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AHRWEILER, Germany — Layers of dried mud on sidewalks, concrete roads turned to gravel and time-worn stone bridges washed away. Three months after this summer’s catastrophic floods in Germany’s Ahrweiler region, there are reminders everywhere of the destruction they wrought.
The deluge, which was preceded by three consecutive summers of drought, has brought a new urgency for many to find climate change solutions — and that has impacted Germany’s politics, too.
In last month’s federal election, the environmentalist Green Party had its best results yet, winning nearly 15 percent of the vote, and trailing just behind the two largest parties.
Unlike in the United States where the issue is still subject to debate, global warming is a key concern in Germany that voters increasingly expect politicians to address.
Its prominence in the election was no surprise to architect Florian Trummer, 65, whose hometown of Antweiler was hit by the floods. He officially joined the Green Party two months ago after a lifetime of swing voting.
“I have to admit that in the past, I did not always vote for the Greens,” he said. “With the elections looming this year, I felt compelled to do something. The conventional parties play hide and seek, they say one thing, but mean another. They did not take the implementation of the climate goals seriously.”
Unlike foreign policy, which hardly got a mention in pre-election debates, climate change was a top focus before the vote.
The issue also spurred tens of thousands of Germans to gather days before the election at a climate action protest outside parliament in Berlin featuring the famed young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Also, a handful of young people declared a hunger strike in August to push politicians to acknowledge that there’s a climate emergency.
This attitude isn’t unique to Germany — a recent Pew survey found that intense concern about climate change has increased sharply among people in several advanced economies. Remarkably, the share of people in Germany who are very concerned that climate change will harm them personally at some point during their lives has increased 19 percent since 2015, according to the survey published in September. In contrast, in the U.S., that number has decreased 3 percent.
The difference in the urgency to fight climate change felt by the American and the German electorates comes as a result of decades of environmental messaging in Europe, according to Andreas Goldthau, a research leader at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany.
“The whole idea of the environment being important is something that has been with most of the European electorate for the last 40 years,” he said. “So, voters understand climate change, they can make sense of it, and it is a topic they can engage with.”
“We need an energy transition.”
Winegrower Christoph Baecker
Winegrower Christoph Baecker has taken those environmental lessons to heart over the years. His winery, one of the first in the region to go organic in 1990, stands in the middle of the picturesque Ahr Valley, where vineyards line the sides of steep hills.
His home, around 10 miles from the river, was severely damaged in July’s floods. The waters also washed away around a third of his vineyards, destroyed nearly all of his equipment and contaminated many barrels of grapes from the harvest. He described how the morning after the flood, his property looked like a parking lot, filled with cars carried from elsewhere in the region by the floodwaters.
“It is clear that the catastrophes are not only hitting closer to home, but they are also occurring more frequently,” Baecker, 60, said. “We have had flooding in the past, but this type of weather constellation, with so much rain in such a short time, we have not seen before.”
Not far from his home, piles of debris, wood and waste still line the banks of the shallow Ahr river, and heavy machinery is on hand to reconstruct streets, houses and riverbanks. The flood’s damage to the region’s wine industry alone is estimated at $175 million, according to the Ahr Wine umbrella organization for winemakers.
Baecker believes that it could take five to 10 years for the area to rebuild. As it does, he wants the government to take the lessons learned from the floods more seriously.
“It is important that the next government ensures that there is less burden on the environment,” he said. “We need an energy transition.”
Baecker is not alone. A study published last month by the market research company Kantar showed that the number of shoppers polled in Germany who made changes to be more sustainable in the last year was up nearly 9 percent, compared to just over 1 percent of those polled in the U.S.
Voters in Germany are paying ever-closer attention to how the main political parties address the issue.
In the recent election, the Green Party nearly doubled its 2017 results, and is now likely to be not only part of a new coalition government, but also influential in choosing a successor to outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Last week, the Greens, the center-left Social Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats announced that they plan to open formal coalition talks.
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It won’t be the Green Party’s first time as a member of a coalition government. Started as a grassroots movement in the 1980s, it became the junior partner in a coalition with the Social Democrats in 1998 and stayed in government until 2005. Germany’s abandonment of nuclear power is largely attributed to the Greens’ influence.
Despite the prominence of climate change and environmental issues in Germany, implementing solutions quickly may be more of a challenge, according to Richard Youngs, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank.
“Even a country as well organized and prosperous as Germany can struggle to be prepared for the environmental crisis that we are likely to suffer,” he said. “Protests and other ways of having citizens involved in climate action do now seem to be a way of pushing governments toward more ambitious climate action in a way that wasn’t the case 10 or 15 years ago.”
For Trummer and his fellow Green Party members, it’s more important than ever to continue bringing the dangers of climate change to light so mainstream solutions can be found.
“The Greens today are politically relevant, they deal with reality, they want to move things forward,” he said.
Rachel Elbaum is a London-based editor, producer and writer.
Andy Eckardt is a producer based in Mainz, Germany. He started this role in 1994.
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