A dead bird of prey lying in the grass near a windfarm is the stark image on the home page of a new German website. “Climate change – we have got a couple of questions” is the headline that greets visitors, but the questioners already seem to know the answers to their 16 questions. “Due to an alleged climate emergency, new laws are to be passed prescribing a new way of life for us, one that will have adverse environmental effects and could lead to the deindustrialisation of Germany.”
Klimafragen.org is the latest attempt to question the scientific and social consensus around the climate crisis in Germany. The authors, all from well-known climate-denier institutions and conservative political circles, list areas where they say Germany’s climate policy still has blindspots, notably over climate models, sea levels, energy conversion and counter-opinions. Parliamentary groups in the Bundestag, they argue, should provide answers to their questions, although some are based on outdated findings. According to the organisers, about 33,500 people have signed up, seeking answers.
A similar petition fizzled out in September 2019: then, Fritz Vahrenholt, a former Social Democratic party (SPD) environment minister in Hamburg, ex-chief executive of a subsidiary of the energy giant RWE and well-known climate change denier, wrote to members of the Bundestag. His letter outlined his own “model calculation”, according to which plants can absorb very much more CO2 than science suggests. The author of a study he cited later contradicted this interpretation.
Deniers of manmade climate change don’t have an easy time in Germany. For years, a stable 80% of the population has been convinced of climate change, supports a switch to greener energy and backs tougher climate goals. Environmental campaigners regularly receive increased donations and report growing membership. In contrast to the US, UK or Australia, there is barely a single major German company that openly opposes climate science. And the media rarely give a platform to anyone sceptical about the scale of the climate crisis.
But what the deniers now have instead is a platform in the German parliament. The far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) challenges the scientific consensus on climate, describes climate policy as “hysteria” and mocks Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future school strikes movement, and has seats in the Bundestag and in all the German regional parliaments. The AfD has abandoned the previous cross-party consensus on the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Paris climate agreement. It sees itself as the defender of disputed diesel technology, rails against the supposed “eco-madness” and rewards climate change deniers – even those who challenge all the serious scientific findings – with invitations to address parliamentary committees. Strategically, the AfD is using climate politics as a key way to distinguish itself from the established parties. Its leader, Alexander Gauland, sees climate as the “third big issue for the AfD” after the euro and the refugee crisis.
The party receives public funding, yet is now the main destination for climate crisis denial. And increasingly the view that all this stuff about climate catastrophe can’t possibly be true is openly heard in the mainstream. After the IPCC’s special report on agriculture, for example, Gero Hocker, a Free Democratic party (FDP) MP, accused the experts of not looking hard enough at the details – but without backing up his accusation. His party colleague Nicola Beer describes the “supposed appearance of more extreme weather events” as “fake news“. A magazine published by the German Rotary Club published a piece that described the climate crisis as an instrument in the struggle against capitalism. “Climate change is a highly ideological, subversive concept that has made a utopia of ‘climate salvation’ [and] a goal of political action and a moral commandment,” it said.
The pushback on climate is partly down to the fact that the government has for so long shirked its responsibilities, according to Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace Germany. Rather than seeing the switch to a low-carbon economy as an opportunity and communicating accordingly, even members of Angela Merkel’s cabinet have talked about how expensive, difficult and disputed energy conversion is. “If the government is always in the business of playing off the social cost against ecology, rather than bringing the two together, we shouldn’t be surprised if populists take them at their word,” Kaiser says.
Deniers remain on the defensive. The Fridays for Future protests have been defining the debate, and while Germany’s coal phase-out isn’t due until 2038, the switch is now inevitable and has about EUR40bn of finance behind it. A climate protection law will steer Germany to net-zero emissions by 2050. Business lobbies are pressing for greater clarity on climate goals and renewables. And the Greens, who have for decades led the demand for greater ambition in terms of climate protection, enjoy 20% support in the polls – a new government in 2021 looks unlikely without them.
Carel Mohn, editor-in-chief of the factcheck website klimafakten.de, which is financed by the Mercator Foundation and the European Climate Foundation, doesn’t foresee a huge challenge from denialists. More worrying in his view are the “yes, but” sceptics who supposedly advocate environmental protection but then get in the way of real progress. The debate is also concerning because it shows just “how weak, badly organised and ill-prepared for their job” those politicians meant to be well informed on climate really are. He can barely think of a single official authority that issues rebuttals when politicians come out with demonstrably false statements on meat consumption, forestry protection or air transport.
Sometimes, though, you can rely on the climate deniers to trip themselves up, as the AfD group in the Bundestag often does. In a recent parliamentary question it asked for verification that 97% of scientists agree on the causes of global warming. The environment minister returned to the house to confirm that the figures were inaccurate: it’s 99.94%.
o Bernhard Potter writes for the German newspaper Tageszeitung