Disasters like the floods in Germany are a particular challenge for politicians. In crises, people look for leadership and expect empathy and resolve from politicians. Especially from those who are preparing to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel and lead Germany's next government.
The candidate currently in pole position is Armin Laschet, leader of the Christian Democratic Union and state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, which has been severely affected by the floods.
Laschet initially lived up to expectations: He was on site, listened to those affected, and into the many cameras he announced to the electorate a faster pace in addressing climate protection measures. Unfortunately, the cameras also caught him laughing and even smirking, while German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was just a few meters away, offering comfort to the flood victims. For a man who wants to become chancellor, this type of behavior is surprisingly insensitive and unprofessional. In this hour of need, Laschet should have shown statesmanlike compassion.
Unambitious climate protection measures
Even more serious than this misstep is Laschet's indecisiveness in the policy area that has finally made it to the top of the agenda as a result of the disaster: climate protection. When he grasped the extent of the catastrophe in his state, he initially announced that he wanted to accelerate climate protection, only to emphasize later that same day that he would not change his policy because of a single day's events.
Ironically, no one really knows what that policy is. For example, he is in favor of renewable energies, but his government in North Rhine-Westphalia has massively raised the hurdles for wind turbines. Laschet also rejects a requirement for solar panels to be installed on new buildings.
When he addresses climate policy issues, he usually points out the negative impact: Climate protection should not make home ownership or vacation flights more expensive, should not endanger jobs and should not take away the fun of driving a fast car. At the same time, he seems to suggest that there is a climate policy — namely, his — that can be pursued without drastic and painful changes to the status quo.
Laschet clearly sees himself in the tradition of Merkel, who in her almost 16 years in office has not demanded substantial sacrifices from citizens or industry in the name of climate protection. This lack of ambition was also highlighted by the German Constitutional Court in April, when the judges called on politicians to make significantly more efforts to protect future generations from climate catastrophes.
Honest crisis management
The flood disaster has rammed home a point that many Germans have long since recognized: that carrying on as before will lead to climate chaos and that global warming is fueling extreme weather and becoming a deadly danger — not only in faraway countries, but also on their own doorstep. Their fear of losing everything is greater even than the fear of a speed limit on German highways.
If Laschet wants to become chancellor, he must take these concerns seriously and finally come clean about how he intends to reduce CO2 emissions in concrete terms. He must stop painting climate protection as an overblown specter and talk honestly about opportunities and cuts. That means telling people the truth about how effective climate protection will change their lives: what they might have to do without in the future, which jobs are on the line and how he intends to cushion the social impact.
Climate protection does not stop at our own borders. It needs international action. But if you shy away from being straight up with business and citizens at home, few voters will trust you to stand up to Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Jair Bolsonaro on climate protection and get them on board.
Whether Laschet wants to or not, he has to show he's serious about climate protection, which is crucial to the election campaign. Otherwise, his dream of becoming chancellor will soon dissipate.
This piece was translated from German.