Climate change is a top issue in Germany’s elections as young activists challenge politicians to act now before it is too late.
Young Germans will be massing in the streets on Friday with Greta Thunberg in a global climate strike to demand action to secure their future — just two days ahead of federal elections on September 26. Fear is taking hold that temperature rises beyond the Paris target of 1.5 degrees Celsius seem inevitable — or even acceptable — to mainstream politicians and the older voters that elect them.
German activists with Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, many of them too young to vote, are critical of all political parties — including the Green Party — for the lack of a real plan to prevent catastrophic planetary warming.
Germany is Europe’s biggest carbon polluter. US Climate Envoy John Kerry lists Germany as one of the world’s top 20 worst emitters, along with the US and China, that must take “bold action” or the rest of the world is doomed.
Europe’s biggest economy and the European Union’s largest producer and consumer of coal, Germany also has an outsize influence on the climate change politics of the other 26 member states.
With the next UN climate summit (COP26) only weeks away, none of the largest greenhouse gas emitting countries are on track to meet their commitments under the Paris climate accord to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Governments are very nearly out of time, according to the UN report leaked to the public in August by scientists so alarmed they are calling for a “climate revolution.” The Paris target of 1.5 C or at least ”well below 2 C degrees” seems to be slipping out of reach worldwide.
When Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves office, a new leader will be tasked with the staggering transformation required to green Germany’s manufacturing economy and turn the nation into a climate-neutral industrial country.
“If we don’t keep warming to 1.5 degrees, it will be a failure of politics,” said Stefan Rahmstorf, a leading scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “As a physicist, I would argue it is still possible.”
According to a poll conducted by the Generation Foundation, most young adults surveyed (ages 16 to 26) have no trust in any established party. Seventy percent are “afraid of what their future will look like,” and more than 80 percent feel the current government simply looks the other way when young people protest in the streets.
Young people born in Germany this century — sometimes referred to as Generation Merkel because they have lived most of their lives under her chancellorship — are as diverse as any bloc of older voters. However, they are set apart by the efforts many are making to channel climate anxiety into pressuring policymakers — supported by scientists who say accelerating emissions cuts is the only way to prevent climate disaster. More and more young people are committing their lives to finding a solution.
Fridays for Future has called for a global climate strike on September 24 — its most important global action since the coronavirus pandemic struck. The international youth movement launched one of the largest protests in history in 2019; in Germany alone, an estimated 1.4 million people took to the streets. It has inspired other global ”for future” movements launched in Germany: Parents for Future, Scientists for Future, and Psychologists for Future.
The problem for climate strikers is that there still isn’t any sense of a real crisis in Germany. German climate activist Luisa Neubauer and Thunberg summed it up in a letter to Merkel and other EU leaders, signed by nearly 125,000 people.
“Stop pretending that we can solve the climate and ecological crisis without treating it as a crisis,” the letter reads. “People in power today have so far practically already given up on the possibility of handing over a decent future for coming generations.”
Tackling Climate Change While Burning Coal
Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is one of Germany’s two mainstream parties. The other is the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Because Germany’s multiparty democracy is based on proportional representation, it is hard for any party to achieve 50 percent of the vote. Setting ideological differences aside, the CDU (along with a sister party, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union or CSU) has governed in a so-called “grand coalition” with the SPD for the past eight years under Merkel’s chancellorship.
Armin Laschet, who governs Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia state, is campaigning to succeed Merkel as chancellor for the CDU. The SPD candidate for chancellor is Olaf Scholz, who serves as Merkel’s finance minister and vice chancellor in the current government. Merkel was the embodiment of German voters’ yearning for stability in a country that was only reunited 31 years ago. Scholz has studiously copied her deadpan, no-drama style, even down to her hand gestures.
The disconnect between the Paris Agreement’s climate goals and the policies of the CDU and SPD is profound. Both parties are still officially sticking to a plan to burn coal for 17 more years — making the Paris goals impossible. Both chancellor candidates include tackling climate change on their list of campaign promises — while not getting out of coal too soon — along with stable pensions, job security, and a balanced budget.
The failure of the CDU/CSU-SPD “grand coalition” over climate change has helped launch the dramatic rise of the Greens and their new-found status as a mainstream party. The party is contending for the chancellorship for the first time under the leadership of 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock. The Green Party is polling in third place, after having surged to first place for a short time in May. Three other parties are on track to win seats in Germany’s Parliament: the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), offering free-market climate solutions; the far-left Die Linke with bold climate policies oriented towards social justice; and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) — the only party that denies that climate change is caused by humans.
In a three-way TV debate between chancellor candidates, the almost identically dressed Laschet and Scholz accused each other of blocking decisive action on climate change (Laschet to Scholz, “yours is the party that didn’t want to do more”). Baerbock stood in the middle, calling for a new government to take action before it’s too late. “We are missing our climate targets with dramatic consequences,” she interjected. “And you … just pushed the blame on each other. … We can’t carry on for the next 17 years as if nothing was happening.”
The state of Germany’s gerontocracy can be seen in snap poll results that followed the end of the debate. Audience members aged 18-34 said Baerbock won by 30 points while those 35-59 and over 60 said she came in third, with Scholz winning over Laschet and Baerbock by more than 10 points. If only people aged 18-34 were allowed to vote, the Green Party would jump to first place in national polls.
