Climate anxiety not translating into votes as German elections loom

Helmut Beser’s charming brick house stands on the edge of a crater where eight houses and a wheat field once stood. Two months ago, the images of the chasm became a symbol of flooding that drove the devastating force of climate change in Germany.

The elections to determine Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor are just a week away. Still, Beser can’t imagine voting for the Green Party to protest a status quo that he says has failed on the climate. He also doesn’t want to become a climate activist.

“Let’s just say I’m not the type,” Beser said, shrugging his shoulders. “Most are like me – they just sit there and say nothing.”

If Beser isn’t the type, it’s hard to imagine who would be. He watched the neighboring houses slide into a chasm of water. His wife and neighbor suffered broken bones when helicopter rescuers lifted them from rooftops.

No contingency plan for its flood-prone town of Erftstadt has ever envisioned a deluge as intense as the one in July. Yet even here the once-ascendant Green Party of Germany is in trouble to drill.

Helmut Beser in front of his house in Erftstadt, right next to the crater created by the July flood © Marcus Simaitis / FT

For many in Europe, this summer has seemed like a time for climate action. Fires broke out in southern Europe and Siberia, the highest temperature on record on the continent was in Italy and flooding swept through Germany as well as Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

Yet the floods that killed 181 people had surprisingly little electoral impact. In surveys, most Germans call the climate priority, but only 15 to 17 percent say they vote for the Greens, for whom the stake is a reason for existing.

“We want something, but it’s like that German saying: ‘Wash my fur, but don’t get wet,’” said Ursula Münch, director of the Tutzing, Bavaria’s political education academy.

She cited a recent survey in the southern state of Germany where respondents said the climate was a major concern, even if they refused to invest more money in public transport or food produced. in a sustainable way.

The devastating floods that killed 181 people in Germany had surprisingly little electoral impact © Federico Gambarini / picture alliance / dpa

Erftstadt is a microcosm of the difficulties in translating the realities of global warming into a change in electoral behavior. The River Erft that meandered under the now torn highway was so narrow and calm that it was hard to imagine the devastation it would one day cause.

After the disaster, the victims were too overwhelmed for anything other than survival. A woman is believed to have died by suicide from trauma and the city now offers weekly counseling. Mountains of debris are still being cleared away every day to make room for more – from mutilated building frames to uprooted trees.

“We are no longer content to warn about the crisis, we are living it,” said Marion Sand, local environmental candidate for the Bundestag. “We must act now. I can feel it deeply.

Yet she never mentions the election when she visits residents. Instead, they’re discussing requests for salvage funds or finding home inspectors – there aren’t enough across the country to meet the demand here. Machines still sucking water from neighboring houses buzz in the background.

The candidate of the Greens Marion Sand: “We are not satisfied to warn against the [climate] no more crisis, we live it ‘© Marcus Simaitis / FT

Politically, the hardest hit floods Armin Laschet, candidate for chancellor of the center-right Christian Democrats of Merkel, who was caught laughing in front of a camera during a memorial ceremony in Erftstadt. He now follows Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats, whose party leads the polls with 25 percent.

Erftstadt’s CDU candidates have decided not to campaign at all, while Axel Busch, a local SPD politician, is also cautious. He prefers to discuss the future: “What was a one-off event every thousand years will become a ten-year event. We have to work harder.

Still according to at the German Institute for Economic Research, his party’s platform unfortunately failed to meet Germany’s commitment under the Paris agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees .

Line Niedeggen, a local activist for the youth climate movement Friday for Future, said she understood locals’ reluctance to get into politics. Seeing her street in Erftstadt barricaded with sandbags also shocked her.

“People are not able to think [politics] right now, ”she said. “It’s our politicians who fail to guide us.

She criticized the superficial media coverage for focusing on the personality and mistakes of the candidates more than on politics. “We’re missing a conversation about the kind of society we want. ”

Barbara Niedeggen lamented how many of her acquaintances voted for the SPD or the CDU as usual © Marcus Simaitis / FT

Niedeggen was also surprised at how quickly the emotional detachment that people felt in the face of disasters in distant lands was replicated in Germany. In Heidelberg, where she studies at the university, many seemed unaffected by the flooding a few hours away.

“We still have this illusion that we live in Germany, so everything will be fine – someone will take care of that,” she said.

Pauline Brünger, another young activist from neighboring Cologne, argued that politicians’ support for climate protection in speeches and posters ironically made matters worse. “All parties have perfected the simulation of doing something,” she said.

Beser’s views support his theory. He felt he could support any party and support climate action, but believed the Greens were showing “exaggerated anger” at those who eat meat or fly on vacation.

Residents of Erftstadt filled sandbags to protect their town from flooding © Sascha Schuermann / Getty Images

Nicole Kloster, head of the Greens in Erftstadt, called this a delicate balancing act. “For a lot of people, this sounds like too much change,” she said. “But for the children, we [the Greens] are too slow. There’s this fault line, and we’re stuck in the middle.

Despite these frustrations, Germans under 30 would vote overwhelmingly Green. But they only represent 8.3% of the electorate, while people over 70 represent 20.3%.

Sitting in her sunny garden, Niedeggen’s mother Barbara lamented how many acquaintances were voting SPD or CDU as usual. “They worry about their pensions. Or they don’t want any more refugees. Or they want the industry to continue as always, ”she said, shaking her head.

As raindrops crackled on her garden table and she looked up suspiciously to the sky, the rain is now making many Erftstadtians nervous.

“It’s so hard for people to rethink everything now,” she said, “and not hope that things will continue somehow”.

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