Germany’s Rising Far Right Would Let the Planet Burn

Polls suggest the far-right Alternative für Deutschland is now Germany’s second most popular party. Best known as an anti-immigrant force, it also ardently resists efforts to reduce carbon emissions — insisting that climate change could be a good thing.

Members of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) during a counterprotest as climate activists block an intersection in Berlin, Germany on December 5, 2022. (Leonhard Simon / Getty Images)

Raguhn-Jeßnitz is a quaint municipality on the banks of the Mulde, just over an hour outside Berlin. Located in Saxony-Anhalt — a midsize state with a surprising concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites — its hiking and cycling trails attract visitors from across Germany. But not everything about this small town is so innocent. As its last mayoral election showed, Raguhn-Jeßnitz is also a hotbed of reactionary politics.

On July 2, Hannes Loth narrowly defeated independent candidate Nils Naumann to win the municipality’s chief executive. This result sent shock waves throughout Germany. With his victory, Loth became the first mayor representing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) — a far-right party linked to proscribed hate groups.

While surely an unwelcome development, Loth’s rise to the mayorship may not seem like the biggest deal. Raguhn-Jeßnitz has under ten thousand permanent residents, so his governance probably won’t affect huge numbers of people. And the fact that it took the AfD over a decade to claim even such a mayorship may suggest Germany’s far right lags well behind similar forces elsewhere. The American far right — the Republican Party — by comparison, controls roughly a quarter of America’s hundred most populous cities.

But the AfD is gaining ground. Loth’s electoral victory came amid a surge in his party’s national polling numbers. A recent survey revealed that AfD has surpassed the ruling Social Democrats to become Germany’s second most popular party. They trailed only the Christian Democratic Union, the party long headed by Angela Merkel, which had the support of 25.5 percent of respondents, compared to the AfD’s 21 percent.

Critics fear the AfD’s rise primarily because of the group’s anti-immigrant stance. Party leaders have advocated negative migration (while AfD has refused to specify, it likely plans to achieve this via a combination of deportation, voluntary emigration, and ending family reunification) and claimed that Islam is incompatible with German culture. They have also fabricated crime statistics to spread lies about the supposed criminality of overwhelmingly peaceful Syrian refugees.

This xenophobia surely is horrifying. Comparably troubling, though, is the AfD’s climate stance. Like the Republicans in America, the party wants to accelerate toward the precipice of environmental collapse. The AfD ruling the largest carbon emitter in the European Union would thus spell doom for global ecology.

Upon entering the German parliament in 2017, the AfD’s climate platform was explicitly denialist. It repeated the tired, dishonest conservative trope that the climate is always changing, while refusing to acknowledge the uniqueness of our current epoch. “Our planet has always alternated between cold and warm temperatures,” the party claimed. “[T]he current warmth is no more unnatural than that of the Middle Ages or the Roman Empire.”

In fact, the AfD went a step further. Not only did it insist climate change is not an issue; it actually celebrated rising carbon emissions. A “higher atmospheric concentration of” carbon dioxide, the AfD asserted, would bring “about more plentiful crops and abundant food.”

Affirmed in their original platform, the party’s climate denial proceeded apace in the following years. In August 2018, the AfD’s federal spokesman dismissed the idea that “humans can contribute much” to record heat. Two months prior, the party’s Bundestag delegation filed a motion to rule climate change a “nonproblem.” Luckily, the measure failed.

We can attribute the AfD’s aggressive climate messaging in part to the influence of progressive, ecologically minded social movements in the country. According to Andreas Malm — by 2019 — Germany had “the most dynamic climate movement in Europe, if not the world.” Climate had very much taken “center stage in politics,” with Germans wisely ranking it “as their single greatest concern.” For that reason, the AfD had to work overtime to dismiss the issue to maintain focus on their ethnonationalist vision. Ecological breakdown is not the problem, the party insisted. The real issues are immigration and the fact that it is making Germany browner.

From that foundation of climate denialism, the party has launched a litany of policy attacks on the environment. The AfD opposes Germany’s Renewable Energy Act and supports increasing lignite and coal mining. As the world races toward irreversible climate tipping points, this is the last thing we need from Europe’s largest emitter.

For its own sake, as well that of the wider planet, Germany needs a sustainable future. The AfD is a major impediment to securing one. Defeating them must therefore be a priority of the more reasonable factions of German society. To quote leftist writer Sam Adler-Bell, “It’s not hyperbole to say that everything depends on it.”