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On climate, German Green Party supporters feel betrayed

January 22, 2023

There has been much dismay over the Green Party leadership's compromise with "big coal" that led to the demolition of the village of Lützerath. Will this drive the environmentalist party to breaking point?

Demolition of Lützerath houses
In the end, climate activists were evicted from the village of Lützerath and its demolition beganImage: Isabella Escobedo/DW

After losing the battle for the little village of Lützerath, many Green Party supporters are feeling betrayed. Climate activists fought hard to prevent the demolition of the village in the lignite mining area in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), but despite international support police evacuated them by force and the expansion of the opencast lignite mine is going ahead.

Among those disappointed is Luisa Neubauer, leader of the Fridays for Future climate movement in Germany. "I don't know if the Green Party leadership is aware of what it has done," she told public broadcaster ARD. Neubauer is herself a member of the Greens and now she fears that many members may turn away.

Luisa Neubauer and Greta Thunberg at the protests
Luisa Neubauer (right) was protesting in Lützerath together with Greta ThunbergImage: Federico Gambarini/dpa/picture alliance

Between a rock and a hard place

The Green Party is part of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's center-left coalition but is also in government with the center-right Christian Democrats in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state. At both the federal level and in NRW, the Greens control the Economy Ministry.

In October 2022, federal Economy Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) and the North Rhine-Westphalian Economy Minister Mona Neubaur (Greens) struck a deal with energy giant RWE to phase out coal by 2030, eight years earlier than planned, sparing five villages from demolition — but in return to allow the Garzweiler opencast mine to expand and mine the coal below Lützerath. Climate activists have argued that the deal simply means the emissions have been brought forward.

Within days, this compromise was given the stamp of approval at a Green Party conference in Bonn, leaving many rubbing their eyes in disbelief: The party of climate protection voting for coal mining?

Mona Neubaur and Robert Habeck attending an election rallye in NRW in May 2022
Green NRW Economy Minister Mona Neubaur and Green Federal Economy Minister Robert Habeck hammered out the deal that led to the demolition of LützerathImage: Christoph Hardt/Panama/IMAGO

The youth wing of the party is feeling disenchanted. In the run-up to the 2021 general election, the Green Party's chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock stressed the significance of climate protection. "She repeatedly said during the election campaign: this is the last government that can still influence the climate crisis. She set the bar high," Green Youth chairman Timon Dzienus told the weekly Die Zeit. "So yes: If the government fails to meet the climate targets and limit emissions in all sectors, the Green Party, in particular, can suffer great damage."

Election promises broken?

The "deal negotiated with the energy company RWE threatens to break with the principles of our party," 2,000 Green Party members wrote in an open letter to Habeck and Neubaur. "We are also breaking with the Paris climate agreement, the government's coalition agreement and are losing the last bit of trust from the climate justice movement."

This dramatic appeal led Green Party leader Ricarda Lang to defend the RWE deal once again: "If we don't make compromises, then nothing at all would happen in climate protection," she claimed. "Very few other parties have a serious interest in this."

Delegates at Green Party conference in conference center
A Green Party conference in October 2022 in Bonn approved the coal compromise with RWEImage: Ina Fassbender/AFP

Political scientist Gero Neugebauer agrees. Even after painful decisions like the one on Lützerath, the Greens remain the party with the highest reputation for climate and environmental protection in Germany, he told DW. "The very fact that this is the Greens' unique selling point shows the weakness of the other parties, which fail to embrace climate policy as an important issue," he said.

Neugebauer doesn't believe that the controversy surrounding Lützerath is hurting the Greens as much as it would appear. There has not been a major row within the party, he said, and the critics lack prominent support.

Shadows of the past

The Greens have painful memories of a fundamental policy shift in the late 1990s, when the Greens' foreign minister at the time, Joschka Fischer, forced the pacifist party to support German military involvement in Kosovo. Within days, hundreds of members left the Greens.

Some political observers have also compared the Green Party's Lützerath compromise to the Social Democrats' watershed moment of 2003: The center-left SPD implemented "Hartz IV" a business-friendly labor market reform that cut back on welfare. Many members and voters saw this as the party's perceived betrayal of working-class interests and turned away. Hartz IV, to many in the SPD, was "the fall from grace."

But even after events in Lützerath, the Greens have not seen a marked drop in support: They still get between 18% and 20% in opinion polls — neck-and-neck with the SPD and four times as strong as the smallest coalition partner in Scholz's government, the neoliberal FDP.

Political scientist Neugebauer said the party still seems very much united, not only in the Lützerath case but also on other issues such as further arms deliveries to Ukraine. He argues that the many new, young members of the party "experience the Greens as a pragmatic party in government that takes responsibility, while being the only party that represents the goals of the climate movement."

Between 2015 and the end of 2021, Green Party membership more than doubled from about 60,000 to 125,000 now, and most of the new members are young. And even if radical environmental activists like those in Lützerath turn their back on the Greens, political scientist Neugebauer believes they would not join any other party instead.

Pragmatism may even pay off for the Greens, said political scientist Marc Debus, arguing that the ability to compromise shows a willingness to take responsibility. "In this way, they can become attractive to moderate voters and possibly win votes they have lost elsewhere," Debus told public broadcaster WDR.

This article was originally written in German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau