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12 Mar 2021, 14:30
Charlotte Nijhuis

How climate activists take on the German super election year

Fridays for Future protest in 2019. Photo: Fridays for Future Deutschland

Youth climate activists agree on one thing: Germany needs to adopt radical climate policies in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. How best to push this agenda is a different question entirely. In this German “super election year”, counting six state elections and a federal election with the selection of a successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, some activists are running for office in the hopes of changing policy from the inside. Others are determined to stay on the outside, knowing that compromise is an inevitable part of the political process and insisting instead on pressuring all parties to adopt more ambitious climate plans. Despite a focus on the ongoing pandemic and a recent scandal that damaged Merkel’s CDU, 2021 voters have identified climate as a key concern. Parties across the spectrum promise to prioritise sustainability in their election programmes – a development at least in part attributable to the massive youth climate protests of 2019 inspired by Greta Thunberg. The election year kicks off on 14 March with state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, where the activist-led Klimaliste is set to take on the Greens. These votes will be a litmus test for federal elections in September and show whether the young activists can successfully extend their influence from the streets to inside parliament.   

When one of the most prominent faces of the German climate movement announced he would run for office, not all activists jumped with joy. The 20-year-old Jakob Blasel, a member of the youth climate group Fridays for Future, will run on a Green Party ticket in the September federal election because he wants to “close the gap between protest and actual decision-making processes,” he told Clean Energy Wire. “A strong Green Party is the only realistic option to tackle climate issues in Germany,” he added. The move was criticized by other leading members of the movement, who point out the compromises politicians are forced to make that often limit the scope of climate policies. “An incredible number of compromises have to be made, which we cannot afford in terms of climate protection,” Fridays for Future activist Leonie Bremer told media outlet taz.

The German election year kicks off on Sunday 14 March with state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg. The focus will be on the latter, known for its strong automotive industry, where the race is set to be between the Green Party and Chancellor Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The state votes will be a litmus test in this “super election year” of six state elections, as parties vie for the top place in September’s federal vote. This weekend’s elections will be even more closely watched after two CDU parliamentarians were found to have used political influence to enrich themselves through mask procurement deals in Spring 2020.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, German voters have identified climate as a key concern and parties across the political spectrum have put sustainability at the heart of their programmes. This is, at least in part, the effect of the youth climate movement, which managed to get 1.4 million people in Germany to the streets for a climate strike in September 2019, inspired by Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg. Chancellor Merkel credited the movement for pushing the government to act more quickly and resolutely on its 2030 climate package. Now, climate activists are hoping to trade the streets for a seat in parliament to push for policies to back up the 1.5-degree global warming limit outlined in the Paris international climate agreement of 2015.

Compromise is an inevitable part of politics in a multi-party system like Germany’s. But compromise also poses a common problem for social movements, said political scientist Katrin Uba from Uppsala University in Sweden, who has studied the Fridays for Future movement in different European countries, including Germany. “Activists are faced with a dilemma: they know that in order to influence policy making you need to get access [to political decision-making tools],” Uba explains. “But they also know that the more access you have, the more compromises you have to make – and doing so could mean you lose support from your base.”

Like Blasel, Fridays for Future activist Urs Liebau is hoping to influence climate policy from the inside.  For the 26-year-old, compromise is not a bad word. “It is positive, in my opinion. It’s how democracy works,” Liebau told Clean Energy Wire. Liebau is not a newcomer in politics: since 2019 he has been part of the Green Party group in the Magdeburg city council, the capitol of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. In September, he will run with the Greens in hopes of getting a seat in the national parliament, though his chances are limited. “Of course, I want 100 percent of the Green Party’s vision to be implemented, but if you are not willing to compromise, you risk ending up with nothing. Being dogmatic doesn’t help,” Liebau said.  

Climate forces cannibalising each other

 For climate activists trying to get into parliament, the Greens may seem the most obvious party to join forces with. But this is certainly not true for all activists. In the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, the only German state with a Green-led government, the party has been criticized for conservativism and for making too many compromises in the coalition with the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU). The upcoming state elections will determine whether Green Prime Minister Winfried Kretschmann gets to lead for another term or whether the CDU takes the majority this time. The recent mask affair, in which a Baden-Württemberg politician was involved, has damaged the CDU’s place in the polls just one week before the vote. Frustration with the climate plans of the established parties led to the launch of the “Klimaliste” (Climate List), an activist-led party that pushes for policy to limit global warming to 1.5-degrees above pre-industrial levels, as pledged in the Paris Agreement. "The Greens in Baden-Württemberg have lost a lot of credibility. They are not a Green party anymore. They are just the CDU with some green paint on them, in my opinion,” said Alexander Grevel, one of the founders of the Klimaliste. The 32-year-old takes issue with the slow rollout of renewables and the “totally forgotten” e-mobility in the car-industry state, despite having been run by the Greens for ten years.

