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Do real environmentalists vote green?

Thanks to strong polling and a breakout campaign to take the chancellery, 2021 is undoubtedly the year the Greens went mainstream. But at what cost? Exberliner spoke to environmentalists on the ground.

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Carla Reemtsa, a 23-year-old Fridays activist, says parties can’t deny physics when writing climate policy. Photo: Maria Bogachek

At a recent Fridays for Future protest, Carla Reemtsma stood in front of the Reichstag, microphone in hand, reeling off a list of extreme weather events that hit the headlines this summer: devastating flooding in western Germany, Belgium and Austria, and further afield in Southeast Asia, Nigeria and Namibia; heatwaves and catastrophic wildfires in Greece and across Southern Europe. “And what do the politicians do?” the 23-year-old activist asked, her voice propelled by exasperation. “They do nothing. Everyone’s talking about a climate election, but we don’t have a single party with a programme that conforms to the 1.5-degree limit. There’s not one party that would seriously do something to mitigate the climate crisis. It makes me so un-fucking-believably angry.”

It’s a damning statement for all parties vying for the Bundestag on September 26, but none more so than the Greens, who might hope that support from the climate movement would be a safe bet. In June, the environmentalist mainstay of German party politics officially set its sights on the top job when it elected Annalena Baerbock as its first-ever candidate for the chancellery. Since then, the party has been fending off attacks from the usual critics, among them diesel-guzzling car lovers and fans of short-haul flights, who fear the environmentalists will make good on their emissions-curbing promises.

But this is a battle on two fronts. In attempting to appeal to the political centre, the party has also alienated environmentalists like Reemtsma, who expect far-reaching changes off the back of a burgeoning global climate movement. In an election year when Germans consider climate change to be the greatest threat to the country’s security, and when the UN is issuing ‘code red’ warnings for humanity, whether to support the Greens has accentuated divides between radicals and pragmatists within the climate movement itself.

Summer of discontent

Reemtsma is not the only one unimpressed with the Green’s Wahlprogramm. In May, 13 of the biggest environmental organisations in Germany came together to demand that parties address the severity of the crisis by committing to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree target in their election manifestos. Christoph Bautz, managing director of NGO Campact and initiator of the alliance, is expecting more than just symbolic pledges. “Higher climate targets alone are not enough – concrete measures are needed now,” he says.

One of the most contentious tools for curbing global warming is the carbon pricing system, introduced in Germany’s transport and building sectors in January, which currently charges €25 per tonne of CO2. The Greens’ proposal of €60 per tonne by 2023 may be more than double the current tax, but it has still been criticised as too meagre by scientists and activists alike. According to calculations by the Federal Environment Agency last December, the polluting effects of one tonne of CO2 already equate to €195.

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Juliana Wimmer, 31, is on the Bundestag ballot for the Greens, who favour more incremental change than their Klimaliste rivals. Photo: Maria Bogachek

Juliana Wimmer, a 31-year-old Bundestag candidate for the Greens, defended her party’s proposed price on carbon, arguing that the “social aspect” of rapid change must be considered when setting new policies. “We’ve learned from the past that radical solutions might lose the support of different people in society,” she explains. “The price tag that we put on carbon emissions is just a first step. It’s not that we want to keep it at €60 and not change anything; we all agree that it needs to increase.”

Reemtsma, who studied politics and economics at the University of Münster, is unconvinced. “When you say you want to limit the climate crisis to 1.5 degrees and then you have a programme that’s insufficient, including a carbon price which is definitely not high enough to make the changes happen, it’s just an outright lie,” the campaigner explains over the phone. She is tired but no less animated after a weekend protesting the construction of a terminal for liquefied natural gas in Brunsbüttel.

