Did Climate Change Cause This? Flood Disaster Could Become a Major Issue in German Election

This week's devastating floods in western Germany could very well bring climate change to the forefront of the country's national election. A similar weather disaster in 2002 tipped the ballots.
Devastation in Walporzheim: A force so strong it could only be a force of nature.

Devastation in Walporzheim: A force so strong it could only be a force of nature.

Foto: David Klammer / laif / DER SPIEGEL

Perhaps at the end of Germany's current election campaign, the candidates will be asked this: Where were you on Thursday, July 15? What did you do, what didn’t you do, and what did you say? Perhaps this Thursday will go down as the day that changed everything, or at least a lot of things, and when nature rendered any kind of campaign planning worthless. Perhaps this Thursday was the day the real campaigning began. The day after the storm, after the flood.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 29/2021 (July 17th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

On Thursday, Armin Laschet, the chancellor candidate for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) visited the city of Hagen and the town of Altona, where he appeared in rubber boots on a flooded street and promised quick help.

Olaf Scholz, the candidate for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), was on vacation in the Allgäu region of the Alps. He cut his holiday short to travel to Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in the disaster region, where he called for greater climate protection measures.

Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party candidate was also on vacation, but her party wouldn’t say exactly where. She issued a press release calling for quick, unbureaucratic help, and had a spokesperson announce she was now coming home early from vacation.

It will take a few weeks before we know what was right and what was wrong, what had an effect and what didn’t. In any case, the consequences of the mass flooding on Thursday in Germany will reverberate for some time to come.

So, far the campaign running into the September election for Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, which will also determine who becomes Angela Merkel’s successor as chancellor, has been characterized by a disturbing imbalance. The issues at stake could hardly be greater: Most importantly, the climate crisis – and the question of how humanity can keep the planet habitable – demands answers. Instead, the debate has focused on the resumé of the Green Party candidate and passages in a book she wrote that appear to have been copied. And the fact that the CDU dressed up female employees at their party headquarters as policewomen or nurses and printed photos of them on posters. So far, the campaign has been petty and lacked the gravitas of an election of this importance.

Armin Laschet, the governor of North-Rhine Westphalia and chancellor candidate of the center-right Christian Democratic Union party visited the site of floods in Altena, Germany, on Thursday.

Armin Laschet, the governor of North-Rhine Westphalia and chancellor candidate of the center-right Christian Democratic Union party visited the site of floods in Altena, Germany, on Thursday.

Foto: Ralph Sondermann

That phase may now be over. Anyone who wants to continue discussing book chapters and resumés after the images of the flooded Ahr valley, after dozens of dead, missing and destroyed lives, after the images from a German disaster area, will have to ask him or herself whether they have lost their mind. The campaign is being reshuffled with the kind of force that only forces of nature can create.

That’s not to say that Baerbock hasn't made mistakes. She has – and through her negligence, she has also provided an opportunity for all those who would have preferred not to talk much about climate change. But now the issue is back in the election campaign, and it is unlikely to go away. What happened this week is too terrible for that.

On Thursday morning, Christian Beu sat on the side of the road at the entrance to Walporzheim. He’s a big, heavyset man in his forties, who can’t be knocked over easily. His legs were covered with mud up to his hips and he had mud stains on his face. Beu had a terrible night. He spent it here in the vineyard. It’s the only place he felt safe with his family.

Beu said his house, which is right on the Ahr River, is no longer inhabitable. When emergency struck, he stuffed the bare necessities into a duvet cover – clothes for his wife, his children and himself. Everything happened so fast that he didn’t even have a chance to grab his shoes.

Walporzheim is located in the district of Ahrweiler in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, a small village of around 600 inhabitants nestled between vineyards. Beu said the water arrived at 10 p.m. on Wednesday night. The electrician explained how he tried to turn off the main fuse in the basement. But he didn't make it – within just a few minutes, the water on the ground floor had already risen almost to the ceiling. At 11 p.m., Beu fled with his family.

