With just over two months to go until polling day, the devastating floods that swept through western Germany this week have catapulted climate change to the heart of the German election campaign.
Most of Germany’s political parties agreed that global warming was to blame for a catastrophe that left 103 people dead and visited destruction on towns and villages across two of the country’s most populous states.
That could prove of huge benefit to the Greens, who even before this week were set to make big gains in the September poll. Their strongest suit — a focus on climate change and on mobilising all the state’s resources to prevent it — has suddenly acquired a massive new urgency.
So far, they have studiously refrained from saying “told you so”. Robert Habeck, the party’s co-leader, did not visit the areas affected by the floods, telling Germany’s Spiegel magazine that “rubbernecking politicians just get in the way in such situations”.
“It’s forbidden to really campaign on a day like today,” he said on Thursday when the full extent of the damage emerged.
But it is clear that the new focus on the dangers of freak weather events and their links to a warming planet could deliver an important boost to the Greens’ candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock. They could also distract attention from the mistakes that have so far beset her campaign.
The 40-year-old MP has been on the ropes recently over inaccuracies in her CV, alleged plagiarism in a book she published last month and delays in reporting extra party income to parliament.
“She definitely will be able to score points now with the [Greens’] competence in environmental and climate issues,” Karl-Rudolf Korte, a political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen told German TV. “It gives her a. whole new way to mobilise voters.”
Government spokeswoman Martina Fietz made clear that the authorities see climate change as the chief cause of the floods. “In principle, global warming leads to an increase in so-called extreme weather events like heatwaves, heavy rains and storms,” she said. In Germany, the average temperature had already risen by two degrees since records began, she said.
On the other hand, the new focus on climate could prove tricky for Armin Laschet, candidate for chancellor from the centre-right CDU/CSU. As governor of the North Rhine-Westphalia, home to some of Germany’s biggest companies, he strongly opposes parts of the Green agenda, saying they could endanger the country’s status as an industrial powerhouse.
On Thursday, he was caught on the back foot, losing patience with a TV interviewer when she asked him if Germany now needed to act more aggressively to stem the climate crisis. “Excuse me young lady, you don’t change your policies just because of a day like today,” he said.
Yet even he was insistent that Germany must now pick up the pace on climate. “We must move more quickly down the path towards carbon neutrality,” he said on Friday.
Laschet was also able to score an important point over his two rivals, Baerbock and Olaf Scholz, the finance minister and Social Democratic candidate for chancellor. They were on holiday when the floods struck: he was not, and he went quickly to visit some of the worst-affected areas.
Laschet promised compensation to those left homeless, expressed sympathy for the victims and their families and thanked the emergency services, in speeches that seemed calculated to show him as an effective crisis manager and “Landesvater”, or father of the nation.
Laschet could gain politically from the new sense of insecurity ushered in by the floods, Korte said. “We will have to expect new crises,” he said, “and we will have most trust in the people or parties who have the best ideas for protecting us from what may come.” That could benefit the CDU/CSU, which has governed Germany for 50 of the past 70 years, and harm Baerbock, who has no government experience.
If the floods end up having an impact on Germany’s election campaign, it won’t be the first time. Experts say the severe flooding of the river Elbe in August 2002 influenced the outcome of elections in that year and ensured victory for the Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
He rushed to the scene, donning rubber boots, wading through the mud, and later promising huge amounts of aid to the worst-hit areas. By contrast his rival Edmund Stoiber, candidate for the CDU/CSU, did not break off his holiday on the North Sea island of Juist and ended up losing.
“I didn’t want to campaign with this natural catastrophe,” Stoiber said later — though he ended up visiting the flooded areas anyway.
The weather has also influenced politics in more recent years. The long dry spell that Germany experienced in 2018, with little rain and fields and forests turning brown in the baking sun, boosted the popularity of the Greens and fired their relentless rise in the polls: by November 2018 they were at 22 per cent, up from 8.9 per cent in the 2017 Bundestag election.
Then in May 2019 they garnered 20.5 per cent in elections to the European Parliament — their best national result to date.
Though no one wants to make political hay out of a crisis, there will be some in the Greens privately hoping the impact of the 2018 heatwave could find an echo in the aftermath of the summer floods of 2021.