The weathermen

If this year’s German election can be ground down to a nutshell it is this: climate change is the central challenge facing mankind, we need either 1) more state intervention to ensure that resources are centrally directly towards low-carbon solutions, or 2) less state intervention to ensure that businesses and entrepreneurs can invest their money in the type of innovations that are going to get us out of this mess.

The premise itself is never questioned. Favour a state-led solution? Then vote Social Democrat or Green. Believe the market has the answers? Vote CDU or FDP.

Egged on by Fridays for Future activists who have gone on hunger strike in front of the Chancellery, the political class are convinced that talking about the weather is the zeitgeist issue to motivate voters to the polls on Sunday.

On the one hand, this isn’t so surprising. 

After the last national election in 2017 - one dominated by migration, domestic security and Europe - the Gods threw us three swelteringly hot summers in a row.

As the mercury shot way over 30C for weeks on end, Germans headed for the lakes in droves, stripped off their clothes and let the sunshine in. Simultaneously though, 500 years after the birth of Protestantism, something deep inside their soul reprimanded them for indulging in such carnal pleasures.

And thus the surprise revival of the Green party was born.

Last one over the line with a measly 8.9 percent of the vote in 2017, the eco-party was facing irrelevance, with most people associating them with homeopathy and an eccentric rejection of applying science to agriculture.

Then came the tropical nights of July 2018, a futile insistence that hanging damp towels in one’s bedroom is an adequate substitute for air conditioning, a little girl from Sweden, and the rest, as they say, is history.

By October of 2018, when some Bundesländer were still enjoying temperatures in the mid-20s, polling showed the environmentalists on 24 percent and breathing down the CDU’s neck.

The Jahrhundertssommer of 2018 was followed by another in 2019 and noch eins in 2020.

When Angela Merkel started to show the strains of her office in 2019, shaking during outdoor ceremonies, the Greens were quick to speculate that it probably had something to do with the Klimakatastrophe.

Instead of conducting phone interviews, polling companies might as well have called up the German Weather Service (DWD). In August the Greens would routinely scrape the 30 percent mark before falling back down to the teens in December.

But instead of looking to the skies, everyone was transfixed by a pair of eyes - those of new Green leader and verifiable hunk Robert Habeck. He was the reason for their success, we were told. Dashing, zeitgeist-y but also somehow an everyman, Habeck apparently had the talent to convince conservatives that the Greens would maintain the Erhardian tradition of Wolhstand für alle (und Bockwurst dazu!)

The Greens even bought into the hype, nominating their first ever Chancellor candidate back in April, party co-leader… Annalena Baerbock.

And that’s where the problems started.

For the first time in their history, their leader was exposed to the same ruthless media glare the major parties are exposed to. And journalists had a field day…

First, Baerbock was found to have invented parts of her CV (“an update error”). Then she was found to have not declared earnings to the Bundestag (“a regrettable oversight”). By the time a plagiarism hunter had finished dissecting her autobiography, her personal popularity rating was on the intensive care ward.

But that was in June. The summer was still to come…

This time around it rained for three months and by mid-September tenants were already twisting the dials on their heaters hoping landlords had turned the gas back on early.

When the Greens made their big election announcement at the height of the summer, the “100-day programme” didn’t have quite the same impact as it would have had a year earlier. A high of 19C meant that Habeck couldn’t even take his jacket off.

But it wasn’t just the weather that was off.

The central pledge of the programme, to create a climate ministry with veto powers over laws created by all the other ministries, misread the room.

It came at a time when many Germans of a liberal persuasion had been unsettled by the government subjugating every aspect of life, both public and private, to a very narrow definition of public health. While it no doubt went down well with the party faithful, for those longing for more balance in public policy it sent exactly the wrong message.

Moreover, the very immediate problems created by lockdowns have focused even middle class minds on more tangible concerns for the first time in years. Jobs, housing, electricity bills.

Thus, when Germany's biggest industry lobby, the BDI, dismissed the plan for a climate ministry as “a sedative for the Green grass roots” that would steer Germany into a command economy, more people than usual will have taken it seriously.

At the same time, the other parties have persuasively made the case that climate change keeps them awake at night too.

According to cliche, the Free Democrats (FDP) would rather cut down trees for autobahns than hug them, but they dedicated their party conference this weekend to climate change. 

Of course, the free-marketeers in the FDP have cleverly turned the Greens’ argument on its head. In their telling, Germany can only become environmental Weltmeister when it regains its title of export Weltmeister: only unchained businesses can focus all their creative energies on the problem and then export these glorious new technologies across the world!

And in that sense it is really incidental that climate is the buzzword of the 2021 election. Whether it be tax, pensions, housing or environmentalism, the left-wing remedy is more state and the right-wing one is more choice.

And on this central question the parties are as evenly divided as they ever were. To the right of centre, the parties reach a combined tally of 45 percent. To the left, they gather 46.5 percent. But with various coalitions taboo or nearly taboo, the end constellation could well be a messy mix of both.

Whether a Klimaministerium with veto powers makes it into the next coalition agreement under such circumstances seems unlikely.


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