Neoliberalism Won’t Take Real Action to Stop Climate Change

At least 185 people have been killed by floods centered on the Rhineland region. Despite Germany’s supposed green credentials, the weak political response to the disaster shows how unwilling neoliberals are to take real action against corporate polluters.

German chancellor Angela Merkel (second from left) and Rhineland-Palatinate state premier Malu Dreyer (right) visit flood-ravaged areas in Schuld near Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Rhineland-Palatinate state, western Germany, on July 18, 2021.(Christof Stache / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

The catastrophic floods in western Germany and Belgium have already claimed at least 185 lives. TV and social media are dominated by images of victims and first responders in shock. Entire communities like Schuld, a village on a bend of the river Ahr, were devastated within minutes. In Blessem, near Cologne, water poured into a gravel quarry after flood barriers collapsed, prompting a mudslide that engulfed part of the town. Even those who live far from rivers and streams can now see their belongings floating away.

Few of those who have lost loved ones or suddenly been made homeless could even have imagined flooding on this catastrophic scale. Mild to moderate flooding in spring and summer is nothing unusual for northern Europe — and infrastructure is usually designed to withstand it. But the severity of the most recent inundations far exceeds all records. In some places, river levels could no longer be measured because equipment was fully submerged: it had been thought impossible that the water would ever rise to this level. The question, now, is how long a privately organized insurance system will be able to pay for the compounded billion-dollar losses caused by climate chaos before it collapses or destabilizes the financial system. The human and economic risks of extreme weather events are becoming increasingly incalculable — not only for individuals, but also for society as a whole.

The connection between increasing extreme weather events and man-made climate catastrophe is not merely statistical. The mechanism that leads to increasingly severe weather extremes in temperate latitudes is also increasingly well understood: The mild weather conditions that predominate in northern Europe and other temperate regions are produced by alternating high-pressure and low-pressure areas. These are created by the temperature difference between the Arctic and the subtropics, which, together with the Earth’s rotation, generates a polar jet stream which powers their constant eastward motion.

However, as the Arctic summer ice cover is shrinking, the amount of sunlight reflected back into space decreases as well. This leads to a sudden warming of the polar region. Thus, the temperature difference becomes smaller and the jet stream weakens and forms stationary wave patterns. This, in turn, causes high- or low-pressure areas to remain in one place for weeks. The result: either extreme drought or extreme precipitation in one region, placing an enormous burden on human health, infrastructure, and agriculture. The occurrence of these stationary wave patterns also increases the risk of multiple breadbasket failure in the northern hemisphere — and thus of global famines.

The most recent floods have brought the climate crisis back into public consciousness in a tangible and painful way. But far from a positive exception, Germany’s climate politics are as contradictory as those of any industrialized nation in the Global North.

The Green Transition That Wasn’t

Ecological questions have shaped Germany’s political landscape since the late 1970s, when a strong environmentalist movement coalesced with elements of the New Left in one of the world’s largest and most successful Green parties.

The Greens do deserve credit for making Germany an early leader in renewable energy. In coalition governments with the Social Democrats (SPD) in the early 2000s, the party instituted massive subsidy programs that helped make solar and wind power economically competitive technologies over the next two decades. However, their success came with a fatal flaw, undoing most of the immediate benefit for the climate. Because of deep-seated fear and opposition to nuclear power on part of the same green movement that brought about a renewables boom, the country instituted a phase-out plan for its nuclear fleet at the same time. The result was that one nonfossil energy source replaced another. Only recently has even more aggressive deployment of solar and wind power begun to eat away at the German energy sector’s still substantial coal and gas consumption. Had Germany kept its nuclear fleet online and added renewables at the same rate, it could have achieved a largely coal-free power grid by 2019, with enormous associated climate benefits.

While the SPD-Green administration of the early 2000s had introduced subsidies for the solar and wind industry, these were suddenly and drastically cut after the 2009 elections. That vote resulted in a conservative majority, allowing Angela Merkel to govern without support from the SPD, and thus to trample previous governments’ attempts at a green industrial policy. Faced with this move, solar power manufacturers, in particular, moved production facilities and research laboratories overseas, resulting in hundreds of thousands of job losses. The economic benefits of Germany’s early investments thus manifested themselves elsewhere, as wind and solar firms left the country just as their products were on the cusp of commercial viability. While all parties had shared the goal of creating new industries that would eventually be self-sufficient, conservatives were unwilling to make decades-long financial commitments to industrial policy on this scale — especially as Germany’s political class developed an increasingly strident obsession with fiscal rectitude during the European financial crisis.

