German politicians’ fight to be greener

October 25, 2007

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands with Denmark’s Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (R) and German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel (C) aboard a ship during a trip to Greenland on August 16, 2007. The visit was meant to gather information on consequences of global warming.There’s a fascinating battle unfolding in Germany for the moral high ground in the fight against climate change, an issue that has electrified German voters over the last year and will likely loom larger ahead of 2009 elections.

Chancellor Angela Merkel fancies herself a leader in the fight against global warming, despite her government letting utilities build dozens of new coal-fired power plants and refusing to consider a speed limit on motorways for fear of upsetting the powerful car lobby. But she is now vying to best Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in what they both see as a no-lose political issue: standing up against global warming. Merkel is the leader of the Christian Democrats and Steinmeier, a potential rival to her in the 2009 election, is a leader in the Social Democrats. The two parties have shared power in a loveless coalition since 2005.

Just the other day Steinmeier spent nearly an hour giving a major speech to a climate conference about the threat of global warming to world peace and security. The speech was clearly designed to win Steinmeier a few minutes on the evening news as a crusader for the environment as well as some front page headlines.
But Merkel, who won plaudits for her leadership at a G8 meeting in Heiligendamm this year which made vague agreements about reducing emissions, was evidently loathe to let Steinmeier take the high ground.

So on Monday, journalists in Berlin were surprised to see her office had hastily announced she would meet Nobel laureate Al Gore in the Chancellery. Things like that don’t usually happen so abruptly in Germany. “Merkel wasn’t about to let Steinmeier steal her thunder on the climate,” one German pollster told me.
It was a brief, last-minute meeting just before the former U.S. Vice President would deliver a keynote speech to congress later that evening. I watched as Merkel and Gore stood together in front of the cameras for three minutes. They smiled, shook hands and praised each other — although Gore later rapped Germany on the speed limits and coal plants — and that was that. No questions please. But it got Merkel what she wanted – pictures with Al Gore that took the bite out of Steinmeier’s media coup.

It wasn’t the first time Merkel and Steinmeier have tangled over climate change. In August, Merkel went to Greenland for a two-day visit with German media in tow to record the images of her inspecting melting glaciers. Not to be outdone, Steinmeier then paid a similar visit his Norwegian counterpart in northern Norway to the gateway to the Arctic and to the polar island of Spitzbergen a few weeks later to learn more about climate change and inspect the polar ice cap – also accompanied by German media.

As their coalition becomes increasingly testy as the election nears, I bet the grandstanding will intensify. But while these media stunts and lofty talk of reducing emissions is certainly useful for the cause, wouldn’t it be better if both Merkel and Steinmeier (and their respective parties) started doing a little bit more in their own back yards instead of urging the rest of the world to do more? What about introducing a speed limit on motorways where cars travel at up to 200 km per hour and faster? How about halting the construction of coal-burning power plants? And how about focussing on reducing Germany’s own CO2 output, which has been unchanged for the last 10 years.

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