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Green Politics: How it’s done differently in Germany and why that’s still not good enough.

Climate change is a controversial topic in the 2020 presidential election. The devastating wildfires that rage across California and Oregon, displacing thousands of people, show the impending nature of climate crisis. In the reign of a President who rolled back several environmental standards and regulations, promised to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, and comments on the current wildfire catastrophe by claiming “I don’t think sciences knows”, environmentalists and people around the world are concerned about what the outcome of this year’s election could mean for the future of our planet. 

Democratic opponent Joe Biden announced plans to invest in renewable energy, decarbonize the economy and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. At first glance, this sounds like productive green politics, however, Biden is criticized for supporting fracking and the gas industry, while opposing the Green New Deal. Is Biden the preferred candidate for environmental concerns? Definitely so. Is he the environmental leader that many were hoping for? Probably not. There is just no alternative. 

Growing up in Germany, I was familiar with a political landscape made of multiple parties, a stark contrast to the U.S., where the choices are only red and blue. Either one or the other. But what if you agree with neither a Republican nor Democratic candidate? Why is there no alternative that has a chance to win a representative role in the political system? As I gain more insight into the political structure of the U.S., I understand there to be one major player in this: the Electoral College. 

Created to protect less populated and smaller states in the elections, assuring the importance of every vote, the system of the Electoral College actually prevents smaller parties from having a chance in the run for government. When the majority voted candidate wins all electors of the state, who represents the minority of voters? With a winner-take-it-all system, there is no room for small parties, for a variety of opinions, or for fair representation for the people. To win elections, party platforms must appeal to a broader audience, leading to the disappointment we see today in the lack of progressive environmental policies. Furthermore, the two-party system reinforces ideological divides in the society, polarizing both sides, and resulting in this moment where the climate crisis — where science — is a partisan issue.

So how is Germany different? The political structure in Germany functions with the concept of proportional representation. Parties seats in the “Bundestag” (German parliament) are a reflection of the votes in percentage, which allows several parties to be represented. The government is formed by the majority, which is mostly achieved through a coalition between two or more parties, allowing for a more diverse representation of political and ideological views.

It also allows for the Green Party to be on the rise right now. In recent polls, the Green Party would achieve up to 26% of the votes, which in the next election could guarantee them a leading role in the government. As the Guardian framed it: “For decades denounced as eco-nerds and tree-huggers, the Greens have now conquered the progressive middle class and captured the zeitgeist.” A hope for green politics.

While this political structure makes it possible for multiple parties, including as the Green Party, to have an active role in the government, it still does not solve the issue of the lack of political will in environmental policymaking. While it’s true that Germany remains in the Paris Climate Agreement, and has a climate action plan to carry out over the next few years, it’s worth examining whether they’re sticking to their targets. A recent evaluation has shown that the goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 40% compared to 1990 levels was only achieved through the COVID-19 pandemic, with fewer flights and car drives, closing of car factories and commuters working from home. That’s not good enough. 

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) there are 10 years left to keep global warming below 1.5°C. Only 0.5°C more could mean a drastic increase in droughts, floods, and extreme heat resulting in food insecurity, displacement and poverty. With a second term of Trump, the global lack of political will to act on science and the continued influence of wealthy corporations on policymaking decisions, achieving a 1.5°C goal seems impossible. 

To ensure productive green politics, greater change is necessary: change in policymaking practices, change in social and cultural discourse, change in attitudes and beliefs about climate change, and transformational change in the structure of our economic and political systems. 

Written by: Leonie Hüppe

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