Any green industrial transition has come to be associated in public consciousness primarily with high costs and scarcely tangible benefits. This problem is compounded by the way in which the SPD-Green government at the turn of the millennium chose to finance the renewable transition: At the height of late-1990s liberalism, raising progressive income taxes or adding to the federal deficit was seen as politically impossible. Therefore, the renewable subsidy program was financed by a system of highly regressive electricity surcharges, from which large industrial power consumers where exempt, sharply raising electricity prices for private customers and disproportionately burdening low-income households, which spend a larger share of their income on power bills than high earners.

“Not at Any Cost”

While most voters remain at least verbally supportive of aggressive policies to solve the climate crisis, this toxic political legacy has made it easy for conservatives to portray delay in climate action as motivated by concern for social equity and financial responsibility, rather than the protection of the entrenched interests of the fossil-fuel and automotive industries. “We will protect the climate, but not at any cost” became the conservative mantra on the issue, with many voters considering such a gradualist approach the sensible, moderate way forward.

Armin Laschet is prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia — the state hit hardest by flooding, along with Rhineland-Palatinate — and conservative candidate for chancellor after September’s federal elections. He was quick to reassure the public that he supported redoubling Germany’s efforts at climate protection. Only hours later, however, he clarified that by this he meant strengthening climate protection legislation that had already been mandated by the federal constitutional court, given younger generations’ right to a livable planet.

As a result of that ruling, parliament brought forward Germany’s target date for net-zero emissions from 2050 to 2045, and strengthened a number of climate provisions, as Laschet hastened to point out. When regional broadcaster Susanne Wieseler asked about the implications of the catastrophic floods for climate policy, Laschet condescendingly lectured her, “Young lady, a day like this is no reason to change policy.” He soon followed this up with another gaffe during a visit to the affected areas, when, in the backdrop of a somber address by federal president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Christian Democrat was seen laughing and making light of the situation with bystanders.

Beyond Gradualism

There is little chance that these missteps will seriously affect the outcome of September’s elections. The scandal-prone Laschet projects the public image of a slightly cranky boomer who is in a bit over his head and unfairly maligned for a number of personal and professional shortcomings — the problem being that in an aging country longing for stability, a sizable portion of the electorate can relate to him on a personal level. Laschet’s Christian Democratic Union has surged far ahead of any other party in recent polls. His most serious rivals — the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock and the SPD’s Olaf Scholz — are hampered, respectively, by a plagiarism scandal and by association with decades of grand coalition governments uniting center-right and center-left. Their campaigns have been lacking in dynamism, with little indication that this will change any time soon.

But if — faced with the climate crisis and the other great issues of our time — the mainstream offers only different variants of bland, centrist policy tinkering, the democratic-socialist Die Linke has also struggled to formulate a compelling alternative. Voters need reassurance that aggressive climate policy can also mean renewed public investment and job creation, rather than upward redistribution through neoliberal schemes. However, the party’s messaging on the climate remains too nebulous and abstract to inspire either activists or its working-class base.

A winning left strategy to deal with the climate crises is more urgent than ever. If the climate is destabilized further, the risks will become unmanageable, anywhere and to anyone. The gradualist approach, which postpones the solution to the climate problem further and further into the future and banks on neoliberal market instruments for solutions, has failed. Stabilizing the climate must be seen as an urgent task — climate protection appropriate to the current situation would involve massive investment worldwide and tackle the transformation of all sectors of the economy without delay. An absolute minimum would be for the global community to agree to stop investing in fossil infrastructure with immediate effect. But this will only succeed if an attractive post-fossil economic perspective can be formulated for the entire world, which would necessitate a break with exploitative trade regimes.

The pandemic has shown how a society like ours reacts to systemic crises: they are borne on the shoulders of the working class, while the elite aggressively defend their privileges. When in doubt, we interfere with civil and human rights rather than with the economic interests of billionaires and corporations.

Whatever the differences of each case, the pandemic does at least offer a grim preview of how the future handling of the climate catastrophe might play out. This is already evident in our treatment of refugees, many of whom are seeking shelter from the multidimensional disasters that occur when rapid climate change meets an infrastructure weakened by colonial and neocolonial exploitation. A world that leaves climate stabilization to large corporations and private interests will also bring about new forms of exclusion and exploitation.