Flash in the pan: Flooding in Germany and the politics of climate

Recent environmental disasters could sway the result of this month’s election – but no party has yet seized the moment

Floods in Altenahr, Germany, July 2021

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Ten years ago, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan underwent a meltdown. Radiation was released into the atmosphere and more than 150,000 people had to be evacuated from surrounding areas. In Germany, support for the Greens rose to an unprecedented 28 per cent, forcing Chancellor Angela Merkel to U-turn on nuclear power generation – just weeks earlier she had given the go-ahead to extend the lifespan of Germany’s plants. Could recent extreme weather events in Germany and other parts of Europe have a similar impact on Germany’s general election on 26 September?

In July, severe floods hit Germany, with the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate the worst affected. Almost 200 people died and political leaders descended on western Germany to issue promises of greater funding and support. But, compared to the tsunami that caused the Fukushima meltdown, the recent floods have so far done little to move the electoral needle in favour of the Greens. Nor have the massive wildfires that engulfed parts of Greece, Italy, and Turkey. Or Sicily hitting 48.8 degrees Celsius – the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe.

Whoever wins the election, the next German government must approach climate action more systematically and in a more sustained fashion.

Undeniably, such events have occurred more frequently in recent years. And their frequency will further increase as the climate crisis accelerates, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report. All this should have boosted the Greens’ message and, in particular, harmed the prospects of the conservative candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet, who had hoped to campaign on a post-covid return to normality – he is on record as saying: “just because of one such day, we don’t change our policies”. His favourability ratings have fallen, but this is more due to a series of fumbles on his part rather than his lack of vision on climate. Meanwhile, neither Annalena Baerbock of the Greens nor the Social Democrats’ Olaf Scholz have much capitalised on Laschet’s travails. Opinion polls show that Germans’ preferred choice for chancellor is still “none of the above”.

Whoever wins the election, the next German government must approach climate action more systematically and in a more sustained fashion: without massively accelerating its efforts, a leaked government report suggests, Germany will miss its carbon emission reduction targets for 2030 and 2040. By a lot. Making vague pronouncements whenever politically convenient – an art the current government put on masterful display after Germany’s highest court threw out key parts of its climate legislation, and again after the recent floods – will not help Germany reach carbon neutrality. Nor will it ensure Berlin becomes a credible and innovating partner for global climate action.

A more vigorous and committed approach will start by recognising that simply rebuilding after extreme weather events will just re-expose geographical areas and populations to the same climate risks that ravaged them in the first place. What North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, Greece, and Italy all need are smart adaptation and mitigation measures to reduce the impact of climate change.

Resilient infrastructure and populations are better able to deal with droughts and floods, and extremes of heat and cold. Increasing climate resilience will require investment in housing, transport, and communications as well as awareness for social justice on the part of policymakers, as poor and marginalised communities are set to suffer most from climate change. It might also mean relocating infrastructure and buildings to less vulnerable places. National and EU climate disaster recovery funds should be tied to such criteria; so should funds disbursed as part of the European Green Deal.

This matters not least because, the greater a country’s resilience, the lesser the impact of climate change will be on it, regardless of what other states do. To be sure, emissions reductions and adaptation measures must go hand in hand; however much Germany does to adapt, without carbon neutrality being reached globally, the effects of climate change will be disastrous for society, the economy, and ecology. But warnings that Germany, and Europe, should not move because others do not would end in mutually assured stagnation. German leadership in the European Union, and EU leadership on the world stage, will be crucial to making COP26 a success in November. Having a new German government in place by then would be a boon, but coalition negotiations are likely to be protracted. A government empowered to take crucial decisions may not be in place by then.

Yet, reforming how Germany does climate policy is critically important, not just for its climate foreign policy. During the election campaign, the Greens have proposed creating a climate ministry with veto power over other ministries’ carbon budgets akin to the finance minister’s veto over government expenditure. The Social Democrats favour a stronger role for the chancellor. Neither can guarantee sustained focus on climate action. While a climate ministry could be side-lined without strong backing from the chancellery, the chancellor will face other priorities in her day-to-day work. A cabinet-level special envoy for climate action, however, could sustain the chancellery’s leadership and increase the coherence of German climate policy. Empowering Germany’s new Council of Experts on Climate Change to sanction and place binding recommendations on ministries that do not meet their climate targets could mitigate charges of partisanship between future coalition partners that the activities of a climate ministry would surely generate.

How well the next German government positions itself to implement and sustain a coherent climate agenda will depend in large part on its composition and leading figures. Among voters, the Greens have long held the highest climate competency ratings. If they win the September election and their opponents lament that “bad weather handed them victory,” better get to sharpening your climate profile. Don’t look on 2021 as the worst year on record – look on it as the least worst of the rest of this century.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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Coordinator for Pan-European Data Projects

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