Energy and climate not big topic in German elections

On Sunday, Germans will vote for a new parliament. Despite recent floods in the Caribbean and the Southeast Asia, climate change and the Energiewende did not take center stage. So what are Germans concerned about, and how will Germany’s energy transition fare under the most likely coalitions? Craig Morris investigates.

Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz smiling with a blue background

Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz haven’t mentioned energy and climate – probably because Germans are more worried about security. (Public Domain)


Much to the dismay of climate activists and renewable energy proponents in Germany, the TV debate between Chancellor Merkel and her rival Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats avoided the Energiewende altogether. But this outcome is not surprising; it’s never been any other way. Even in the last big TV debate of 2013 – just two years after Merkel’s nuclear phaseout in the wake of Fukushima – the word “Energiewende” was not mentioned at all.

After the TV debate this month, there were lots of complaints about one of the moderators’ excessive focus on questions about refugees, but none of the other moderators asked questions about the climate or energy either. Look at reader comments under articles about the debate, and it’s also hard to find people complaining about the oversight – unless you are on an environmental website.

Rather than complain about the public, the media, and politicians not paying enough attention to renewables in the climate, we should probably just accept the facts: the Energiewende is one of the five most important issues, generally coming in fourth or fifth – and we only take time to talk about the top three or four. Only under rare circumstances will energy and the climate take the foreground, and we haven’t had such circumstances yet.

So what are the Germans concerned about? Back in 2013, it was the financial crisis, the proposal for a general minimum wage, and the impact of the Greek crisis on the Europe. This time, the top three topics of general concern are slightly different.

Terrorism in second place is a major accomplishment for the security theater. Germany is not a major spot for terrorist attacks (top ten here). Over the past 20 years, less than one person annually on average has died in Germany from terrorist attacks (in German). In comparison, some 9 people a day die in car crashes in Germany (in German).

The chart above shows that only 34% of Germans are worried about “the integration of refugees” and only 27% about “refugee immigration.” That’s good news: Germany successfully absorbed roughly one percent of its population as new refugees in 2015-16. In that chart, the Energiewende is somewhere in the space in the middle that the German nightly news skipped.

Possible coalitions

The Christian Union (CDU/CSU) and the SPD could form another coalition; indeed, this outcome is numerically the most likely. The only other coalition with an historic precedent would be the Union with the libertarian FDP, but the numbers don’t add up to 50% in the most recent poll. Alternative for Germany (AfD) could become the third largest party, but no one will form a government with them because of the party’s far-right-wing stance.

Neither Union voters nor Social Democrats seem particularly excited about the prospect of a continued Grand Coalition. For the Energiewende, the “GroKo” (große Koalition) would mean a continuation of the current lack of ambition.

The Union, FDP, and Greens would be the only option unless the numbers change significantly. That coalition would be the hardest to accomplish (in German), and it might not be better for the Energiewende anyway. The FDP has long wanted to stop it. In the best case, the Greens would insist on determining climate policy and offer to give the FDP something it campaigned on, such as the digital economy. The Union might even go with that. But it’s a long shot – the Greens are still attacking the FDP while merely stating they “would not rule out” a coalition with them and the Union (in German).

In another TV show on Sunday, Merkel answered questions from the audience for 90 minutes (video in German). The fate of diesel was mentioned (by a car dealer no longer able to sell diesels), and a young woman voting for the first time did ask about Germany’s climate targets (video in German). Merkel promised to “find ways” to meet the 2020 carbon targets (she won’t). But as with the 90 minutes of audience questions for Martin Schulz the previous evening, energy and the climate did not take center stage. People have other concerns.

Those of us working to mitigate climate change and develop renewable energy should move beyond complaining about our topics being overlooked and focus on explaining things in terms important to people. Renewable energy provides well-paying jobs, offers educational opportunities, and relieves the tension over scarce fossil resources now worsening the refugee crisis – and terrorism where it is truly a daily event: outside Europe.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for writing good sense about the overblown terrorism issue.

    Another good writer on the topic is Gwynne Dyer, who has the only explanation for why terrorists target Western civilian populations that has ever made any sense. (No, not the “they hate our freedoms” nonsense. These people are neither stupid nor so megalomaniac to think they can actually do significant harm to Western countries. Unfortunately, the terrorists’ real strategy has been very successful, because Western politicians and media are overreacting exactly like they are expected to do.) You can read his archive of short political analyses written for newspapers worldwide freely online if you google his name.

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