Ausgabe 8/2007

Hot Air A Europe Divided over Climate Policy

Earlier this month, the European Union announced ambitious environmental goals and current EU President Angela Merkel has made the issue of climate change a priority. But even as Germany forges ahead, many EU countries are lagging. EU environmental policy could suffer.

By , , Sebastian Knauer and Wolfgang Reuter

German Chancellor Angela Merkel normally uses her Web site as a forum to talk about the positive. In the past, she has dedicated her weekly video Podcast to the grand opening of Berlin's Bode Museum or used it to express her anticipation of Christmas. In one address, the German chancellor said she was proud to report on two young German scientists who had developed a mathematical formula to decode how soccer players make the ball curve after it flies off their feet.

Germany continues to make climate change a priority. But will it be enough?

Germany continues to make climate change a priority. But will it be enough?

This light-heartedness made the images released by the German Chancellery in recent days all the more shocking. Merkel appeared for her latest Internet address to the nation looking somber and dressed completely in black. Thick eyeliner made her gaze seem all the more dramatic.

This time the chancellor had some truly bad news to announce: The world could in fact be coming to an end. "The most recent reports we have received on changes in the earth's climate are more than alarming," she said in a low voice, adding that it "is not sufficient to simply set targets for ourselves." And for anyone who still couldn't see the gravity of the situation, Merkel's site featured a dramatic image of an industrial landscape; smokestacks belching clouds of smoke to darken a blood-red sunset.

Top of political agendas

The Earth on the brink of disaster, the world nearing destruction -- never before has an administration confronted the German public so bluntly with the dangers of global environment catastrophe as Germany's governing coalition has lately. Since early February, when a UN panel presented its report on climate change and concluded that the Earth could heat up dramatically within only a few decades, the topic is back at the top of many political agendas.

Much of the renewed attention goes back to a presentation on the economic consequences of climate change given by Nicholas Stern, formerly the World Bank's chief economist, last October. According to Stern's gloomy prognosis, global warming could shrink the world's gross domestic product by between 5 and 20 percent.

Stern's warnings were affirmed a few weeks ago in a report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to estimates by the 2,500 participants from 130 countries, the world is heating up more rapidly than previously believed. Experts expect sea levels to rise by up to 59 centimeters (almost two feet) by the year 2100, with some even expecting the oceans to rise by twice as much. At that level, flooding would threaten more than 20 major cities, including Shanghai, New York and London, and about 200 million people would likely have to be relocated.

For awhile, the earnest, 1990s environmentalist seemed on the verge of extinction. Now, though, it seems everyone has become concerned about our natural world. Hardly a day passes without the release of some new, surprising conclusions about protecting the environment. According to recent opinion polls, the fear of climate change is firmly established in second place among worries plaguing Germans -- behind economic concerns.

Now is the time to take action

Politics has taken notice. Environmental policy, once the realm of cranky backbenchers, has become a hot topic among the political elite practically overnight. Michael Glos, Germany's minister of economics and technology and a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), attended a two-day conference in Brussels on the issue of hazardous emissions. In a video message to a conference of experts in Washington, which included participants from 114 countries as well as a number of US lawmakers, German Chancellor Merkel urged that now was the time to take action.

On the advice of party chairman Kurt Beck, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) leadership agreed to devote an entire party conference to the issue as soon as possible. SPD parliamentary leader Peter Struck even suggested that his fellow party members head to the nearest movie theater to watch "An Inconvenient Truth," a documentary film by former US Vice President and committed environmentalist Al Gore.

And while Renate Künast, the Green Party's leader in the German parliament, tries to convince Germans to buy gas-saving Japanese cars, Edmund Stoiber, the head of the CSU, wants the entire Bavarian state government -- cabinet ministers and their staffs -- to convene for a symbolically significant meeting at the weather station on Germany's highest peak, the Zugspitze.

Failure is not an option

But it's not just Germany. Climate change has also moved to the very top of the European agenda, partially thanks to Merkel's having made the issue a centerpiece of her six-month European presidency. The 27 EU heads of state will meet in the second week of March to discuss and ratify the underpinnings of their future environmental policy. British Prime Minister Tony Blair ("We are on the verge of a breakthrough") and French President Jacques Chirac ("It is time for a revolution") have publicly declared that failure is not an option.

Or is it? At issue is the fundamental question of what the world's strongest economies are prepared to do -- and what financial burden they are prepared to take on -- to at least limit climate change. After all, almost all experts believe that radical changes are necessary. Alternative energy production, filtration systems and retrofitting programs, at costs running into the billions, will not be enough to get the greenhouse effect under control.

For the industrialized nations this means a new culture of frugality that will significantly impact lifestyles: less electricity use, less driving and fewer large cars. And depending on how tough politicians are prepared to be, it could also mean fewer industrial jobs. Much will depend on whether China and India -- and the United States -- can be integrated into the new climate policy.

No wonder then that the European Union member states are wrestling so bitterly over the details of a comprehensive environmental policy. As committed as the heads of state are when campaigning publicly for climate protection, they are just as determined in their efforts to minimize the associated burdens for their countrymen and for their own national economies. The grand vision of a unified Europe is quickly reduced in back rooms to number-crunching and debates over where to set emissions limits. German Minister of the Environment Sigmar Gabriel has declared 2007 to be "the pivotal year for climate protection," but how it will end is anybody's guess.

Merkel herself opted to take a central position at the climate poker table. In early January, Merkel declared climate and energy policy the central topic of her six-month EU Council presidency. But it won't be long before we know just how successful she will be. In three weeks, EU heads of state will meet in Brussels, and some sort of compromise is a must.


© DER SPIEGEL 8/2007
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