"I just thought, we’ve got to get out of here and go to the highest place," he said. Together with another family they were friends with, they struggled to the edge of town and then climbed high into the vineyard. Both families spent the night there. They didn’t dare to venture back down until around 4 a.m. on Thursday morning.

The masses of water almost completely destroyed Walporzheim. On Thursday, the morning after the flood, streets could be seen littered with meter-high piles of rubble, including parts of bridges, tree trunks and cars. A yellow excavator roamed through the village clearing away debris. Paramedics carried an elderly man, perhaps in his sixties and covered in mud, away on a stretcher.

"You could watch as one stair step after another disappeared."

A police helicopter circled overhead and the Federal Agency for Technical Relief arrived along with the emergency management team. Firefighters with axes in hand waded through the mud and peered into destroyed homes.

A woman with a gym bag in her hand and a baby tied to her back emerged from a doorway. "I just have to get out of here," she said, adding that her husband was about to pick her up in his car. She said she spent the night on the second floor. A video on her smartphone showed the torrent running through her house. "It was an avalanche of water," she said.

Oliver Marquardt, a father of two, was looking for his car. He owns two. One of them escaped the flood unscathed – he had managed to park it in the vineyard at 9 p.m. the night before. He had parked the other, a Peugeot 208, in a restaurant parking lot. Now, the lot was completely covered with debris, and the car was missing. "It’s gone," he said. Marquardt and his family spend the night in the attic. "You could see one step of the stairs after the other disappear," he said.

But smashed cars were the least worrisome of the damage caused by the flooding. Ambulances could be seen on Thursday all around the Ahr valley, and helicopters circled overhead rescuing people from villages with long ropes. The devastation was visible everywhere. By Friday, the number of deaths in the German floods had risen to over 100, with that figure expected to go up even more as more bodies are recovered.

But there are more to those figures than just numbers – each one is a fate. For every affected family, it will be the disaster of a lifetime. In such moments of need, people often take a lot closer look at the people in power than they normally would. Whether they send help, what they promise and whether they strike the right tone. Most importantly: Whether they show up.

The Rhine River in Cologne

The Rhine River in Cologne

Foto: Christoph Hardt / ddp images

It’s a very fine line, and you can get a lot wrong in the early hours and days. If Armin Laschet hadn't rushed to Altena and Hagen, he would have been rightly told that he was acting as if he had already become chancellor and was no longer interested in the people of his home state. He wouldn’t have been able to rid himself of that stain easily. As governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, he is responsible by virtue of his office. And he is likely to remember the response of his predecessor, the Social Democrat Hannelore Kraft, in the summer of 2014. At the time, a storm in the city of Münster in the state had caused severe flooding and deaths, but it took Kraft several weeks to travel to the site of the disaster. By way of explanation, the governor said that she had been on a ship in the eastern state of Brandenburg for a week and had no mobile phone reception there. Incidents like that had helped Laschet defeat Kraft in an election three years later.

But how should Annalena Baerbock, Laschet’s rival for the Chancellery respond? Or Olaf Scholz?

It was more challenging for them from the start. Should they cut off their holidays? They could have been accused of knee-jerk responses or trying to boost their images by showing up at the disaster site. Scholz did so, anyway, and traveled to Rhineland-Palatinate. The two couldn’t please everyone during the first few hours, anyway. They just had to make as few mistakes as possible.

At least they hit the right tone on Twitter. Baerbock wrote that her thoughts are with the people "whose streets and homes have been flooded by heavy rain." She also thanked the emergency workers. So did Scholz. At first, Laschet didn’t tweet anything, but he did arrive at the scene early.

But then, as he so often does, he gave a botched television interview and quickly grew cantankerous when asked a question about his climate policies. "You don’t change your policies just because of a day like this," he said. The sentence is likely to haunt him for some time to come. There will be many protestations again in the coming days that this isn’t an election issue, but of course it is. People want to know how politicians are going to guide them through a situation like this week’s flooding. That too is politics, and anyone who fails here can lose the election, as the conservative candidate Edmund Stoiber did in 2002.

