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German farmers sue government over climate change failures

Mabel Gundlach
October 31, 2019

For the first time, the German government is being taken to court for failing to protect the climate. Ahead of the hearing, DW spoke to one of the plaintiffs in the case, organic farmer Silke Backsen.

One tiny green plant on a dried up ground
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Hoppe

Farmers sue over climate change

A legal case against the German government over climate change came before the Berlin Administrative Court Thursday. The action was filed in autumn 2018 by the environmental organization Greenpeace, along with three German families who say global warming is threatening their livelihoods.

The plaintiff families, who are all organic farmers directly affected by changing weather patterns, are accusing the government of not complying with its climate protection targets for 2020. They say this amounts to an infringement of their constitutional rights.

The plaintiffs are hoping the court will compel the German government to take effective action in order to meet the targets. 

Read more: German environment minister says government must act on climate now

One of the plaintiffs is Silke Backsen, who runs an organic farm on the island of Pellworm off German's North-Frisian coastline. She's worried about what will happen to her home when sea levels rise. She spoke to DW ahead of the court hearing on Thursday. 

A portrait of Silke Backsen in a blue rain jacket
Silke Backsen runs an organic farm on the German island of PellwormImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Sommer

DW: What led you to bring this case against the German government?

Silke Backsen: The weather over the 2017-2018 period played a big role. We went from a total monsoon in 2017 to an extremely dry phase. The drought summer of 2018 affected a lot of people. But that's essentially just weather. Actual climate change is much harder to recognize, I think, because it's a slow, ongoing process. But as temperatures rise, it's becoming increasingly difficult to farm in the way we do. Where we live, we are profoundly affected by rising sea levels — and will be continue to be in the future. Ultimately, those of us who live in this region are wondering what will happen when sea levels rise as they're predicted to.

Read more: Hotter, higher seas to worsen extreme floods without 'urgent and ambitious' action, United Nations warns

Can you tell us more about how your farm is affected?

We have cattle, we raise and fatten them and breed both males and females. We also have sheep and quite a lot of cropland. I can tell you about the concrete effects of the extreme weather in 2017-18. The fields were flooded. And on Pellworm, the island where we live, that implied drainage problems — because we couldn't get rid of the water. 

Straight after that we had an extremely dry period, which left our grazing land completely useless. Not enough grass was growing on our pastures to feed the bulls and cattle. And generally we've noticed a rise in extreme weather. It's becoming harder and harder for farmers, especially organic farmers, to work on these complex marshlands.

Dried up plants in a field
Many German farmers felt the destructive power of the 2018 droughtImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Stollarz
Deutschland Küstenschutz Rheiderland
In many places along the coast of Schleswig-Holstein, the dikes are being raised to keep rising sea leves at bayImage: DW/D. Kaufmann

How have people responded to your decision to sue the government?

At first people were quite reserved about it. We'd been looking into the issue for a long time before we felt ready to file this legal case, along with other families. Then we realized that there was a huge need for more education on the topic. And actually then it completely changed and we got a lot of support. The issue seemed to really resonate with a lot of people, it was being discussed in committee meetings, at home, among families and friends, and also by local politicians here. Now we're taken much more seriously and have a lot of support.

Read moreGermany's coastal lowlands under the shadow of climate change

Do you feel encouraged by movements like Fridays for Future?

Yes, when we filed the claim last October, it was around the same time that Fridays for Future was gaining a lot of momentum. I think movements like this give each other strength. It's important to apply pressure on many levels, and to give a clear signal that many people are really waking up to this issue and saying: 'We've had enough, things can't go on like this. You can't ignore 1.4 million people on the streets — and actually you can't ignore a lawsuit like ours either.' 

The words "Fridays for Future" have been mown into a corn field
A farm in Germany ploughed a message into its corn fieldImage: Getty Images/AFP/I. Fassbender

Have there also been negative reactions?

Yes, we've experienced that too. That's normal when you put yourself out there like we have. And of course, as farming families, we're both victims and perpetrators. The agricultural sector is of course guilty, in inverted commas, of many things when it comes to the environment. If you're a cattle farmer, some people are obviously going to find it completely ridiculous when you say: "We want to do something against climate change.” But in the end, it depends how you run your farm — and we see huge differences between conventional farming and organic farming.

Read more: Does Germany's weak climate plan reflect a polarized public?

Where have you come up against resistance?

Close to home actually. In our small community, or even among close friends, there were people who didn't understand why we were taking the German government to court; why we would take such a serious step in order to bring the issue to peoples' attention or in order to try and make sure we actually achieve the 2020 climate targets. But we also didn't spend a lot of time discussing it with people before we decided to take this step and file the lawsuit. Not everyone has to support the thing we're personally so passionate about. But that has really changed over time.

What do you expect from the court proceedings?

We're not lawyers so it's hard for us to make any real predictions about who will "win” or "lose” the case, but since last October, we've done an unbelievable amount of work on the issue, to publicize it, to show the concrete ways in which individuals are affected, to show that this is not just an abstract problem happening somewhere else in the world, but that it affects your neighbors and it affects all of us. In the best case, of course, we would win and the government would be compelled to reach its climate targets. 

Lignite mine with wind turbines in the background
"There is a huge problem with brown coal"Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Ziese
Mudflats and the sea above a cloud-peppered sky
The island of Pellworm is below sea-level and at risk from rising watersImage: DW/T. Walker

If that does happen, what steps do you see being taken – or what steps would you like to see the government take?

I think it's clear to everyone what this is about and which government departments need to take strong steps at the very least in order to reach the climate goals. There is a huge problem with transport. There is a huge problem with brown coal; in the coal mining sector; in the energy sector. We should have had a major change there a long time ago. And on all levels, we need to finally get some guidelines in place that citizens have to stick to or that make it easier for us to live in a way that produces less CO2. That's obvious. I don't want to tell the government what precise steps it should be taking — it has its own experts for that. But they have to start doing more.

Read more: Survey: Most Germans want climate protection, but not protests

So you'd like to see more regulations?

That's a word many people don't like to hear. But I don't think it's enough for us to keep saying that everyone has to individually make changes to their lives. It's extremely important that every small change can make a difference. But to make bigger changes, we need politics — that's what it's there for. As a child, I never did up my seatbelt; we all rolled about on the back seat of the car. But now it's the law to wear a seatbelt and it's for my own safety. Measures put in place to combat climate change are also for my own safety.

Will we manage to stop global warming in the future? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about that?

I'm always optimistic. I'm an optimistic person and I would say we can do it. We will do it. At the end of the day, we all have to shift our thinking and realize that it can't go on like this. Talk about it with everyone you can. Take action. Let's go! We can definitely turn this around.

The interview was conducted by Mabel Gundlach and has been edited for length and clarity.