Germany votes: The election that could change Europe’s future

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There’s a chill in the air of Berlin’s government quarter. Hints of red and yellow speckle the trees between the modernist chancellery and the historic Reichstag parliament, reminding me of the wistful urgency of Kurt Weill’s September Song. 

“When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame/I haven’t got time for the waiting game.”

Jakob Heinze is tired of Germany’s waiting game on climate – and he’s tired from the hunger strike he began on August 30th.

With half a dozen friends, he set up camp between parliament and the River Spree, starving in public as representatives of the “Last Generation” who can avoid irreversible climate change.

Heinze, a 27-year-old campaigner with a bushy beard and tired eyes, says none of the main political programmes are ambitious enough to limit the 1.5 degree temperature rise required to avoid climate disaster – an analysis confirmed last week by a leading German economic think tank.

If Europe’s largest country falls short, Heinze fears, the continent and the world will fail too.

“I see hunger strike as the last means of civil disobedience, to make clear the disastrous situation in which we find ourselves, that soon there will be nowhere to hide,” said Heinze from a chair in front of his tent on Tuesday.

The “Last Generation” camp had largely been wound up by the time huge crowds streamed through Berlin on Friday for Germany’s largest climate strike, lead this time by Sweden’s Fridays for Future founder, Greta Thunberg. 

Germany is the sixth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide but, she said, its politicians were “duping” their voters, refusing to “treat the climate crisis as an emergency, not even after the terrible flood tragedy in the summer”.

‘It is hypocritical for Armin Laschet to speak out for climate protection while being responsible for us losing our homes to lignite’

When 60.4 million Germans are called to the polls tomorrow, the election result has the potential to change Europe’s future – for better or worse.

If you believe what Germans tell polling agencies, climate concerns are uppermost in voters’ minds as they head to the ballot box. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the readiness for change evaporates amid cost and comfort concerns. Yes to green politics, no to more expensive petrol – and has anyone seen my SUV keys?

That is cold comfort for locals in the southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate where, last July, the worst floods in the region for centuries washed away homes, businesses and left at least 183 dead. As the clear-up work continues, many towns here don’t even have lampposts to hang election posters from. Local Green Party candidate Martin Schmitt says the big climate question is secondary next to practical, every-day survival worries: electricity, water, heat for the winter.

“At the moment, people’s shock is still so great that the federal election seems to be something from another planet,” he says.

One hour north, in the pretty village of Keyenberg, locals are also fighting the loss of their homes. Not to flood waters but to local energy giant RWE. In a controversial deal with the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia, RWE has been granted permission to strip-mine the region and extract the Braunkohl – lignite – that lies beneath.

Keyenberg, first mentioned 1,128 years ago, is one of five villages in this western region earmarked for destruction – and this although Germany has vowed to exit fossil fuels by 2038 at the latest.

David Dresen: ‘It makes no sense to me that today, in the 21st century, people should have to leave their homes to dig up lignite, which we know will ruin our future.’ Photograph: Manuel Först
David Dresen: ‘It makes no sense to me that today, in the 21st century, people should have to leave their homes to dig up lignite, which we know will ruin our future.’ Photograph: Manuel Först

David Dresen grew up in Keyenberg, moved back here after studying in Bonn and expected to take over the family farm. While many neighbours have sold out to RWE and moved away, he is fighting to stay.

“It makes no sense to me that today, in the 21st century, people should have to leave their homes to dig up lignite, which we know will ruin our future,” said the 29-year-old.

Like most villagers, Dresen’s fury is directed at Armin Laschet, the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the man hoping to retain the chancellery on Sunday for Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

“It is hypocritical for Armin Laschet to speak out for climate protection while being responsible for us losing our homes to lignite,” he says. “Germany has a reputation of being a leader on climate but the opposite is the case. People say they want climate protection but they prefer others – like us – to pay the price.”

In an ironic footnote, he says that families left homeless by the July floods have now been housed in buildings awaiting demolition in Keyenberg. Today’s climate change victims in Germany live next door to tomorrow’s. At the end of the Merkel era, Germany’s unresolved climate struggle is inextricably linked with its unresolved energy dilemma.

‘Angela Merkel started out as climate chancellor but unfortunately implemented too little of what would have been necessary from a climate protection perspective’

Along with coal, lignite – one of the dirtiest fuels known to man – contributes one quarter of Germany’s energy mix for homes, transport and heavy industry. Energy – and climate – pressures will increase still further next year, when – according to Chancellor Merkel’s post-Fukushima timetable – the last of Germany’s nuclear plants have to go off the grid.

At her final press conference with journalists, days after the July floods, the chancellor insisted that she had “invested a lot of energy” in climate protection but, pressed by journalists, conceded that “not enough had happened” in her four terms.

Last April Germany’s constitutional court agreed: it struck down her government’s climate plan for its lack of ambition, said it endangered the future of younger generations and forced a rushed rewrite. 

Armin Laschet (L), chairman and chancellor candidate of Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, as Angela Merkel looks on during an election campaign meeting. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images
Armin Laschet (L), chairman and chancellor candidate of Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, as Angela Merkel looks on during an election campaign meeting. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

Dr Claudia Kemfert, energy expert at Berlin’s DIW economic institute, says the chancellor never pushed back energetically against Germany’s powerful…

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