Memories of 2002

Things were looking good for chancellor candidate Edmund Stoiber at the time – the federal government coalition between the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens had seemed aimless after four years, and his conservative Christian Democratic Union and the Bavarian Christian Social Union, which share power at the national level, were 5 percentage points ahead of the SPD in polls. But then came the massive flooding of the Elbe and Danube rivers. Gerhard Schröder moved quickly.

The incumbent chancellor travelled to the flood area, put on his rubber boots and made it seem like he was on top of things. Schröder followed his political instincts – and no one could beat him in that discipline at the time. "Of course, the dramatic flood situation shortly before the 2002 federal election was an important factor in Gerhard Schröder’s subsequent election victory," said Stoiber, looking back.

Stoiber hesitated at the time. At the point that Schröder was already trudging through the disaster area in his rain jacket with a determined look on his face, Stoiber, who was the governor of Bavaria at the time, was still with his wife and friends on the North Sea island of Juist. "I didn’t want to campaign on the natural disaster," he said of the time. But he soon realized that he also needed to make an appearance. He travelled to where Schröder had already been, showing up in a light blue polo shirt.

Politics is always a battle of images, and Schröder won that one. He continued to campaign on the issue, too, inviting representatives of other EU countries that had also been hit by the floods to a crisis summit in Berlin and postponing tax reform so money would be available for an aid package worth billions. "I didn’t have those possibilities as a challenger,” Stoiber said. The conservatives lost to Schröder’s SPD on election night.

So, how likely is it that this week’s flooding will have an impact on the election? Does Laschet have an advantage because of his deep ties to the region as governor of a state hit by the flooding? Or will the Greens benefit as the focus shifts to climate change, one of their core issues? There are two levels at play here – the operational, which is about getting relief to the region quickly. And the fundamental, meaning plans for the future. Operationally, Laschet has the advantage. And otherwise?

Flood damage in the town of Schuld in the Eifel region of North Rhine-Westphalia: There will be many protestations again in the coming days that this isn’t an election issue, but of course it is.

Flood damage in the town of Schuld in the Eifel region of North Rhine-Westphalia: There will be many protestations again in the coming days that this isn’t an election issue, but of course it is.

Foto: Christoph Reichwein / dpa

As the dead were being counted on Thursday, Robert Habeck was on a stage in the North Sea beach town of Sankt Peter-Ording, a light wind blowing. It was a completely different world.

With Baerbock on vacation, Habeck, her party co-chair, is on a campaign tour in northern Germany. One day before, he had been walking barefoot through the area's coastal mudflats, accompanied by photographers and camera operators. Habeck was playing the nature lover as nature destroyed livelihoods elsewhere.

He knew that every word counts, that it would be very easy to get it wrong. Was he exploiting the disaster politically? Was he showing off that he had been telling people about such dangers all along?

"Campaigning on a day like today is really out of the question," he said. It’s not just about flooded cellars, he said, but about deaths and injuries. "I have invitations and requests to go there, but that would be wrong," Habeck said. He says he experienced flood warnings as a government minister in his home state of Schleswig-Holstein, in northern Germany. "I know that in situations like this, rubber-necking politicians just get in the way." He makes an exception here for Laschet. Laschet's words, Habeck said, are relevant to people who have responsibility in the region.

Habeck was striking the right chord now – he knew that this wasn't the Green Party's hour – that would come in a few days, when the discussion shifts from the event itself to the causes. He knew that he has to avoid arousing even the slightest suspicion that the catastrophe is convenient for the Greens.

As harsh as it may sound, though, the floods do play to the Greens’ advantage. The natural disaster gives them a chance to revamp an election campaign that hasn’t been going very well for them so far. That’s not to say that there are cynical and evil people running around within the Green Party. Any other party would be calculating when it came to an event like this.

A Turning Point

For years, the Greens have been in a quandary, politically and morally. They issued warnings about something that had been proven in many studies, but whose effects weren’t really being felt in Germany. Climate change remained abstract. At least until 2018.

