TIT FIRST A sign of trouble on the Rhine, Europe’s busiest waterway, was the disappearance of river cruises and hotel boats. Then the freighters got smaller or simply stopped sailing; goods like coal were transferred to trains. The water levels have fallen low enough to expose the unexploded war bombs. These grim scenes, described by Florian Krekel of the Bingen office of the German Waterways and Navigation Administration, date from the fall of 2018, when a long drought so depleted the waters along this scenic part of the Rhine. that navigation has become almost impossible. Manufacturers on the river had to cut production, exporters were cut off from world markets, and Cologne gas stations had to raise prices. The disruption reduced German by 0.2 percentage point GDP, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
More than two-thirds of Germany’s land area was affected by the great drought of 2018. Soon after, climate change pushed up voters’ list of priorities (see graph). And as its effects, potential or actual, on German waterways, forests and farms became harder to ignore, it has remained at or near the top since then. The German parties, which are preparing for elections at the end of September, are reacting accordingly.
The Green Party, which approved its manifesto at a festive powwow last weekend, has naturally placed climate policy at the center of its offer. But the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), their Christian-Social Union (CSU) allies in Bavaria, and the Social Democrats (SPD), who currently govern in coalition, also had to make their mark. Parliament is debating a revision of Germany’s climate law, spurred by a Constitutional Court ruling that forced the government to tighten its climate targets. In 1990, during the first elections of the newly reunified country, the Greens boasted: “Everyone is talking about Germany. We are talking about the weather. Three decades later, their rivals aligned.
Still, this might not be to the Greens’ advantage. Although the importance of climate in the German debate is new, the old tactic of treating the Greens like an authoritarian Verbotspartei (“Prohibition party”) still seems powerful. When the party’s chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock recently said oil prices are expected to rise, the CDU / CSU and SPD hammered her for having built a climate policy on the backs of poor motorists. Armin Laschet, sound CDU rival, claims the Greens threaten the sacred right of Germans to an annual party in Mallorca. “People in the cities tell people in the countryside how to live, it’s crazy,” growls Jochen Ratzenberger, an environmentalist Rhine wine grower. The Greens fell in the polls.
Their answer is twofold. First, crack down on excesses in their own ranks. At the Green Congress, the leadership dismissed activists who wanted bolder promises to raise Germany’s new carbon price. Second, to provide a cheerful narrative of the climate fight. Robert Habeck, who leads the party with Ms Baerbock, gave a stormy speech linking climate action to heroic themes like freedom and justice. More prosaically, the Greens have a plan to redistribute the dividends of carbon tariffs to the less well off in Germany.
But voters are wary of such regimes. They are also not shy about making specific sacrifices, like paying more for gasoline or giving up meat. Germany must now reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 65% (from 1990 levels) by 2030, in order to reach net zero emissions by 2045. This will have a dramatic impact on everything, from the renovation of the housing stock to the speed at which German oil companies are weaned from the combustion engine. “Most people have no idea what it will take for Germany to achieve its goals,” says Anita Engels, climate sociologist at the University of Hamburg. Few politicians seem inclined to tell them that.
In theory, the CDU / CSUThe market’s focus on market methods for climate action versus the Greens’ penchant for regulation could lead to a “healthy debate” in the campaign, believes Ottmar Edenhofer, director of the Potsdam Institute for research on climate impact. Some younger CDU Deputys, sensing the political wind, would indeed like to take the fight to the Greens. But others doubt the wisdom of fighting on Green Turf, and they seem to have Mr. Laschet’s ear. A project to escape from CDUThe impending manifesto of s offered few details on the climate.
A new report from More in Common, an international group that works on social polarization, finds broad consensus across Germany for climate action, along with concerns about fairness and a sense of personal powerlessness. Two-thirds of Germans questioned want binding climate rules. “Politicians threaten social cohesion by not taking action,” said Laura-Kristine Krause, director of training in Germany.
If Mr Laschet and Ms Baerbock find themselves in a coalition after the election, as many expect, the climate will be one of the most difficult parts of the negotiations. The new goals must be met and the court satisfied. Postponing sensitive conversations has its own costs. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Grant me some greenery, but not yet”