Helmut Beser’s charming brick house sits on the rim of a crater where eight houses and a wheat field once stood. Two months ago, images of the sinkhole became a symbol of the floods that brought the devastating force of climate change to Germany.
Elections to determine Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor are now just a week away. Yet Beser cannot imagine voting for the Green Party to protest against a status quo that he feels has failed in the climate. He also has no desire to become a climate activist.
“Let’s just say I’m not the type,” Beser said with a shrug. “Most of them are like me: they sit there and say nothing.”
If Beser isn’t the guy, it’s hard to imagine who would be. He watched the houses next door slide into an abyss of water. His wife and neighbor suffered broken bones when helicopter rescuers lifted them from the rooftops.
No emergency plan for his flood-prone city of Erftstadt ever envisioned a deluge as intense as that of July. Yet even here, Germany’s once-ascendant Green Party is struggling to break through.
For many in Europe, this summer seemed like a time for climate action. Fires spread across southern Europe and Siberia, the highest temperature ever recorded on the continent was recorded in Italy, and floods swept through Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.
However, the floods that killed 181 people have had surprisingly little electrical impact. On polls, most Germans refer to the climate as priority, but only 15-17 percent say vote for the greens, for whom the theme is a reason for being.
“We want something, but it’s like that German saying: ‘Wash my skin, but don’t get me wet,’” said Ursula Münch, director of the academy for political education in Tutzing, Bavaria.
He cited a recent survey in the southern German state where respondents said the weather was a top concern, even as they refused to invest more money in public transport or sustainably produced food.
Erftstadt is a microcosm of the difficulties in translating the realities of global warming into modified voting behavior. The Erft River, which snaked under the now-wrecked road, was so narrow and calm that it was hard to imagine the devastation it would ever cause.
After the disaster, the victims were too overwhelmed for anything but survival. A woman is said to have committed suicide as a result of the trauma and now the city offers weekly counseling sessions. Mountains of debris are still being cleared every day to make room for more, from shattered building frames to uprooted trees.
“We are no longer just warning about the crisis, we are living it,” said Marion Sand, a local green candidate for the Bundestag. “We have to act now. I am deeply sorry. “
However, he never mentions elections while visiting residents. Instead, they discuss requests for recovery funds or finding building inspectors; there are not enough across the country to meet the demand here. Machines still sucking water from nearby houses are ringing in the background.
Politically, the floods hit Armin Laschet, Chancellor candidate for Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, who was caught laughing on camera during a memorial ceremony in Erftstadt. He is now behind Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats, whose party leads the polls with 25 percent.
The Erftstadt CDU candidates decided not to campaign at all, while Axel Busch, a local SPD politician, is also cautious. He prefers to talk about the future: “What used to be a once-in-a-thousand-year event will become a once-a-decade event. We need to work harder. “
Still according For the German Institute for Economic Research, his party’s platform fell woefully short in fulfilling Germany’s commitment under the Paris agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees; in fact, all parties did, although the Greens fared better.
Line Niedeggen, a local activist for the youth climate movement Friday for Future, said she understood the reluctance of locals to turn political. Seeing her street in Erftstadt barricaded with sandbags surprised her too.
“People cannot think of [politics] right now, ”he said. “It is our politicians who are unable to lead us.”
She blamed superficial media coverage for focusing on the personalities and mistakes of the candidates rather than politics. “We are missing a conversation about the kind of society we want.”
Niedeggen was also surprised at how quickly the emotional detachment people feel towards disasters in distant countries was repeated in Germany. In Heidelberg, where he studies at university, many seemed unaffected by the floods just hours away.
“We still have the illusion that we live in Germany, so everything will be fine, someone will take care of that,” he said.
Pauline Brünger, another young activist from nearby Cologne, argued that the adoption of climate protection by politicians in speeches and posters, ironically, made things worse. “All parties have perfected the simulation of doing something,” he said.
Beser’s views support his theory. He felt he could back any party and support climate action, but thought the Greens displayed “exaggerated anger” at those who eat meat or fly on vacation.
Nicole Kloster, director of the Greens in Erftstadt, called it a tricky balancing act. “For a lot of people, it feels like a big change,” he said. “But for the children, [the Greens] they are too slow. There is this fault line and we are caught in the middle. “
Despite those frustrations, Germans under the age of 30 would overwhelmingly vote for green. But they are only 8.3 percent of the electorate, while people over 70 make up 20.3 percent.
Sitting in her sunny backyard, Niedeggen’s mother Barbara lamented how many acquaintances were voting for the SPD or CDU as usual. “They worry about their pensions. Or they don’t want more refugees. Or they want the industry to continue as usual, ”he said, shaking his head.
As raindrops hit her garden table and she cautiously looked up at the sky, the rain now makes many Erftstadters nervous.
“It’s very difficult for people to rethink everything now,” he said, “and not expect things to keep going somehow.”