The Greens are no Green party anymore. They are just the CDU with some green paint on them, in my opinion

Alexander Grevel, co-founder Klimaliste BW

Klimaliste Baden-Württemberg currently counts some 440 members, with about two-thirds with a background in climate protest groups like Fridays for Future, Scientists for Future and Extinction Rebellion, Grevel said. Although the party is unlikely to gain the five percent of votes necessary to make it into the regional parliament, it could cost the Greens important votes in the race for the top spot. “My initial fear was that the climate forces would cannibalise each other,” political analyst Arne Jungjohann told Clean Energy Wire. If the Klimaliste does not reach the 5 percent threshold, the votes would be wasted and ultimately weaken the progressive climate voices in parliament, Jungjohann explained. Based on the polls so far, “it is becoming clearer that they will not manage to attract so many votes”, Jungjohann said. “But their running still has an impact.”  

Not long after the launch of the Klimaliste in September 2020, the Green Party, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Left Party in Baden-Württemberg all presented more ambitious climate plans in line with the 1.5-degree goal. “We reached the goal of 1.5-degree policy being offered in the election by a party that is in government – that is a huge success,” said Jessica Stolzenberger, one of the six activists who founded the Klimaliste. After seeing the other parties up their climate ambitions, Stolzenberger decided to leave the board and give up her spot on the list, along with three other co-founders. “I think the climate justice movement is about sticking together and acting on the same ideals – not about splitting up and working against one another,” the 21-year-old explained. “The Klimaliste is pitting people against the Greens. This is a risk we cannot afford to take,” she said. 

The Greens also see this risk. "If you give away your vote to the climate list, you can do a real disservice to climate protection," Greens state leader Oliver Hildenbrand told Der Spiegel in February. "We are the climate protection party,” Hildenbrand added. Minister President Kretschmann called the criticism from the Klimaliste “impatience of the youth”, in an interview with taz. According to political analyst Jungjohann, the Baden-Württemberg elections on 14 March will be “a litmus test” for the new climate party, which is still undecided about possibly joining the race for national parliament. “If the Klimaliste does not perform well in Baden-Württemberg, I don’t see that they would attempt it on a federal level,” Jungjohann said.

A brand new parliament

On the other side of the country, the Extinction Rebellion activist Lu Yen Roloff is campaigning for a seat in the German parliament. The 43-year-old is running as an independent candidate in Potsdam, the capitol of the state of Brandenburg which borders Berlin, meaning she will compete with current finance minister Olaf Scholz (SPD), as well as the co-leader of the Green party, Annalena Baerbock. “On the day I decided to move to Potsdam and run for office, Scholz declared his candidacy in the same city,” Roloff said. After discussing the options with her team, she decided this could actually have a positive outcome for her campaign. “It provides an even better contrast to what I am trying to,” she explained. If she is to be elected, Roloff’s main focus will be on pushing for climate policy in line with the 1.5-degree goal. She also advocates for a new form of politics in which civil society has more influence. Running with an established political party was out of the question for her. “To be honest, it never even occurred to me,” she admitted, arguing that it would simply take too long for her to work her way into party politics.

We definitely need to keep building a big movement throughout society – and not just some kids who run for office

Line Niedeggen, spokesperson Fridays for Future Germany

Roloff is supported by the initiative “Brand New Bundestag,” which aims to get new faces into politics and make parliament more diverse. In order to get the direct mandate, Roloff needs to collect 50,000 votes in September. This will be difficult, but not unrealistic, she says. If she does not manage to secure a seat, Roloff will keep up her campaign under the motto of “Einfach Machen” (‘simply doing it’) which aims to create networks of citizens to become politically involved. “Whether I personally win or not is less important than whether I can help build the network structures that will have a long-lasting impact on the political landscape as a whole,” she said.

Kids who run for office

 In the run-up to the federal elections, parties across the political spectrum – from the CDU to the Social Democrats (SPD) to the Left party – are promising to put sustainability at the heart of their election programmes, marking a clear shift compared to the elections four years ago. For Fridays for Future, however, these promises are not enough. “The climate issue shouldn’t be made electable,” said Line Niedeggen, spokesperson of Fridays for Future Germany. “It does not work if one party has a plan for 1.5-degrees, but we don’t have a strong coalition to make it happen. That is why we have to make sure all parties are in line with the Paris agreement,” she said.

Although the 24-year-old student and activist is adamant about pushing for radical climate policy across the board, she understands the urge some activists feel to move into parliament. “I think it makes sense that people feel they need to be part of the system to change it,” she said. “It is a nice addition to the social movement, but we definitely need to keep building a big movement throughout the whole society – and not just some kids who run for office,” Niedeggen said. On 19 March, Fridays for Future will therefore take to the streets again for a global climate strike. In light of the pandemic, the group will host many small-scale protests, aiming to make it “one of the most creative and varied action years that we have had,” Niedeggen said.

In 2019, when young climate activists throughout the country skipped school to demonstrate in mass numbers, the movement seemed like a united front. The climate movement in 2021, however, is scattered among different parties and approaches. “People tend to see social movements as one group, when in fact they are very diverse,” political scientist Katrin Uba noted. In larger groups there will always be members who choose more radical action and others that are more pragmatic, Uba explained. “This is especially true for the climate movement, where although there are role models – such as Greta Thunberg – there are no official leaders who will decide what is going to happen.”

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