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German election: How Germany's deadly floods made climate change a key election issue

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By Orlando Crowcroft  & Verena Schad and Marta Rodríguez
In this Tuesday, Aug.3, 2021 file photo Armin Laschet and Olaf Scholz ddress the media during a press conference in Stolberg, Germany that was hit by heavy rain and floods.
In this Tuesday, Aug.3, 2021 file photo Armin Laschet and Olaf Scholz ddress the media during a press conference in Stolberg, Germany that was hit by heavy rain and floods.   -   Copyright  Marius Becker/(c) dpa-Pool
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Sarah Branse had to act fast when the floodwaters began to rise in her neighbourhood of the Ahr Valley, in Rhineland-Palatinate, on July 14. An intensive care nurse at the Marienhaus Hospital in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Branse knew better than most what needed to be done.

Branse, 37, immediately launched a private aid network, encouraging donations of food, clothing and electrical equipment via a Facebook page and along with friends and neighbours, distributing them to flood victims along a 70 kilometre stretch of the Ahr River.

It had already been a busy time for Branse, a mother of one who had spent months on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as vaccinations began to rise and the threat of the virus began to recede, the floods struck Germany and northern Europe and launched another crisis.

Her priorities for the potential candidates ahead of Sunday’s election are two-fold: bigger investment in the health service, and a willingness to take climate change seriously.

"A lot has to happen in terms of environmental policy. If we adapt river courses to our lives, then at some point it will take its revenge,” she told Euronews.

“That's what happened here, the river flowed in its old bed, nature took back what belonged to it."

Everything is destroyed now.
Wilhelm Schulz, resident of the Ahr Valley

The floods on July 14 and 15 killed 180 people in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, and a total of 224 people across Germany and Belgium. Rivers suddenly burst their banks as two months of rain fell in just two days across northern Europe.

In response to the floods, Angela Merkel’s cabinet approved 30 billion euros in aid but coming just two months before a general election that will see the end of her term, it was the reactions of those who want to replace her as chancellor that were under the microscope politically.

Those were, undoubtedly, a mixed bag. Annalena Baerbock’s Greens opted not to visit the flooded areas, with her co-chairman Robert Habeck commenting that the last thing the victims needed was rubber-necking politicians turning up with carloads of photographers in tow.

Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrats candidate for chancellor, got his rubber boots on and headed out to the scene with his rival, Armin Laschet, who is Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU)’s candidate. But although they travelled together, their respective visits had very different results.

Scholz may well have had an eye on history: It was his mentor, Gerard Schroder, who visited flood sites along the River Elbe before the massive SPD victory in the 2002 Bundestag elections that brought him to power. His CDU rival in that election, by contrast, was on holiday.

Whether voters made that link is doubtful, but Laschet’s trip to the disaster zone was undoubtedly a disaster itself after he was caught on camera laughing as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid a heartfelt tribute to the victims of the floods.

Laschet apologised but has been mauled in the polls in the weeks since, with Scholz and the SPD now hovering at around 40% of the vote while the CDU languishes at just over 25%.

There has been frustration on the part of voters both in terms of the short term and long term response to the floods in an election where one of the key issues for voters is climate change.

Despite promises of billions of euros in funding, residents of the worst-hit areas were angered that there was no advance warning from the government despite the fact that such heavy rainfall was expected and that the immediate response was not as quick as it could have been.

As the efforts of Branse and other residents demonstrated, it was the neighbours and the communities of the victims that were the first to provide aid rather than the federal government.

Heatwaves

Meanwhile, Merkel’s CDU -- which has been in power for 50 of the last 70 years in Germany -- has been blamed for the lack of urgency that has so far defined the government’s response to climate change, especially following the heatwaves that swept the country in 2018.

It is noted that the CDU has traditionally found support in Germany’s industrial heartlands and has financial and political backers within its sizable automotive industry. Although Laschet has committed to Germany moving towards carbon neutrality, he also said in the aftermath of the floods that the country should not change its policies “just because of a day like today”.

Germany’s Greens, meanwhile, have been banging this particular drum for decades, and in 2019 -- following the heatwaves -- won a massive 20% of election in the European parliament. It is currently polling only slightly lower than the CDU, and if it were not for Baerbock’s personal run of scandals in the media, would arguably be looking at a sizable vote share on Sunday.

Thomas Frey/(c) Copyright 2021, dpa (www.dpa.de). Alle Rechte vorbehalten
An excavator is used to clean up the damage by a tunnel after the road was completely swept away during July's severe flooding, in Altenahr, western Germany, Thursday, Sept. 2Thomas Frey/(c) Copyright 2021, dpa (www.dpa.de). Alle Rechte vorbehalten

That leaves the SDP and Scholz, and a likely coalition with the greens if, as expected, they emerge as the biggest party following the election but short of an absolute majority. The recent results in Norway, where the left won a landslide victory running on a climate change agenda and overturning eight years of conservative government, will only bolster SPD hopes.

In Norway, the parties of the left -- which are poised to help Labour’s Jonas Gahr Støre become prime minister -- ran on a platform of ending the nation’s lucrative oil industry in order to combat climate change. In Germany, it will be another lucrative industry -- automotive -- that will need serious reform if the country is serious about carbon neutrality.

'Silly season' no more

Aside from climate change as an issue, the floods have impacted the election in bringing blanket critical news coverage to Germany during a period of time usually known as the "silly season" - the summer months, when most Germans disappear on vacation. Even in an election year, politicians can usually take their foot off the gas in the summer. But not in 2021.

In the Ahr, climate change is not a theoretical or political challenge for the next decade - but an existential one.

“Lots of businesses are closing down for good because the owners have reached this age where it doesn't make sense for them to rebuild. So it means that jobs will disappear,” Wilhelm Schulz, a resident of the Ahr Valley, told Euronews.

“Some are also questioning the kind of quality of life that you can have here. It was very high, but everything is destroyed now.”

Even outside of those areas devastated by the floods, in southern Bavaria, residents feel strongly that climate change and a sensible approach to it is paramount.

"In recent weeks, we have seen from flood disasters, fire disasters and heatwaves,” Franziska Grotz, from Kempten, told Euronews.

“We have had cold and rain throughout the summer. Climate change is no longer a scenario, but a reality. It's imperative that we have to do something to at least contain warming to the point where we can continue to live in the world. It is simply the most important issue now."

This is article is part of our special mini-series to help you understand the German election.