With just over two months to go until election day, the devastating floods that swept through West Germany this week have catapulted climate change to the heart of Germany’s election campaign.
Most German political parties agreed that global warming was the cause of a catastrophe that killed at least 130 people and destroyed towns and villages in two of the country’s most populous states.
A dam in the Roer burst on Saturday night as rescuers attempted to evacuate some 700 residents from the town of Wasserberg, near the Dutch border.
These dramatic scenes could be of great benefit to the Greens, who would make big gains in September’s poll even before this week. Their strongest point – a focus on climate change and mobilizing all the state’s resources to prevent it – has suddenly taken on a huge new urgency.
Until now, they have diligently refrained from saying “told you so”. Robert Habeck, the party’s co-leader, has not visited the flood-affected areas and told the German magazine Spiegel that “politicians in situations like this just get in the way”.
“It is forbidden to really campaign on a day like today,” he said on Thursday when the full extent of the damage came to light.
But it’s clear that the new focus on the dangers of extreme weather events and their ties to a warming planet could give major boost to the Greens candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock. They could also divert attention from the mistakes that have plagued her campaign thus far.
The 40-year-old MP has been in trouble recently over inaccuracies in her resume, alleged plagiarism in a book she published last month and delays in reporting additional party revenue to parliament.
“She will now definitely be able to score points with the [Greens’] competence in environmental and climate issues,” Karl-Rudolf Korte, a political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen, told German TV. “It gives her a whole new way to mobilize voters.”
Government spokeswoman Martina Fietz made it clear that the authorities see climate change as the main cause of the floods. “Basically, global warming is leading to an increase in so-called extreme weather events such as heat waves, heavy rainfall and storms,” she said. In Germany, the average temperature had already risen by two degrees since the measurements began, she said.
On the other hand, the new focus on climate could be tricky for Armin Laschet, candidate for chancellor of the centre-right CDU/CSU. As governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, home to some of Germany’s largest companies, he is vehemently opposed to parts of the Green Agenda as they could jeopardize the country’s status as an industrial powerhouse.
He was caught on Thursday and lost his temper with a TV interviewer when she asked whether Germany should now act more aggressively to contain the climate crisis. “Excuse me young lady, you don’t change your policy just because of a day like today,” he said.
But even he insisted that Germany must now step up the pace on climate. “We need to move faster towards carbon neutrality,” he said on Friday.
Laschet also managed to score an important point over his two rivals, Baerbock and Olaf Scholz, the finance minister and Social Democratic candidate for chancellor. They were on vacation when the floods hit: he wasn’t, and he quickly moved into some of the hardest hit areas.
Laschet promised compensation to the homeless, expressed his condolences to the victims and their families and thanked emergency services, in speeches that appeared to show him as an effective crisis manager and “Landesvater,” or father of the nation.
Laschet could benefit politically from the new sense of insecurity ushered in by the floods, Korte said. “We will have to expect new crises,” he said, “and we will have the most confidence in the people or parties that have the best ideas to protect us from what is to come.” That could benefit the CDU/CSU, which has ruled Germany for 50 of the past 70 years, and hurt Baerbock, who has no government experience.
If the floods affect the German election campaign, it will not be the first time. Experts say the severe flooding of the River Elbe in August 2002 affected the election results that year and secured victory for Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
He rushed to the crime scene, donned rubber boots, waded through the mud and later promised massive amounts of aid to the hardest hit areas. In contrast, his rival Edmund Stoiber, candidate for the CDU/CSU, did not cut short his vacation on the North Sea island of Juist and eventually lost.
“I didn’t want to campaign with this natural disaster,” Stoiber later said – though he eventually visited the flooded areas anyway.
The weather has also had an influence on politics in recent years. Germany’s long dry spell in 2018, with little rain and fields and forests turning brown in the blazing sun, boosted the Greens’ popularity and fueled a relentless rise in the polls, standing at 22 percent in November 2018. , from 8.9 percent in the 2017 Bundestag elections.
In May 2019, they took 20.5% in the European Parliament elections – their best national result to date.
While no one wants to pick hay out of a crisis politically, some in the Greens will privately hope that the impact of the 2018 heat wave can reverberate in the wake of the summer floods of 2021.
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