Germany has taken a leading role in efforts to tackle the problem of climate change. As Mark Dawson and Pierre Thielbörger write, however, the issue has not played a major part in the country’s federal election campaign. They note that even the German Greens have downplayed environmental policies, which may reflect the difficulty in mobilising voters around ‘slow burning’ issues such as global warming.

Successive German governments have long acknowledged that man-made climate change is one of the most pressing problems of our time. All of the parties currently contesting the upcoming Federal Elections share a commitment to developing effective policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Behind this ‘surface consensus’, however, the main German political parties have very different ideas of the means by which Germany should ensure its contribution to combatting global climate change. These differences reflect different conceptions, both of the urgency of climate change reduction and of the necessary measures and institutions a future German government should develop to meet the climate challenge.

Credit: johnadowney2 (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Credit: johnadowney2 (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The main climate change objective of the governing CDU is to negotiate a follow-up agreement to the expired Kyoto Protocol. To do so, Europe should reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent by 2020 (compared with 1990 levels). Reflecting Germany’s excellent global reputation in the field of green technology, the CDU has urged Germany to “lead by example”, reducing emissions by 40 per cent by 2020.

However, few concrete initiatives are in sight. The Liberals (Angela Merkel’s junior partner) are less enthusiastic about making new climate commitments, categorically excluding any new taxes to promote renewable energies. The main instrument for achieving reductions – according to the liberals – should not be state regulation, but market self-regulation and economic incentives. The emissions trading system (within Europe and beyond) is offered up as the silver bullet, in spite of the challenges this system is currently facing.

On paper, the three opposition parties appear much more united on the ambitions and directions of German climate policy. The SPD, Greens, and the Left party all agree, more or less, on a binding 40 per cent target by 2020 with a 95 per cent reduction by 2050, as well as an ambitious new international agreement and a new German law on climate protection (“Klimaschutzgesetz”).

For the Greens, this would include an investment programme for new energy projects, including further building renovations to reduce energy costs. For the internationalist Left Party, it would also include an energy fund to contribute to states facing severe deprivation as a result of climate change. The devil may lie in the details. While the SPD agrees with the Chancellor on developing an ambitious emissions trading scheme, the Left are heavily opposed to extending what they depict as a failed market system into the field of energy.

Climate change in Germany’s federal election: No country for Green men?

Given these significant differences between government and opposition parties, it would be only logical if climate change were an important topic in the current federal election campaign. Germany remains among the most environmentally conscious nations in Europe, with a successful and vibrant green movement at local as well as national levels. In reality, the very Green party that was founded to mobilise a new generation of environmentally conscious voters has been the most bloodied by the election campaign so far. Recent polls have consistently registered Green support at nine or ten per cent – an incredible low for a party that was worth almost 20 per cent just a year ago (and looked forward to the prospect of a prominent role as king-maker in a prospective Red-Green coalition).

What explains this discrepancy? Two reasons seem important. First, Germans do not rank climate change amongst the most important topics when deciding how to cast their vote. According to a recent poll by infratest dimap, one of Germany’s leading pollsters, the future of energy policy only ranks as number four out of seven given alternatives for determining individual voting decisions. Only four out of ten Germans consider future energy policies as very important in influencing their votes (lagging far behind appropriate wages, reliable pensions, and securing an appropriate standard of living). In times of economic crisis, perceived ”bread and butter” issues may appear more important than a long-term commitment to a sustainable environment.

Secondly, many Germans seem to be under the impression that the parties have very similar positions on climate change. As the SPD have found out to their cost in a number of policy areas (see e.g. on Europe), it is difficult to effectively politicise an important campaign issue when your opponent agrees with you. This difficulty may relate to the nature of climate change as a policy issue. While the governing parties have agreed to ambitious targets, they have forwarded few detailed visions of how these targets can be met in practice. The more technical the disagreement, the more difficult it is for voters to understand the relevant issues and for opposition parties to voice these differences on the campaign trail.

The Greens themselves seem to have come to this conclusion: focusing their campaign on a number of traditional left-wing policies: minimum wages, day care for children, bank control, and a women’s quota – which is in some ways surprising, as their voters are on average financially better off than those from the SPD or Left party. In doing so, the Greens too have made an explicit choice to downplay climate change as the principal plank of their policy platform. After the party’s poor result in last weekend’s election in Bavaria, the party now plans to re-focus its attention in the last days of the election campaign on environmental issues.

Thinking beyond Germany’s borders, the wider lesson of this campaign may be the difficulty of prompting and sustaining public debate on the appropriate political response to climate change. As a diffuse and ‘slow burning’ public problem, it remains difficult to mobilise environmentally concerned voters outside of the few and far between windows of opportunity (e.g. the recent Fukushima disaster) where the potential impacts of climate change become more sudden. Even in one of the world’s greenest nations, mobilising for climate change remains a tough sell.

This article was originally published on the Hertie School of Governance’s Expert blog

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Note:  This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Mark Dawson – Hertie School of Governance
Mark Dawson is Professor of European Law and Governance at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin. His research has focused on the relationship in the EU between law and policy-making.

Pierre Thielbörger – Ruhr-University Bochum
Pierre Thielbörger is Junior Professor for International Law and International Humanitarian Law at Ruhr-University Bochum.

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