How Climate Change Could Affect Germany’s Elections

German flooding

Image: Martin Seifert, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Earlier this month, devastating floods washed through western Germany, leaving people dead and swaths of cities destroyed. It was the worst flooding Central Europe has seen in decades, and the short, intense rainfall is “one of the hallmark manifestations of a human-warmed climate,” as Yale Climate Connections put it. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepping down after 16 years of leading the country, it has revealed how the candidates running to replace her handle such a crisis. German political analysts don’t think the floods will swing election results, but none of the three candidates had a breakthrough moment of leadership in the aftermath. 

Germany’s rising Green Party is also vehemently opposed to the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, creating a clear distinction from Merkel who has pushed hard for its development.

Why This Matters: Leading through any disaster is a balance of showing empathy without exploiting the moment, and there will surely be more climate-induced disasters to come under the next chancellor’s watch. There is also the question of what actions are taken following a disaster — which can go hand in hand with how politicians navigate crises. However, as Berlin-based political scientist Gero Neugebauer told Deutsche Welle, “We vote for parties and not people.” When German voters are asked about which party — not candidate — is capable of taking on climate issues, the Greens still come out on top.”

Who Could Follow Merkel: The elections, which will be held in September, will elect both a new federal parliament and a new chancellor. Unlike in the US, German voters don’t directly elect their head of state: based on the parliamentary results, the leading party gets the first try at forming a coalition government (assuming, as is projected, no party wins a majority) and selecting a chancellor. These three candidates could take the top job:

  • Armin Laschet, the Christian Democrats: From Merkel’s own center-right party, Laschet is a regional leader who “is often hesitant in his support of climate policies,” according to DW.
  • Annalena Baerbock, the Greens: as would be expected, the 40-year-old international law expert’s parliamentary speeches focus often on climate policy and Germany’s coal phase-out. 
  • Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrats: the current Finance Minister from Germany’s center-left isn’t really seen as a frontrunner, and is seen as an economy-minded pragmatist

Merkel’s Checkered Climate Legacy: Before she led the country, Angela Merkel was environment minister from 1994 to 1998. Early in her own leadership, she built a reputation of being “the climate chancellor.” While she’s been an active voice on the international stage, calling attention to the climate crisis at global summits and pushing for pacts like the Paris Agreement, her record of actual policy at home is not as strong. Germany’s coal phase-out isn’t until 2038, and its Climate Action Law was deemed too slow by the country’s highest court, which led to a binding target of carbon neutrality by 2045. 

Merkel “laid a lot of important foundations for climate protection, but the bottom line is that she did not fulfill those aspirations,” climate scientist Dr Daniela Jacob told DW.

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