Visitors at the Reichstag, Germany's parliament building. Photo: Pixabay
18 Sep 2017 | Benjamin Wehrmann

Dieselgate and climate fears fail to ignite voters' passion - pollster

Protecting the climate has become so commonplace among Germany's political parties that it is hard for one of them to stand out on an environmentalist platform, says Torsten Schneider-Haase of German opinion polling company Kantar Emnid. In the CLEW interview, the pollster explains why Germans care about the Energiewende's success and yet are unlikely to base their voting decision on it at the upcoming parliamentary elections.

CLEW:  According to a recent poll conducted by Emnid, climate change is one of the German public’s most pressing concerns. Yet, other polls show that questions that directly pertain to climate change, such as the energy transition, are only of minor importance to people when they decide how to vote. How can this apparent discrepancy between the perceived level of danger and the lack of political commitment be explained?

Schneider-Haase: Well, climate protection – or better environmental protection in general – is certainly one of the topics people in Germany are most concerned about. But it is true that the issues related to the climate or the environment are too unspecific, and the public’s reactions stem from a broader sense of fear and insecurity.

Most people are likely to think that climate change is a bad thing that needs to be addressed, yet it does not necessarily lead them to vote for one party or another, as the impact of German politics on this global issue is perceived to be very limited.

On the other hand, the impact on peoples’ lives in Germany is obviously much greater, meaning that many people tend to see the effect a certain climate protection policy measure is going to have on their wallets, which might not make them more inclined to support it.

The same can be said for the energy transition. A clear majority of Germans will say it’s the right thing to do, and approve of phasing out nuclear power. But if you take the specific political demand of, say, the Green Party of a few years ago to substantially raise petrol prices, you’ll have a hard time finding majority support for that.

Would you say that a general commitment to climate protection has become mainstream enough among Germany’s parties that it’s now difficult to stand out from the crowd with it?

The Green Party has made climate protection an election focus this year and it did not do them any good so far as they constantly poll very low. Exiting nuclear power used to be one of their core political topics, but that’s off the table now after Ms. Merkel has seized the idea.

You have a situation where all the parties, except for the AfD, have reached a certain consensus to act on climate. So if you’re concerned about it, there’s no compelling reason for you to vote for the Greens, as every other party also proposes steps to protect the climate one way or another. The subtle convention on climate protection diminishes the topic’s impact on individual voting decisions.

Which topics are of decisive importance for the voters?

Security, both socially and physically. For instance, the situation of refugees in Germany is something that also alludes to people’s fears and insecurities, whether justified or not. If, for instance, another terror attack happens before the election, this will certainly boost the issue’s relevance. But social security issues are also high on people’s agendas, such as pension levels or old age poverty rates. Compared to these, the Energiewende is a minority issue, which only “geeks” are still debating heavily.

But certain parties succeeded in making questions related to the energy transition a campaign topic in recent state elections. In North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW),the economic liberal FDP appealed to opponents of wind power expansion by demanding a greater minimum distance to residential areas for new installations, and achieved a surprising election success in that state. Are people inclined to vote for a certain party due to its position on energy topics after all?

Well, of course this can still be a decisive issue that attracts voters – especially those who want to use their vote to make a protest statement. But it is rather an issue at the regional level, be it in NRW or in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which is an important wind power state on the Baltic coast, where the AfD has campaigned on a similar platform. So even though energy topics also appear in campaigns at the national level, it is unlikely that people really look into the technical aspects of the subject. Instead, they tend to generally oppose the existing policies.

Is it possible to identify geographic hotspots or general demographic trends when it comes to certain positions on energy and climate-related issues? Is there an energy transition epicentre in Germany or a typical opponent of the energy transition?

That is difficult to say, not least because we’re lacking data on the individual survey respondents. However, generally speaking you’ll get a high degree of uniformity in people’s views, for instance on exiting nuclear power or transitioning to renewables. But if you go more into detail, the picture starts to change, especially when financial consequences come into play or if the renewable energy plant at issue is constructed near people’s homes.

In general, you can say that a higher level of formal education correlates with stronger support of the energy transition, and that people who live in larger cities care more about it than those living in the countryside. But since the overall acceptance rate of the energy transition in Germany is above 70 percent, support is very unlikely to drop below 50 percent in any sub-category, like age group or place of residence. Yet, like I said, if you get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about higher costs or potential job losses, attitudes can change quickly.

Indeed, the political parties differ widely in their approach to the details of the energy transition. For example, the Green Party and the FDP are on opposing ends when it comes to state intervention to advance the Energiewende. Is energy policy such a question of controversy between these two political camps that it could effectively thwart coalition building?

(laughs) If I look at the latest polls, it doesn’t seem like the FDP and the Greens are going to have much of a chance of entering into coalition talks, since we’re headed for another grand coalition government of conservatives CDU and social-democratic SPD. Within a possible new grand coalition, the Energiewende won’t be the stumbling block. There are other problems that will keep the two parties busy. If, however, the Greens join the new government, they will likely make the energy transition a key topic as it is part of that party’s identity. But I don’t think this will be a major obstacle to the coalition talks.

In 2011, the Greens’ adamant position on energy-related questions, and especially the nuclear exit, seemed to have benefitted the party. The nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima is widely considered a factor in their landslide victory in the federal state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, when Germany’s first Green state premier Winfried Kretschmann ended over 50 years of CDU government shortly after the incident in Japan.
Does the “dieselgate” emissions scandal, which erupted two years ago and has recently flared up again over  possible driving bans and against the backdrop of allegations of a cartel among a group of German carmakers, have a similar effect on voter preferences, and will it benefit the parties that call for a tough stance on holding the carmakers accountable?

No, these effects cannot be compared. You had a sizeable opposition to nuclear power well before Fukushima happened. It just tipped the scale a little bit. But the diesel scandal is different. Many people drive diesel cars and, so far, are quite satisfied with those. About half of all cars in Germany have a diesel engine, and the entire situation is more complex than the issue of nuclear power. If you look at the number of jobs that depend on the country’s car industry, you can understand why the parties find it difficult to treat the car companies rigorously.

Many people may be angry with the carmakers, but they don’t seem to think that the political parties’ different positions on how to deal with the fraud scandal will do them justice in the end. Solutions like replacing combustion engines with e-cars are not what people in general are looking for in this context.

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