In a lengthy blogpost a few weeks ago (see here, German version here), I tried to point out why I think it’s really important to vote in the German election on Sept. 24. I also discussed which parties I’m not going to vote for and why. After ruling out the AfD, the Left party, the FDP and the CDU, the Greens and the SPD are the two last men standing. Here are my thoughts about both of them.
The most compelling argument for me in favour of the Greens is climate change, or the fight against it. I think the Green Party is the only one where you can be sure the issue is taken seriously. It has the political will to execute the harsh actions necessary to safe our planet.
Fighting carbon emissions will be one of the key political battlegrounds of the next parliament. From 2018 to 2021, it will become increasingly clear that Germany is on track of missing its ambitious targets. The government has committed itself to lower carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent, relative to 1990 until 2020. In 2015, they were just 28 percent lower. Last year, emissions even went up, according to data by the German Environmental Authority (see here). Moreover, a lot of the progress happened in the early 1990s, when the dirty industry in Eastern Germany went off the grid.
Complying with the Paris agreement will require drastic steps. Berlin is committed to reducing emissions by 55 percent over the coming 12 years. That’s looking increasingly fanciful.
The key reason for the stubbornly high carbon dioxide emissions is Germany’s love for lignite coal. Per unit of electricity generated, brown coal produces twice as much carbon as gas-fired power plants. In 2016, the lignite accounted for 23 percent of Germany’s electricity but emitted 50 percent of the sector’s carbon dioxide. Brown coal reserves in North Rhine-Westphalia and Brandenburg are expected to last for several decades, and utilities even have permission to open several new mines.
Without a powerful Green party, odds are high that the political pressure bringing emissions down as much as needed will be lacking. Just look at what happened in North Rhine-Wesphfalia (NRW) earlier this year. A CDU-FDP coalition replaced the one by the SPD and the Greens. The new government scrambled to guarantee all existing licences for lignite coal mining in NRW. A study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund environmental group shows that this alone alone would bust Germany’s Paris targets. (more about this here)
How important is climate change?
Well…. Not really. We may only be destroying the planet, but who cares? In a survey published on Aug. 21, just 3 percent of voters said that the fight against climate change should be a key objective of the next government. Four times as many voters named immigration and a reform of the asylum laws. Germans freak out when a nuclear power plant in Japan melts down. But they are unfazed about the prospect of catastrophic climate change. It’s obviously more important to voters that the Syrian war refugees go home pronto.
Is man made climate change real after all? Well, I don’t know. Donald Trump thinks it is just a hoax, and only time will tell if he is wrong. The overarching majority of scientists are convinced it is anything but a hoax. I totally lack the capabilities to judge the issue myself and have to rely on experts. I don’t see convincing reasons to doubt the scientific consensus.
Granted, it could be wrong. This would not be the first time in the history of mankind that the scientific mainstream has gone down a rabbit hole. In 10, 20 or a 100 years, we may laugh our pants off about our obsession with man made climate change. I think it’s a small chance, but it can happen.
Should this affect our attempts to bring carbon emissions down? No!
Here is why. Assume there is a 50 percent chance that Trump is right and man made climate change is just bollocks. I think the best approach of dealing with such a challenge is a risk-minimising one focused on one question: What are the downsides if we get it wrong?
If we fight climate change, but it turns out to be non-existent after all, we will have wasted some hundreds of billions of money, and owners of fossil fuel assets will be worse off. But we will have built an energy system that runs on very low marginal costs, as we don’t have to pay for the fuel.
If we don’t fight climate change, and it turns out to be real after all, we’ll be in a bit of a pickle. Catastrophic climate change may make living on this planet less enjoyable. Hard core climate change sceptics may call for increased funding of interstellar travel to hedge their bets.
All mainstream parties claim they take climate change seriously, and Angela Merkel in fact deserves a lot of credit for her attempts to set the global agenda and badger other countries to commit to ambitious emissions reduction targets. However, my gut feeling confirmed by events in NRW and Brandenburg is that when in doubt, CDU, SPD and FDP give more emphasis on short term vested interests of workers and owners of fossil-fuel assets rather than really cut emissions even if it comes at the expense of jobs. (Let’s hope I’m wrong.)
What are the key arguments against the Greens?
As a staunch supporter of open markets and free trade, I find the Greens’ opposition against free trade agreements disturbing. They raise some good concerns about arbitration courts, but I’m not convinced these arguments are good enough to turn the back on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (which, thanks to Donald Trump being US president, is dead anyway).
