's urgent. It's very helpful because it has ended the inertia of the so-called established old parties, the Social Democrats and the Union — they've had to learn from that," he said.

Fischedick agrees. "It seems certain that the climate issue will have a higher priority in the next federal government, whatever form it takes, and that there will be major pressure from the voters but also from the industry to implement this plan," said Fischedick, pointing out that it's "a completely different world" from the last time Germans went to the ballot box in 2017.

"Even if [the climate issue] hasn't always been at the forefront in the election campaign, this will be a decisive climate election. By the time the next government is formed, at the latest, [Germany] must actually begin to implement and work toward the 2030 targets. And a lot remains to be done to realize that."

Martin Kuebler Senior editor and reporter living in Brussels, with a focus on environmental issues