As the dead were being counted on Thursday, Robert Habeck was on a stage in the North Sea beach town of Sankt Peter-Ording, a light wind blowing. It was a completely different world.
With Baerbock on vacation, Habeck, her party co-chair, is on a campaign tour in northern Germany. One day before, he had been walking barefoot through the area’s coastal mudflats, accompanied by photographers and camera operators. Habeck was playing the nature lover as nature destroyed livelihoods elsewhere.
He knew that every word counts, that it would be very easy to get it wrong. Was he exploiting the disaster politically? Was he showing off that he had been telling people about such dangers all along?
“Campaigning on a day like today is really out of the question,” he said. It’s not just about flooded cellars, he said, but about deaths and injuries. “I have invitations and requests to go there, but that would be wrong,” Habeck said. He says he experienced flood warnings as a government minister in his home state of Schleswig-Holstein, in northern Germany. “I know that in situations like this, rubber-necking politicians just get in the way.” He makes an exception here for Laschet. Laschet’s words, Habeck said, are relevant to people who have responsibility in the region.
Habeck was striking the right chord now – he knew that this wasn’t the Green Party’s hour – that would come in a few days, when the discussion shifts from the event itself to the causes. He knew that he has to avoid arousing even the slightest suspicion that the catastrophe is convenient for the Greens.
As harsh as it may sound, though, the floods do play to the Greens’ advantage. The natural disaster gives them a chance to revamp an election campaign that hasn’t been going very well for them so far. That’s not to say that there are cynical and evil people running around within the Green Party. Any other party would be calculating when it came to an event like this.
For years, the Greens have been in a quandary, politically and morally. They issued warnings about something that had been proven in many studies, but whose effects weren’t really being felt in Germany. Climate change remained abstract. At least until 2018.
That year, the country experienced an unusual heat wave that lasted from spring onward. There was little rain, and the drought caused lawns and fields to wither. The president of the German Meteorological Service (DWD) at the time said climate change had Germany “in its grip,” and “Heisszeit” (“hot spell”) became the word of the year. The Green Party’s numbers in the polls soared.
In early August of that year, they were at 15 percent, then rose to 16 to 17 percent in September, 20 percent in October and 22 percent in November. The weather pattern continued the next year. The spring of 2019 was also too warm, and the Greens, who until then had generally performed weaker in actual elections than in the polls, garnered 20.5 percent of the votes in the election for the European Parliament. It was the party’s best-ever performance in a country-wide election in Germany, and it is also the moment the party decided to field its own candidate to run for chancellor. Without the extreme weather of 2018, it’s possible the party never would have done so.
The Greens’ dilemma resembles that of the police. Cops, of course, want to prevent murders, assaults and burglaries, but if there were no more crimes, some might wonder if the police are actually needed.
The major question now is the degree to which this week’s severe weather is linked to climate change. It is a battle over who has the authority to interpret events, and it began on Thursday on social media and in newspaper editorials. The issue will be debated bitterly, because so much hinges on it.
Some will say that these kinds of disasters have always happened. Others will say it hasn’t happened with this frequency.
Yet others will claim it is a coincidence. And there are many who will say it is climate change.
The issue is already dividing society. But where does the truth lay?
If you call the German Meteorological Service, meteorologist Andreas Friedrich handles press enquiries. He knows how sensitive the subject is and he is cautious when he addresses it.
“It’s not easy to clearly attribute this one event to climate change, but it certainly plays a role,” he said. “We have had a precipitation radar system in Germany for 20 years, which allows us to record precipitation without gaps,” he said. “It clearly shows that heavy rainfall events have increased in Germany in recent years.” It can be assumed “that the extremes will not only become more frequent, but also more extreme in the coming years,” he said. “That is a consequence of climate change that we are experiencing.”
For a scientist, this statement is surprisingly clear, decidedly so. It also provides an idea of how tough and heated the discussions could get. On Thursday, Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear which side she’s on. She said that there have always been floods or storms. “But the frequency is simply worrying and requires that we take action,” Merkel said during a trip to the United States.