Their leaders are not overly convincing. Every time I listen to a speech of Cem Özdemir, it feels like listening to a second rate actor. With regard to Katrin Göring-Eckardt, she’s so bland that in my first, unpublished draft of this text, I even got her name wrong. Some Green politicians I met personally and who deal with economic topics have really impressed me: Gerhard Schick, Sven Giegold and Tarek Al-Wazir. But unfortuantely, neither of them has a really leading role.
Moreover, the variety of views within the Greens can seem so wide that it’s hard to judge what you’re in fact voting for. Some views of Tübingen’s green mayor Boris Palmer on refugees would probaby get applause at AfD party conventions, too.
Another argument against the Greens for me was a tactical one, but I will elaborate this after having discussed the SPD.
I come from an SPD family and was – as diclosed in part 1 of this post – 15 years ago very briefly a party member myself. This means I have some – but not too much – emotional bonding to the party. I’m also a very history-conscious person. The SPD was founded in 1875 and can date back its roots to 1863. It’s one of Europe’s oldest democratic parties that still exist today. Moreover, over the past one and a half centuries, the SPD tended to be on the right side of German history (with the exception of 1914, when large parts of it voted in favour of funding for the first world war, but then split). Friedrich Ebert, the first president of the Weimar Republic, literally worked himself to death in defense of democracy in Germany. The SPD was the only party that in 1933 voted against Hitler’s Ermächtigungsgesetz. Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik was awarded the Nobel peace price in 1971. Helmut Schmidt’s unrelenting stance on the RAF terrorists in the late 1970s, as well as support for NATO’s double track decision to deploy a new generation of mid-range nukes to Germany a few years later were both taxing yet right. Gerhard Schröder’s Agenda 2010, which finally reformend Germany’s ossified labour market and the bloated welfare state split the party but contributed to the countries ongoing economic boom.
And today? Well … While the Greens are more about the future (stopping climate change), the SPD is more about the past (a key pillar of modern-day democracy with a fantastic heritage). Party boss and lead candiate Martin Schulz is clumsy, and does not have a vision. He seems more concerned about the past – tweaking the Agenda reforms – than the future (more about his here)
The SPD is slightly less obsessed with ill-advised fiscal austerity than the CDU and the FDP, but is still way too tepid compared to the level of investment needed, and the cheap funding the German government has access to. Its ideas for tax reform are rather good, but poorly communicated (more about this here). Did Martin Schulz ever tell you that his plan would benefit 90 percent of all taxpayers? In many other economic policy areas, today’s SPD is rather useless, as it has a taste for old-school interventionism.
However, you can’t really trust the SPD with regard to climate change. Just look at the state of Brandenburg, where a SPD-lead government recently busted its emission reduction targets to please carbon-heavy lignite coal miners.
So who did I vote for eventually? It was really a close call. If you just look at the political positions, and the issues which I think are important, the Greens should have got my vote. They didn’t. Like in all federal elections since 1994, with the exception of 2013 (Green), the SPD is getting my vote. I didn’t do this with a lot of enthusiasm, but then the whole election business is not about the football championship anyway.
It’s a mixture of reasons, but the core argument was that among the coalition option realistically on the table, another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD appears like the least bad option.
A real horror would be a coaltion between CDU and the FDP. If the latter sticks to its positions on European fiscal integration and transfers between rich and poor member states, Europe will be in real trouble or the coalition won’t last long. The CDU and the Greens are unlikely to have a majority, and I just can’t see how a “Jamaica” coalition between the CDU (black), the FDP (yellow) and the Greens could work.
This leaves only another CDU/SPD coalition as an option. It also has its flaws. The SPD might not survive four more years as Merkel’s junior partner. It is already at risk to suffer the worst result in free elections since 1887. A grand coalition may also mean that the right-wing AfD may be the biggest opposition party, which is an appalling proposition.
When I cast my postal vote several weeks ago, I was convinced that voting SPD is the best strategy trying to avoid a majority for the CDU and the FDP. I’m not so sure about that anymore. Some polls see the Greens at just 6 percent, which is worryingly close to the death zone. Only parties who attract at least 5 percent of votes get seats in the Bundestag. In a scenario where the Greens narrowly miss this threshold, current polls suggest CDU and FDP would have a majority of seats.
Would I cast my vote in a polling station on Sunday, I’m not sure if I voted Greens after all.