That year, the country experienced an unusual heat wave that lasted from spring onward. There was little rain, and the drought caused lawns and fields to wither. The president of the German Meteorological Service (DWD) at the time said climate change had Germany "in its grip," and "Heisszeit" ("hot spell") became the word of the year. The Green Party’s numbers in the polls soared.

In early August of that year, they were at 15 percent, then rose to 16 to 17 percent in September, 20 percent in October and 22 percent in November. The weather pattern continued the next year. The spring of 2019 was also too warm, and the Greens, who until then had generally performed weaker in actual elections than in the polls, garnered 20.5 percent of the votes in the election for the European Parliament. It was the party’s best-ever performance in a country-wide election in Germany, and it is also the moment the party decided to field its own candidate to run for chancellor. Without the extreme weather of 2018, it’s possible the party never would have done so.

The Greens' dilemma resembles that of the police. Cops, of course, want to prevent murders, assaults and burglaries, but if there were no more crimes, some might wonder if the police are actually needed.

The major question now is the degree to which this week’s severe weather is linked to climate change. It is a battle over who has the authority to interpret events, and it began on Thursday on social media and in newspaper editorials. The issue will be debated bitterly, because so much hinges on it.

Some will say that these kinds of disasters have always happened. Others will say it hasn’t happened with this frequency.

Yet others will claim it is a coincidence. And there are many who will say it is climate change.

The issue is already dividing society. But where does the truth lay?

A Consequence of Climate Change

If you call the German Meteorological Service, meteorologist Andreas Friedrich handles press enquiries. He knows how sensitive the subject is and he is cautious when he addresses it.

"It’s not easy to clearly attribute this one event to climate change, but it certainly plays a role," he said. "We have had a precipitation radar system in Germany for 20 years, which allows us to record precipitation without gaps," he said. "It clearly shows that heavy rainfall events have increased in Germany in recent years." It can be assumed "that the extremes will not only become more frequent, but also more extreme in the coming years," he said. "That is a consequence of climate change that we are experiencing."

For a scientist, this statement is surprisingly clear, decidedly so. It also provides an idea of how tough and heated the discussions could get. On Thursday, Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear which side she’s on. She said that there have always been floods or storms. "But the frequency is simply worrying and requires that we take action," Merkel said during a trip to the United States.

You can’t hide the weather, which raises questions.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer offered even clearer words. "No one can seriously doubt that this disaster is related to climate change," the minister said. He announced the German government would set up a federal aid program in coordination with the affected states and municipalities. "You can expect it to be a big package," he says.

More than anything, this week’s events change everything for Laschet as a chancellor candidate. His campaign so far has been designed to lull people into a sense of security, to make them feel that things can stay more or less as they are. Laschet was counting on satisfied citizens who, after a year and a half of the pandemic, would vote as they had done so many decades before. This would mean a majority would cast votes for the CDU and its CSU sister party. Of course, Laschet also talked about change, but it always seemed like he was talking about Germany as if it were some kind of dollhouse, where all you had do was push one little bed from one corner to the other -- the point being that there wouldn’t be any radical changes. Then came the weather. And sometimes there is nothing more radical than the weather.

Unemployment statistics can be fudged and gaps in the budget can be hidden. But you can’t hide the weather. This, of course, raises questions: What needs to be done to ensure that these kinds of disasters remain the exception rather than the rule?

It also poses problems for Olaf Scholz. It’s not that Scholz lacks ideas. Some traditional Social Democrats feel he worries too much about climate change rather than too little. But no matter how hard he tries, the Greens will always be perceived as having had the ideas first.

This week’s flooding is likely to shape the agenda for weeks to come. It’s not the kind of event you can quickly move beyond – it’s not a slight hiccup on the campaign trail. It’s going to force some rethinking in the campaign.

For the CDU, it had immediate tangible consequences. Anyone who tried to visit the party’s website on Thursday at times only got an "Error 503” message. The company that takes care of the CDU’s website is located in Rheinbach, a town that was hit heavily by the storm. Several districts there had to be evacuated. The CDU’s server and print shop were put out of commission.

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