“Yes, there might be tactical reasons for saying we don’t want to ban combustion engines until 2030 because that might seem too radical, especially in a car-loving country like Germany. But in the end, it comes down to physics.” Reemtsma is even sceptical of the Greens’ “emergency climate protection programme”, launched in the wake of July’s deadly floods. The 10-point plan includes phasing out coal by 2030 (instead of 2038), accelerating the expansion of renewable energy and establishing a Ministry for Climate Protection to adhere to the Paris Agreement. “The climate ministry feels rather symbolic. It doesn’t change anything if you don’t have effective measures in place,” she says.

Louis Motaal, a 22-year-old geography student and Fridays organiser, is a little more forgiving. “There’s a wide spectrum of support for the Greens within Fridays for Future,” he says, straining to be heard over the protest music blasting from speakers at the demonstration outside the Reichstag. “The Greens have a strong climate programme, but it doesn’t live up to the challenge, and doing a lot but not doing enough is like doing nothing at all.” Motaal points out that young CDU members also attend the demos, so the pressure is not just on the Greens. “Every party needs to make a new manifesto suitable for future generations, because right now these programmes are suited to their current voters but not to us.”

Climate System change

Ronja Weil, an activist originally from North Rhine-Westphalia, has given up on mainstream politics entirely. She is a member of Ende Gelände, a civil disobedience group known for occupying coal mines. Last October, its protesters were outraged when the Greens, together with their CDU coalition partners in the central state of Hesse, supported the clearance of the Dannenröder forest to make way for an autobahn extension. Weil, 24, recalls the “violent and brutal” police effort to remove activists blockading construction.

The controversy showed the Greens’ struggle to balance radical promises with the compromises of governing. “At some point you have to stop thinking of the Greens’ actions as concessions and maybe just think of them as what they do,” Weil says. She believes true power lies with grass-roots movements: “The question isn’t which party, the question is whether a government within the economic system that we live in is even capable of making the radical changes we need. And the answer to that is no, not within capitalism. Endless growth and a finite earth just don’t go together.”

The Greens have a courageous climate programme, but it doesn’t live up to the challenge, and doing a lot but not doing enough is like doing nothing at all.

Attempting to change the system from within is the newly formed Klimaliste. Founded at federal level in 2020, the party is an underdog if its previous shots at electoral success are anything to go by: It failed to get even one percent of the vote in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate’s state polls in March. The newcomer has also faced pressure to stand down from rival environmentalists who fear the group might eat away at support for the Greens. Nonetheless, Klimaliste promotes itself as the only party in the running that is committed to the 1.5-degree target. It is fielding 70 candidates through Germany’s direct voting list, but won’t be standing on the party list at federal level. Its 120 members are hoping for more luck at state level, with a goal of winning at least 10 percent of the vote for Berlin’s Abgeordnetenhaus.

After only joining the party in February, Alicia Sophia Hinon will top the ballot for Klimaliste on the state list in Berlin. A journalist turned entrepreneur, the 42-year-old dabbled in small-scale politics for 15 years as a member of the SPD. Fed up with the party’s lack of commitment to climate justice, she decided to leave. Sitting on a bench in her home neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, Hinon is affable and at ease – but when asked about the Greens, she chooses her words carefully. “The Green party is the only established party in Germany that’s going in the right direction and of course a Germany under Baerbock would be far better than one under Laschet,” she says. “But they’re selling themselves short. The way they’ve written their election programme, the way they’re dealing with the CDU… We see that they want to govern under any circumstances and they’re sacrificing the climate for that.”

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After ditching the SPD over its inaction on climate, Alicia Sophia Hinon is contesting the Berlin elections in the Klimaliste’s debut campaign. Photo: Maria Bogachek

Keen to outdo the Greens, Klimaliste would like to see Germany’s carbon tax immediately raised to €195. Hinon rejects the “false trade-off ” between social justice and protecting the climate, pointing to her party’s own solution for sustainable, affordable climate action: the so-called ‘doughnut economy’. This circular model, conceptualised by English economist Kate Raworth, aims to set “social and planetary boundaries” so that politicians can meet everyone’s needs within our Earth’s means.

