Can Germany’s Climate Catastrophe Swing the Race to Succeed Merkel?

In recent weeks the German election campaign was mainly developing around a reshaping of the “K-Frage”, the question debated among Germans regards to who is the most suitable leader to succeed Angela Merkel’s legendary chancellorship. Leaving aside the programmes presented by individual parties, great importance had been assumed by the very image of each individual candidate: Armin Laschet for the CDU-CSU, Annalena Baerbock for the Grünen (Green Party) and Olaf Scholz for the SPD. Debates concerning their personal capability to lead Germany have been held for each of them. Thus, after Laschet’s initially weak candidacy and Baerbock’s media exploits, there was a gradual fall in consensus for the Green Party’s leader, caused by personal gaffes and incompetence in the face of a wave of criticism from her opponents. As a result, the electoral campaign seemed destined to become stabilised on a large lead for the CDU, followed by the Green Party and the SPD.

Then, however, after July 14th Western Germany was devasted by the intensely violent floods that also affected Belgium, the Netherlands and other EU countries. In Germany the catastrophic floods affected Rhineland-Palatinate (with devastating consequences in the district of Ahrweiler) and North Rhine-Westphalia. This event was one of the worst natural disasters (or perhaps “unnatural”) in German history. This tragedy may have political consequences, but it is not yet easy to identify what they will be.


National shock

With over 170 people killed by the raging water, over 150 still missing and hundreds of millions of euros of public and private damage done, these floods literally shocked the nation. Already worn out by 18-months of Covid crisis, the Germans suddenly experienced and observed a total devastation of regions formally acknowledged as among the wealthiest in the world. Anger soon mingled with pain, disbelief and incredulity.

The role played by climate change in sparking the violence and intensity of these floods was emphasised from the very beginning of this tragedy. The amount of rain that usually falls in a month fell in a little over 24 hours. The rise in temperatures makes extreme meteorological events more aggressive per se. The meteorological phenomenon that caused these floods was one of those events once considered exceptional and now destined to become increasingly less rare.

The role played by climate change in this disaster did not however avoid the emergence of an objective series of mistakes made by various German authorities in reacting to these floods. Both the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) and the German meteorological services Deutscher Wetterdienst (DWD) had predicted days earlier the arrival of unusually bad weather. Alarm systems did not however result in a prompt reaction and preventive evacuations of citizens were too few and too late. Even alarm apps and phone services used for natural disasters did not warn the population in an effective and/or persuasive manner. The local media in the areas affected have now opened investigations to try and understand if and how the information they provided was insufficient when communicating to the population how extremely serious the danger was. The quick blame game between German bureaucratic authorities concerning malfunctions during the catastrophe has inevitably caused a great deal of controversy. All in all, this tragedy has brought to the table the obsolescence when facing climate change of systems for battling and preventing catastrophes, as well as specific backwardness in the urban and infrastructural organisation of German hydrogeological risk areas.


Political consequences

The dramatic return of climate change into the public debate, as well as matters linked to the relationship between human communities and territories, may now naturally work in favour of electoral issues dear to the Green Party. In some ways, there could be the potential for a ‘Fukushima moment’, i.e. something similar to the political impact on Germany of the nuclear catastrophe experienced in Japan in 2011, which quickly led to Germany’s renouncing atomic energy. Climate change and its management could thus for the first time become one of the leading issues in the elections of a major European country.

Developments, however, will not be that straightforward. While many Germans seem ready to rely on the Grünen to reform the relationship with their territory across the board, other segments of the electorate remain sceptical, not so much about the seriousness of climate change, but about how and when Germany will become the global vanguard of a new ecological and productive course that will in any case require cooperation from all the world’s most important players.

Surveys expected in the coming days and weeks may suggest to what extent the undeniable centrality of the ecological issue will affect the September 26th elections.

In the meantime, the tragedy has already had an effect as far as the aforementioned competition for the Chancellery is concerned. Baerbock and Scholz were able to show their attention for the communities affected by the floods, trying to balance visibility and a rejection of excessive public appearances. Armin Laschet too, Minister-President of North Rhine Westphalia, travelled to the worst affected cities. The CDU’s president, however, did have a rather unfortunate communications disaster. In a video filmed where the flood had caused a catastrophe, one can see the candidate Chancellor laughing together with his assistants precisely while the President of the Republic Steinmeier was giving an interview on the disaster. Laschet apologised immediately, but leaving aside possible exploitations, such a coarse communications error remains surprising. However, Laschet will now have a chance to make up for his gaffe if he is able to devote himself effectively and decisively to managing the reconstruction of the devastated areas in his own Land.

In the meantime, Angela Merkel’s visit to the flooded areas has helped dampen the controversy. During her visit, Merkel once again proved her ability to assume symbolic and political responsibility for her country’s most difficult moments. The Kanzlerin declared that “we must hurry up in dealing with climate change” and added that “the German language hardly has any words for this devastation”. Merkel’s intervention and commitment could favour her CDU, but it should above all be seen as an expression of the primarily institutional and politically ecumenical role now assumed by the outgoing Chancellor.


A new intensity in these crises

While the dramatic death toll is not yet complete, Germany and the Germans are now waiting for a solid aid plan for the disaster areas. If the prevention of floods did not work sufficiently well, the German regional and national institutions simply cannot afford to allow repair and reconstruction phases to not work at their very best. On July 21st, the government announced an aid package amounting to 400 million euros (that may be increased) for all the affected areas using both national and local funds.

One only thing is certain, so far. This more or less “natural” disaster in the Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia has proved that even what was once mono-tonal German politics must now deal with increasingly unpredictable and extreme global events, that require continuous and complex management of crises of unheard frequency and intensity.


Cover Photo: North Rhine-Westphalia’s State Premier and CDU’s candidate for chancellor Armin Laschet (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address a press conference after visiting the flood-ravaged spa town Bad Muenstereifel –  July 20, 2021 (Oliver Berg / POOL / AFP).

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