Climate anxiety fails to translate into votes as German election looms

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

Elections to determine chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor are now only a week away. Yet Beser cannot imagine voting for the Green party to protest against a status quo he feels has failed on the climate. Nor does he have any desire to become a climate activist.

“Let’s just say I’m not the type,” Beser said with a shrug. “Most are like me — they sit there and say nothing.”

If Beser is not the type, it is hard to imagine who would be. He watched the houses next door slide into a watery chasm. His wife and neighbour suffered broken bones as rescuers in helicopters lifted them off the rooftops.

No emergency plan for his flood-prone town of Erftstadt ever envisioned a deluge as intense as the one in July. Yet even here, Germany’s once-ascendant Green party is struggling to break through.

Helmut Beser outside his home in Erftstadt, right next to the crater created by July’s flood © Marcus Simaitis/FT

For many in Europe, this summer seemed like a moment for climate action. Fires blazed across southern Europe and Siberia, the continent’s highest ever temperature was recorded in Italy and flooding swept Germany as well as Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

Yet the floods that killed 181 people have had surprisingly little electoral impact. In surveys, most Germans name climate as a priority, but just 15-17 per cent say they would vote for the Greens, for whom the issue is a raison d’être.

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

She cited a recent survey in the southern German state where respondents said climate was a top concern, even as they rejected putting more money into public transport or sustainably produced food.

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

Erftstadt is a microcosm of the difficulties translating global warming’s realities into changed voting behaviour. The Erft river winding beneath the now torn-up highway was so narrow and calm, it was hard to imagine the devastation it would someday cause. 

After disaster struck, victims were too overwhelmed for anything but survival. One woman is said to have died by suicide from the trauma and the town now offers weekly counselling sessions. Mountains of debris are still cleared each day to make room for more — from mangled building frames to uprooted trees.

“We’re not just warning about the crisis any more, we’re living it,” said Marion Sand, local Green candidate for the Bundestag. “We have to act now. I feel it deeply.”

Yet she never mentions elections while visiting residents. Instead, they discuss applications for recovery funds or finding building inspectors — there are not enough in the entire country to meet demand here. Machines still sucking water from nearby homes drone in the background.

Green party candidate Marion Sand: ‘We’re not just warning about the [climate] crisis any more, we’re living it’ © Marcus Simaitis/FT

Politically, the floods most badly affected Armin Laschet, chancellor candidate for Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats, who was caught laughing on camera during a memorial ceremony in Erftstadt. He now trails Olaf Scholz of the centre-left Social Democrats, whose party leads the polls with 25 per cent.

Erftstadt’s CDU candidates decided not to campaign at all, while Axel Busch, a local SPD politician, is also cautious. He prefers to discuss the future: “What used to be a once-in-a-thousand-years event is going to become a once-a-decade event. We need to work harder.”

Yet according to the German Institute for Economic Research, his party’s platform fell woefully short on meeting Germany’s commitment under the Paris accord to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees — in fact, every party did, though the Greens performed best.

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

“People aren’t able to think about [politics] right now,” she said. “It’s our politicians who are failing in leading us.”

She blamed superficial media coverage for focusing on candidates’ personalities and blunders more than policy. “We’re missing a conversation about the type of society we want.” 

Barbara Niedeggen bemoaned how many of her acquaintances were voting for the SPD or CDU as usual © Marcus Simaitis/FT

Niedeggen was also surprised how quickly the emotional detachment people feel towards disasters in far-off countries was replicated within Germany. In Heidelberg, where she studies at the university, many seemed unaffected by floods just a few hours away.

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

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

Beser’s views support her theory. He felt he could back any party and support climate action, but thought the Greens showed “exaggerated anger” over those who eat meat or fly for holidays.

Erftstadt residents filled bags with sand in an effort to protect their town from the flooding © Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images

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

Despite those frustrations, Germans under 30 would overwhelmingly vote Green. But they are only 8.3 per cent of the electorate, while people over 70 make up 20.3 per cent.

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

As raindrops pattered on her garden table, and she looked up at the sky warily — rain now makes many Erftstadters nervous.

“It’s so difficult for people to rethink everything now,” she said, “and not to hope things will just keep going somehow”.

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