For Klimaliste, that means introducing a universal basic income to offset increased living costs. This measure is also designed to support their plan for a four-day working week. “There is a fundamental truth that the Greens are ignoring, which is that we need to reduce energy consumption,” Hinon explains. “They are claiming to fight the climate crisis while maintaining growth, ‘green growth’ as they’re calling it, which is actually a lie. There’s always a connection between the growth of CO2 emissions and the growth of economies.”

A new green opposition

Klimaliste doesn’t intend to divide the climate movement but to create a new environmentalist opposition. “When the Greens were established in the 1980s, they were an opposition party,” Hinon says. “Now that they’re in government, you need to have a corrective to add more pressure.” She points to Winfried Kretschmann, the Green state premier in Baden-Württemberg, who has faced criticism for shirking his climate responsibilities since he took office in 2011. “I don’t know if you can even call him green.”

If we take the most radical positions, it will probably put people off rather than help them be part of the journey.

In that region’s state elections in March, when Klimaliste was blamed for splitting the environmentalist vote, the Greens came up one seat short of securing a centre-left coalition with the Social Democrats. Instead, Kretschmann and co stuck with their existing partners, the CDU. “I’m a supporter of new parties forming. It’s important that democracy leaves room for that,” says Green candidate Wimmer. “But my biggest fear is that time is running out in terms of the climate crisis. I’m worried something might happen like in Baden-Württemberg that will shift the landscape away from a progressive coalition.”

Within Fridays for Future, there are mixed feelings towards Klimaliste. Reemtsma believes that the focus should be on pressuring established parties to work towards limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. “This is why Fridays for Future won’t register as a party. We want to work outside politics and be a space where everyone can have a voice. We’re just as relevant for democracy as political parties.”

Keeping it ‘realo’

According to 23-year-old Felix Heilmann, who is as Realo as they come, voting Green is the right choice for any environmentalist seeking concrete action. “I’m a bit dispirited by the amount of climate-on-climate fighting,” he admits. “Every hour we spend debating whether we want a €60, €70 or €80 carbon price is an hour that someone who wants a €10 carbon price, or no carbon price at all, doesn’t get challenged for that by the movement.” Heilmann spent his school years in Berlin organising climate protests in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, long before the birth of Fridays for Future. He studied politics, philosophy and economics at the University of Oxford and returned to Berlin for a two-year stint as a researcher at climate think tank E3G, a position he’s just left to pursue a master’s in international relations. Heilmann’s first encounter with the Greens was through a Bundestag internship with Annalena Baerbock in 2015. He became a member of the party the following year.

He appreciates the frustration of his peers. “I’ve been doing this for years and it’s been tough. It’s true that we’re way below what’s necessary to curb the climate crisis,” he says. “But I don’t like this attitude that all political parties are the same on this. Even if you don’t like the Greens, I’d be really surprised if anyone truly believed that a Green government would do the same things on climate as a conservative one.”

Echoing Wimmer, he’s also wary of more radical solutions. “There are always two questions in politics: What is the right thing to do? And how can we get closest to the right thing to do given the circumstances and what people vote for?” he argues. “I personally believe we should do literally everything we possibly can to fight climate change, but I also believe that if we take the most radical positions, it will probably put people off rather than help them be part of the journey. That doesn’t win us anything on the climate front.” Heilmann contends that a single measure like the carbon price shouldn’t be given so much airtime because it will work in conjunction with other policies: “Even if something isn’t good enough but is the best thing that can be done right now – and obviously the realm of the possible needs to be continuously shifted – it’s still worth doing because it makes a difference.”

Within Germany’s climate movement – with its dreamers and realists, youngsters and veterans, coal mine occupiers and CDU progressives – finding mutual consensus on the Greens was always going to be difficult, in spite of the party’s reputation as the standard-bearer for green politics. Still, the strength of opinion on all sides remains clear. “There’s no election outcome that will solve the climate crisis for us,” says Reemtsma. “Fighting for climate justice is more relevant than ever. And whatever happens in September, we’re going to keep going.”

Need a politics explainer? Here’s our guide to the German elections 2021.