Given the SPD’s lead in the polls, Scholz now appears to be the chancellor in waiting. However, he will have to form a coalition government with another party, most likely the Greens. If the Green Party does well enough, he will govern with them alone. Otherwise, he will have to include a third party in the new government, either the FDP or Die Linke.
The New Climate Reality
Germany suddenly came face-to-face this summer with the deadly reality of the climate crisis.
The worst flooding in decades killed nearly 220 people in the Rhineland and neighboring Belgium.
It was preceded by intense rainfall that is “one of the hallmark manifestations of a human-warmed climate,” according to Yale Climate Connections. Scientists from World Weather Attribution concluded that climate change made the floods up to nine times more likely to happen while increasing their intensity up to 19 percent.
“There are barely words in the German language to describe the devastation that’s been wrought here,” said Merkel, after a visit to Rhineland-Palatinate. In a strangely confessional press conference, her last after 30-plus years in politics, 16 of them as chancellor, Merkel defended her record while acknowledging ”not enough has happened” to limit global warming. “I have put a lot of energy into climate protection. … And yet I am sufficiently equipped with scientific understanding to see that the objective circumstances mean we cannot continue at this pace but that we have to move faster.”
Contrary to expectations, scientific evidence that the largest natural catastrophe since World War II can be attributed largely to climate change has not led to significant political gains for the Green Party. However, in the wake of the floods, support for CDU candidate Laschet has fallen steadily. He was caught on camera seemingly laughing at a joke while Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivered a speech promising disaster aid to flood victims. That laugh might have cost him the election.
Kids vs. Climate Change
Just as Germany’s parties were shifting into election campaign mode in late April, a historic Federal Constitutional Court decision pushed climate to the center of political debate. Unlike in the United States, where similar lawsuits have been unsuccessful, the court sided with Luisa Neubauer and eight other young plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the government for inaction on global warming (Neubauer, et al. v. Germany).
Germany’s 2019 climate legislation, the judges ruled, put an unbearable burden on future generations rather than taking responsibility for climate action in the present. “The challenged rules violate the freedoms of the complainants, some of whom are still very young,” they wrote. “Virtually every freedom is potentially affected by these future emission reduction obligations because almost every area of human life is associated with the emission of greenhouse gases and is therefore threatened by drastic restrictions after 2030.”
At astonishing speed, Merkel’s government drafted and passed a new Climate Protection Act, increasing targets for emissions cuts (from 55 percent below 1990 levels to 65 percent by 2030) while bringing forward its net zero target date by five years (from 2050 to 2045). The new law, however, is still not compatible with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Not only the highest court decision, said Neubauer, but “also the school strikes and the organization of so many people all over the Republic is above all the result of a huge deficit … I would say, a betrayal of trust by people we thought would take care of us as they were meant to. It is great that Karlsruhe [the Supreme Court] affirmed all generations have equal rights but it makes me sad that it was at all necessary.”
Boomers, “You Have the Future of Young People in your Hands”
One of the most powerful pleas for intergenerational justice in the run-up to election day has come from a blue-haired Youtube star named Rezo. In a video seen by millions of Germans, he reminds older voters (many of them retired) that young people made enormous personal sacrifices during the past 18 months to protect them from COVID-19. Will boomers return the favor?
Rezo says it’s time to “destroy” the mainstream parties because the CDU-SPD grand coalition “is destroying our lives and our future.” Without the over-50s, it is impossible to vote them out of office. “You have the future of young people in your hands.”
A majority of voters in Germany’s aging electorate might have already made up their minds — more are over 60 than under 40. A recent poll by Germany’s Nature Conservation Association (NABU) — which its president calls “terrifying” — found that the older voters are, the more likely they are to reject the climate and environmental concerns of young people when casting a ballot. Sixty percent of people over 65 say they don’t care at all.
Rezo’s climate rant — a rapid-fire barrage of statistics, graphs, quotes, and clips — is heavily documented, drawing on the work of climate change scientists, youth activists, and investigative journalists.
The information, while not new, is a damning indictment of Germany’s climate politics. There are revelations about a powerful network of behind-the-scenes lobbyists watering down climate protection laws; a group of climate change deniers on the right-wing of the CDU; SPD chancellor candidate Scholz’s attempts to limit carbon tax increases; and a clip of German politician Nicola Beer (FDP) — vice-president of EU parliament — dismissing the scientific evidence for global warming.
Then there is the strange case of taxpayer-funded compensation for coal producers during a projected coal phase-out that exceeds their estimated profits by two billion euros. The deal, details of which have been kept from the public, is now under investigation by the European Union.
In summing up, Rezo borrows the English word “lost” — Germany’s “youth word of the year” — but not to describe members of his own generation facing an uncertain climate future. Rather, it is high-ranking members of Germany’s governing party, he says, who are Geloste Leute — “lost people” — “anti-science dudes” and politicians “on the payroll of fossil fuel companies” that have fatefully delayed progress on climate change.
“You have succeeded in making a bad situation infinitely worse. Guys, grow the fuck up.”