Floods in Germany: Climate change moves to center of countryside as toll rises

BERLIN – As the death toll exceeds 160 and rescue efforts intensify, the one-time flooding that ravaged Germany and much of western Europe this week put the issue of climate change at the center on Saturday German politics and its campaign. for pivotal elections this autumn which will replace Chancellor Angela Merkel after 16 years in power.

Receding flood waters have revealed not only extensive damage – homes destroyed, businesses lost, electricity and sewer systems destroyed, and hundreds of vehicles destroyed – but also bitter political divisions over climate policy in a week when the European Union presented the world’s most ambitious proposals. reduce carbon emissions over the next decade.

Although German authorities have said it is still too early to quantify the damage, its scale has shifted the debate from calls not to politicize the disaster to the realization that the policies behind it must now play a role. central role in deciding who will take over. leadership after the September 26 elections.

“Time is political,” German state television broadcaster ARD said in its main editorial to the Friday night newspaper.

“For a long time, discussing the weather was synonymous with triviality. It’s over now, ”he said. “Time is highly political; there is hardly any apolitical time, especially not during an election campaign.

The death toll in Germany rose to at least 143 on Saturday, while the death toll across the border in Belgium stood at 27, authorities said.

Rescuers were still searching the ruins in the area on Saturday. The German media were filled with images of houses still submerged in muddy brown water up to the second story and of bridges reduced to piles of crumbling stones or tangled metal pylons.

Stories of tragedy also emerged, perhaps no more poignant than in Sinzig, where neighbors recalled hearing the screams of disabled residents trapped in the waters that gushed into the lower floors of the residential house where a lone night watchman was powerless to save them. The event sharply raised difficult questions about whether authorities had been prepared and why flood warnings were not followed more aggressively by local authorities.

More than 90 of those who died in Germany lived in towns and villages in the Ahr River Valley in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, police said. Local authorities have set up a hotline for citizens of the hard-hit area in need of support, whether material or psychological, and launched a call for material to help provide basic infrastructure and even potable water.

Ms Merkel, who turned 67 on Saturday and said she would quit politics after the election, was due to visit the district on Sunday to assess the extent of the destruction, her office said. She spoke to the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate by video link on Friday, hours after landing in Berlin after her trip to Washington.

In the United States, the Chancellor and President Biden signed a pact that included a commitment to “take urgent action to address the climate crisis,” which is to include closer collaboration “on energy policies and technologies. necessary to accelerate the global network. zero transition.

The European Union’s ambitious plan, announced on Wednesday, is part of plans to make the bloc of 27 countries carbon neutral by 2050, and will arguably not affect any European country more than Germany, the largest the continent’s economy and its industrial power.

A day later, the massive flooding that hit Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands, in addition to Germany, immediately drew parallels between the calamity and the effects of climate change on the part of environmental activists and from a wide range of politicians.

Armin Laschet, 60, the conservative governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, who is seeking to succeed Merkel, praised his regional government for passing climate change legislation, but critics point to surface coal mines state that still threatens local villages and its repeated insistence on the importance for Germany of remaining an industrial power.

When asked Thursday in an interview with local public television WDR whether the flooding would be a catalyst for him to take a stand on climate change, Mr Laschet criticized the moderator.

“I am a governor, not an activist,” he said. “Just because we’ve had a day like this doesn’t mean we’re changing policy.”

But in 2011, Merkel did just that.

After watching the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, melt after a tsunami, the Chancellor reversed her government’s decision to extend the country’s dependence on nuclear power until 2033. The disaster brought her to postpone the target shutdown date to 2022, while increasing the amount of energy produced from renewable sources.

Floods have a history of influencing political campaigns in Germany. In 2002, photos of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder wading in rubber boots through the inundated streets of the muddy waters of the swollen Elbe, while his Tory rival remained on vacation, helped him win the election that year.

Perhaps suspicious of this lesson, Annalena Baerbock, 40, the Greens’ candidate for chancellery and Mr Laschet’s strongest rival, cut short her vacation on Friday to visit the stricken regions of Rhineland-Palatinate.

She called for immediate help for those affected, but also appealed to better protect “residential areas and infrastructure” from extreme weather events, which she linked to climate change.

“Climate protection is now: In all areas of climate protection, we need to step up our game and take effective climate protection measures with an immediate climate protection program,” Ms. Baerbock said.

It remains to be seen whether the floods will be sufficient to lift support for the Greens. After enjoying a first wave of enthusiasm around Ms Baerbock’s campaign announcement – she is the only woman running to replace the country’s first female chancellor – support for the Greens has now dropped to around 20 % in polls.

That puts the party in second place behind Mr Laschet’s Tories, who have climbed to around 30 percent support, according to the latest polls.

“Over the next two months there will always be extreme weather events somewhere in the world,” said Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin. “The focus is after the disaster in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia. The subject will determine the electoral campaign.

Olaf Scholz, 63, the finance minister under Merkel who is seeking the chance to replace her and bring his Social Democratic party back to the chancellery, also visited the flooded regions of Rhineland-Palatinate on Friday, where he pledged quick government aid and linked the disaster to climate change.

“I firmly believe that our task is to stop man-made climate change,” Scholz told ZDF public television. He praised his party’s role in passing some of Germany’s first climate laws when the Social Democrats ruled with the Greens from 1998 to 2005, but called for an increased effort to move towards a carbon neutral economy .

“What we have to do now is to get all those who resisted to the end to increase the objectives of expanding renewable energies so that it also works with a CO2 neutral industry for give up that resistance, “he said.

While the current focus is on the role that environmental issues will play in the election campaign, questions also arise as to whether the Chancellor, who had been a champion in the fight against climate change since 1995, when she chaired the United Nations’ first climate conference in Berlin, in fact pushed his own country enough.

Once in office, it proved more difficult to persuade his country’s powerful industry and auto lobbies, the main supporters of his Conservative Party, to do their part.

The result was legislation that Germany’s highest court ruled in April was not aggressive enough in its attempts to cut emissions. He ordered the government to strengthen the law to ensure the protection of future generations.

“In recent years we have not implemented a lot of things in Germany that would have been necessary,” said Malu Dryer, governor of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, in an interview with the Funke media consortium.

She urged German consumers to support climate neutral products and the country to “get faster,” adding that climate change is no longer an abstraction. “We are experiencing it firsthand and painfully,” Ms. Dryer said.

Melissa Eddy brought back from Berlin, and Steven erlanger from Sinzig, Germany.

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